The Power List: Top 10 Political Backroomers

The aides, advisers and campaign geniuses behind the big names

Anne McGrath, John Brodhead, Matt Smith, Katie Telford, Nick Kouvalis, Martin Koskinen, Leslie Church and Jeff Ballingall

These are the aides, advisers and campaign geniuses behind the big names. Check out the full 2023 Power List here.

MORE: See who made the 2023 Maclean’s Power List

1. Jenni Byrne knows how Canadians think— and how they vote

Jenni Byrne + Associates


Click here to find out why Byrne gets the top spot

2. Katie Telford is for keeping Trudeau on track—and in office

Chief of staff, PMO

Katie Telford is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief of staffTelford is the most powerful staffer in Ottawa, with nearly eight years under her belt as Justin Trudeau’s top lieutenant and campaign wizard. During that time, she’s come up against—and easily quashed—such milquetoast opponents as Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole. Now she’s facing off against a more potent adversary in the form of Pierre Poilievre and his dynamo adviser Jenni Byrne. So far, Telford’s coming out on top: in December, her ground game won out against Byrne’s in the critical Mississauga–Lakeshore by-election, where Charles Sousa held on to the seat for the Liberals. With a possible election in mind, she started this year by shuffling top parliamentary aides, bringing in Sean Mullin, an economic adviser, and Alana Kiteley, a key staffer on the NDP-Liberal supply-and-confidence file—a deal that Telford was instrumental in striking last year.

MORE: Katie Telford on life inside the PMO

3. Leslie Church is the deputy’s deputy

Chief of staff, deputy prime minister’s office

Leslie Church is the chief of staff for Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia FreelandIf Deputy PM Chrystia Freeland is Trudeau’s second-in-command, then Church is Freeland’s. After a stint as head of communications and public affairs for Google Canada, she joined the public service in 2015, where she rose through the chief-of-staff ranks, running the show for ministers Mélanie Joly, Maryam Monsef and Anita Anand. She joined Freeland’s office in 2020 as director of policy, then got the chief-of-staff job after the 2021 election. Church leads Freeland’s team of 30 aides and advisers, championing Freeland’s priorities (such as climate change and the war in Ukraine), developing the federal budget and working with private and public stakeholders to make progress on important agenda items. Church’s parents were both air-traffic controllers, and she sees her job as similar to theirs: calmly landing planes while keeping her eye on what lies ahead.

4. Jeff Ballingall is memeing his way to the top

Founder, Mobilize Media

Jeff Ballingall is the founder of conservative political strategy firm Mobilize Media and Ontario Proud and Canada ProudIf you want to attack the Trudeau government, Jeff Ballingall is your man. The Conservative strategist is the guy behind the social media accounts Ontario Proud and Canada Proud, both of which have collected hundreds of thousands of followers for their super-clicky, brazenly snarky content. Ballingall and his team specialize in memes that boil down anti-Liberal sentiment to the basics; recently those included a Valentine stating “I Love You As Much As I Hate Trudeau” and a mug labelled “Trudeau’s tears” (it’s available for purchase).

Ballingall’s strategy firm, Mobilize Media, uses this viral-ready content—plus heaps of data-driven marketing—to steer Conservative campaigns: he helped Erin O’Toole win the Conservative leadership in 2020, and more recently, Pierre Poilievre’s team has retained the firm to get their candidate into the PMO. Their bread and butter, Ballingall has said, are female voters over 55.

5. Anne McGrath is pulling off the deal of the decade

National director, NDP

Anne McGrath is the national director of the New Democratic Party of CanadaLong-time NDP adviser Anne McGrath and Justin Trudeau’s chief-of-staff Katie Telford have been brokering deals for some 15 years, beginning in 2008 with a proposed Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition aimed at taking down Stephen Harper. Along the way, the two women have become close friends and closer co-conspirators. Last year, McGrath teamed up with Telford again to choreograph the supply-and-confidence agreement that would keep the Liberals in power through 2025. (Discussions reportedly began in 2021, then kicked off again when Trudeau called Jagmeet Singh in early 2022 to congratulate him on the birth of his daughter.) McGrath scored several big wins out of the deal, such as dental subsidies for kids and renters’ rebates. Next up: ensuring the Libs hold up their side of the bargain, including a national pharmacare bill by the end of this year and a Home Buyers’ Bill of Rights.

