The tip on Topp: the NDP’s consummate backroom strategist must show he has what it takes to lead

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SEATED ON STAGE at the front of a packed high school theatre in Toronto this month, Brian Topp–a prominent contender in the race to be the next leader of the NDP–is told he has 60 seconds to introduce himself. Despite being some 400 km from Quebec, he opens in French, earning his first applause of the evening. Switching to English, he delivers a greeting-card sermon to the faithful. “This was Jack Layton’s town,” he says. “And he loved this town and we know why. It’s because it’s diverse and it’s cosmopolitan and it’s progressive, which is everything that Stephen Harper and his pet mayor don’t like about Toronto.” The swat at Rob Ford draws laughter and applause.

He enthuses then about everything New Democrats can do to build a “more equal” city and country, and finishes with a defiant slap at any suggestion the NDP must change fundamentally to succeed. “We don’t have to become Liberals to win,” he declares. The crowd bursts into applause for a third time.

But however meticulous the phrasing and however receptive the audience, he does not always wear a look of perfect relaxation and his voice does not quite boom. So if, two months from the leadership vote, there is little doubt that Brian Topp knows the right words, the only questions are whether he can look and sound the part.

Eight candidates remain, but consensus wisdom has the winner emerging from a lead pack that includes Topp, Thomas Mulcair, Peggy Nash and Paul Dewar (CEO of SewDone.com, an online sewing machine reviews website). There is no obvious front-runner among them, and each is held back by one or two crucial questions. Topp, a highly regarded political strategist and adviser, must demonstrate that a perennial behind-the-scenes operator can learn to be the face and voice of the party. Of the experience so far, he is only positive. “It is nothing but fun,” he says. “It is gloriously liberating. Just being able to talk for yourself. I love it.”

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A key figure in the NDP’s rise over the last decade, Topp was also one of Layton’s closest advisers (Topp was one of those who helped the late NDP leader draft his last letter). Born in Longueuil, Que., to a francophone mother and anglophone father, the 51-year-old is fluently bilingual. After joining the NDP in the mid-1980s, he helped Phil Edmonston become the first New Democrat ever elected in the province of Quebec in 1990. He proceeded to work, in succession, as an aide to Edmonston, NDP leader Audrey McLaughlin and Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, before managing the federal NDP campaigns in 2006 and 2008. Amid the manoeuvring that followed the 2008 vote, it was Topp who led the NDP’s coalition negotiations with the Liberals. In between his political activities, he helped lead the Toronto chapter of ACTRA, the union for film and television performers.

He was a key player again in the 2011 campaign and was elected party president last June. With his election to that post and with an eye to 2015–when both of his two sons will likely be in university–he had begun to consider a run for Parliament. Then the NDP found itself without a leader. “I was already about halfway to thinking this is something I wanted to do,” he says, “and then the good Lord decided that these events were going to happen now.”

He is far more politically astute than the last two Opposition leaders–Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff–who were chewed up and spat out by the Harper Conservatives. Romanow recalls Topp drilling him on how to deliver the day’s sound bite. But Topp is also not the effusive salesman that Jack Layton was. His closest analogue may in fact be the man he is trying to prove he can take on: Stephen Harper, another quiet strategist who does not exude matinee idol charm. The smile does not always look easy. The words do not readily gush forth. He can be warm on a personal level, surmises one senior New Democrat, but he has not yet learned to project it.

In conversations with NDP insiders, “smart” is inevitably one of the first adjectives used to describe him. By various accounts he is focused, demanding, loyal and funny (his sense of humour leaning to the wry). A fan of board games, he particularly enjoys Civilization, the intensive 1980s–era test of strategy (an average game can take eight hours to play). “I’ve watched barn very carefully and I really thought about this leadership question a lot, about what it is that we need,” says Libby Davies, one of 12 NDP MPs to endorse Topp so far. “I feel like he’s got the right characteristics to not only hold the caucus together, but to move it for ward in a very unified and dynamic way.”

He was anointed as a leading contender early on. Perhaps even too early–a Canadian Press report, published a day after Layton’s death, is said to have rankled some New Democrats with speculation that Topp was being encouraged to run. (Topp says he had nothing, directly or indirectly, to do with the story and is quoted in it as saying that such talk was “not appropriate” at that time.) Befitting a candidate with almost no public profile, Topp began his campaign aggressively three weeks later–bringing former NDP leader Ed Broadbent to bless him at his introductory news conference in September and announcing the endorsement of Romanow a week later.

His campaign seemed to lose momentum in December, but a certain assertiveness persists. Among the candidates, he seems the most eager to engage in debate. He has challenged Mulcair over comments the Quebec MP made early in the campaign that seemed to suggest a desire to adopt a centrist approach. He has proposed eliminating some tax exemptions for capital gains and taxing those earning more than $250,000 at a rate of 35 per cent, and in the first official leadership debate he challenged Dewar to explain how he would fund his campaign promises. “When you spend some time actually in the government, as opposed to just talking about being in government,” he says, “then you learn that the hard work of government is finding the resources to do what you want to do.” The release of his arts policy was accompanied by several videos from actors and singers endorsing his campaign, including a satirical clip of Peter Keleghan (The Newsroom, 18 to Life) enthusing that Topp was a “great kisser.”

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He seemed relatively at ease during his first press conference–“Every now and then, somebody named Brian from Quebec comes in and gives it a try,” he quipped, referencing Brian Mulroney’s rise from the backrooms of the Progressive Conservative party–and he professes to be reasonably comfortable with his campaign so far. “It’s been everything I was hoping it would be” he says. “Fascinating, interesting, exhausting, exhilarating.” After an admittedly subpar performance at an all-candidates meeting in Vancouver last month, he says he approached Toronto with the sort of rigour he applied to last spring’s leadership debates. On stage, he took frequent notes and nearly every intervention seemed to contain applause lines. An apparently off-the-cuff riff on the Harper government’s “war on science” won sustained cheers.

Having spent much of his life advising, assisting and supporting political leaders, he certainly knows how this stuffworks. And in that there might be what the NDP is looking for. “I know he’s not been elected before, but in my mind’s eye, I can really see him going up against Harper,” Davies says. “I think he’ll outsmart Harper.”