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“The rainmaker” meets his maker: tribute to Keith Davey
Keith Davey, the notorious rainmaker of the Liberal Party of Canada, has been out of the political mix for about 15 years now, after developing Alzheimer’s disease in the mid-1990s, but his passing yesterday has veteran political players, observers and operatives reminiscing about his back room influence and nation building contribution.
In my view, he gave rise to the term “back room boy.” Back in the day (circa 1959), he was a grassroots community and political organizer extraordinaire, had an ear to the ground, could raise funds like nobody else, and was confidant to leaders Mike Pearson and Pierre Trudeau. He was Liberal campaign director and party strategist.
Davey was a nationalist first and a Liberal second. He was a people person who remembered the names of people he met, developed a ton of relationships across the country, across all party lines and attracted good people to run for public office. He would seek out candidates to run for the Liberal Party, but he would also work easily with those from a different political stripe. He was an effective Liberal strategist, mostly because he was a good listener. He listened to everyone, and as a result, was able to intuitively know how the country was feeling and what it was thinking about various issues without the benefit of public opinion polls, although he is also credited with bringing American–style polling techniques to Canada.
He was respectfully called “the rainmaker” because he seemed to be able to make things happen for the Liberal Party whenever it’s fortunes ran dry. They could sure use his touch today! His first mission was to lead Mike Pearson to victory over John Diefenbaker in 1962. He guided Pierre Trudeau through tumultuous political and personal years, he helped orchestrate Joe Clark’s defeat in the House of Commons and then led Trudeau’s early ’80s comeback until the infamous walk in the snow decision to call it quits, which Davey tried to prevent.
I interviewed Keith on the air the night Trudeau walked in the snow, and he was distraught over the end of a reign and that he couldn’t talk Trudeau out of quitting while admitting he tried very hard earlier that day. His relationship with John Turner was trying, Jean Chretien embraced him, and so did Paul Martin, whose father had Davey in his leadership attempt until Trudeau took the prize.
I believe it was Keith Davey who first mused aloud that Michael Ignatieff was a leader in waiting, which led years later to his son Ian’s recruiting trip to Harvard where Iggy was teaching. Ian ran Iggy’s leadership campaign and served as chief of staff for the leader of the Opposition until he was cowardly dumped abruptly at the urging of some Quebec Liberal operatives. Keith would have been able to calm those waters. I suspect none of that messy business would have taken place if Keith had been functioning. I also suspect Keith would be making enough to douse the internal Liberal fires that have burned Ignatieff’s chances of becoming prime minister.
I’m out for a week now, chasing barracuda in the Florida Keys. Follow me on Twitter @john stall_radio.