6. Martin Koskinen is the CAQ’s smooth secret weapon

Chief of staff, Quebec Premier François Legault

Martin Koskinen is the chief of staff for Quebec Premier Francois LegaultIn 2018, François Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec, became premier of Quebec, ending some 50 years of tug-of-war between the Parti Québécois and the Liberals. Behind the loudmouth Legault is the calm, decidedly low-key Martin Koskinen—more than Legault’s chief adviser, Koskinen is the man the premier calls his “alter ego.” Koskinen was also one of the main architects of the CAQ in 2011, abandoning his job running an online auction house to lead merger negotiations with the Action démocratique du Quebec. So far, their team is unbeatable: at last year’s election, Legault increased the CAQ’s majority, riding on a populist wave that included such policies as a ban on religious symbols in the public service, a vehement anti-immigration agenda and a proposed (but ultimately cancelled) tax on unvaccinated Quebecers.

7. Nick Kouvalis is the puppet master behind Ontario’s elections

Principal, Campaign Research

Nick Kouvalis is the Principal of Campaign Research and helped bring Rob Ford and Doug Ford to powerOntario’s most notorious pollster has been behind the scenes of every important election in the province for the past decade. In 2010, he successfully ushered Rob Ford into the Toronto mayor’s office, then did the same for John Tory four years later. He returned to Ford Nation to help DoFo land a second majority provincial government in 2022, gaining 16 seats from his previous win. Kouvalis’s firm, Campaign Research, gathered reams of data and came away with a mantra of “get it done,” targeting federal Liberal voters who were sick of pandemic-induced delays. In turn, Ford promised a slew of new jobs and infrastructure. Kouvalis’s research also supported a blitz of ads on social media and, most memorably, on Waze, hoping to catch voters stuck in traffic and promise a relief from gridlock.

RELATED: How to win like Nick Kouvalis in seven easy steps

8. Matt Smith is preparing B.C.’s premier for the fight of his life

Chief of staff, B.C. premier David Eby

Matt Smith is the chief of staff for British Columbia Premier David EbyLast year, long-time B.C. premier John Horgan stepped down following a cancer diagnosis. His successor, the NDP candidate and former B.C. attorney general David Eby—who won by default after his opponent was disqualified—­will see out the rest of Horgan’s term through 2024. After that, he’s determined to win on his own merits, and Matt Smith is just the guy to help him do it. Smith is the former head of the polling firm Stratcom and a campaign heavy-​hitter who worked on races for both Jack Layton and Rachel Notley. More recently, he helped Eby clinch the provincial leadership race and now serves as the premier’s chief of staff. Their flagship issues: addressing housing affordability; expanding public health care and fightinging the emerging two-tiered system; and improving public safety.

9. Steve Outhouse is winning Alberta’s heartland

Campaign manager, United Conservative Party

Steve Outhouse is the campaign manager for Alberta's United Conservative PartyLast year, following Jason Kenney’s resignation, Danielle Smith became leader of the United Conservative Party and, by default, the premier of Alberta. She’ll have to fight to hold on to that job, with an election scheduled for May and a tight race ahead against NDP Leader Rachel Notley. One path to victory is by holding on to—and expanding—her social-conservative base, and she’s tapped Steve Outhouse to help her do that. As a former campaign manager for leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis, Outhouse lost two elections. What he gained was a shrewd understanding of the social-conservative voter. As for his work with Smith, Outhouse tweeted, “When you run national campaigns spanning the entire country, you can’t help but develop an affinity for our Conservative heartland.”

10. John Brodhead is pushing Trudeau’s agenda ahead

Director of policy, PMO

John Brodhead is the director of policy at the Prime Minister's OfficeBrodhead worked as an adviser for Dalton McGuinty and ex–infrastructure minister Amarjeet Sohi before leaving Ottawa to work for the much-hyped and eventually doomed Sidewalk Labs project on the Toronto waterfront. After that project went kablooey, Trudeau hired him in 2021. He’s one of the PM’s chief staffers, and leads a team of 14 policy advisers, who liaise with the cabinet offices to ensure priority agenda items are moving forward, and on policy matters. After several years of putting out fires—COVID, the Freedom Convoy—Trudeau and Brodhead will likely be looking toward proactive policy this year. Among those initiatives: the massive $196-billion health funding deals between the feds and the provincial governments, creating more housing supply and keeping the promises made to the NDP as part of their fragile alliance.

Check out the full 2023 Power List here

This article appears in print in the March 2023 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Buy the issue for $9.99 or better yet, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for just $39.99.


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