Patrick Brown gets his man
For people of faith, Mecca, the Holy See in Rome, Jerusalem, Varanasi, Amritsar and dozens of other religious sites are often the destinations of sacred pilgrimages.
For Ontario politicos with a conservative bent, the place to be is a windswept island near Honey Harbour in Georgian Bay. It’s the cottage of William G. Davis, the philosopher king of the Progressive Conservative party in Ontario. During his premiership (1971-85) the press dubbed it Queen's Park North.
At the ripened age of 89, Davis’s wise counsel still holds great weight, and Brampton’s new mayor, Patrick Brown, remembers his own journey north to see and consult with his political mentor. Two years ago, Brown was head of the PC party, but flustered by all the political in-fighting. He jumped in his car and drove north to Honey Harbour.
Davis’s advice proved most prescient, and Brown wrote it down in his controversial new tell-all book, Takedown: The Attempted Political Assassination of Patrick Brown. “The most important thing, Mr. Brown, is that you have around you good, smart people whom you respect and trust. That is essential. Not just people who tell you what you want to hear. Mr. Brown, whom do you have around you that you really trust? Who gives you honest and good advice?”
On January of this year, on what he calls “the night of the long knives,” charges of sexual impropriety with two women were brought against him in a national broadcast on CTV News. Before that agonizing night would end, Brown’s key staffers abandoned him and set him up for a mighty fall.
In late October, Brown won personal and political redemption when he was elected mayor of Brampton. One of the reasons why, was the endorsement of Davis. The mentor and protégé are now linked in the city’s history. But the lessons learned by Brown on his brief trip north, are still paying dividends today.
Two weeks ago he made it official and completed one of the most critical hires on his city hall staff, setting the tone for how, and who by, the mayor’s office will be managed. Gary Collins, 51, bleeds Brampton and Tory blue. He joins Brown’s communications team.
Gary Collins at Mayor Patrick Brown's recent book launch in Brampton.
The mayor’s staff act as gatekeepers and as a bridge to the city. A good staff sends a clear message to the entire community: you gave us power, we are here to serve you, equally, even those who didn’t want us here.
The hiring was both an honour and a surprise, said Collins, who lived in the Peel Village area of Brampton for the past 46 years. It also brings him back into the political fold after more than a decade away from the inner sanctum of politics.
Collins began his political work life in 1991 as executive assistant to Brampton Mayor Peter Robertson. It seems a lifetime ago, and Collins chuckles when he recalls just how small the mayor’s office was: Robertson, Collins, and a secretary. Brampton wasn’t the massive city it is today, the 9th largest in the country. “The workload was tremendous,” he remembered, “and Peter had lots of energy. We used to work seven days a week.”
Collins didn’t know a ton about the civic process, but the learning curve was steep, he says, and filling the needs of mayor, council, staff, plus the public, was a giant juggling act.
If it was busy then, he fully expects the up-tempo Brown to take it to a new level. He has the work ethic of a Navy Seal, said Collins. “Patrick just never stops trying to get things done.”
Collins wasn’t out job hunting when he got the call from Brown, but he didn’t hesitate to say yes. He knows how exciting and fulfilling it is in the centre ring at city hall.
Collins is often associated with Tony Clement, the long-time Mississauga and Brampton MPP and MP. Clement, now Conservative MP for the Muskoka-Parry Sound riding, was all over the news recently when caught in a sexting scandal. It eventually cost him his seat in caucus.
Collins is as shocked as anyone by the incredibly bad judgement shown by his former boss, and predicts it might end his political career. “I'm thinking, good Lord. You’ve got to be smarter. Public officials have got to be smarter about stuff like this.”
During his long employment history, Collins has been a public affairs advisor, a former director of consumer and industry relations, and worked for a health care group. But he got his taste for politics early, first at Brampton’s JA Turner Secondary, then studying political science at McMaster University. He says he always wanted to keep learning about the system that runs our society.
Clement’s shameful behaviour doesn’t in any way diminish the time Collins spent working with him in politics. Clement asked if he would leave his job with Robertson in 1995 and join him after he won a seat in the riding of Brampton South. Both were graduates of the Young PC Association (now the Ontario PC Youth Association), and Clement was a rising star after helping craft some of the ideology in the new ‘Common Sense Revolution.’ Collins brought his organizational skills to Queen’s Park, and Clement won key cabinet postings and re-election in 1999 in the new Brampton-West Mississauga riding. After heading the transportation ministry he was named minister of environment and implemented the province’s ‘Drive Clean’ program. His next stop was minister of municipal affairs and housing, and then head of the health ministry. He battled for the leadership of his party in 2002, losing out to Ernie Eves, but kept the health portfolio, where he became a prominent figure after the SARS outbreak in 2003.
When the Eves’ government fell, Clement’s defeat ended the working relationship with Collins. In 2006, his boss headed north to the Muskoka-Parry Sound riding, and Collins embedded himself back in his community. In 2011, he was named CEO of the Brampton Board of Trade, often working with city hall, its key staffers and business leaders across the city.
Joining Brown’s office was just too alluring for the veteran politico. The two knew each other through the youth wing of the PC party (Brown was two-time president), and both stayed in touch throughout the years, attending conventions, supporting fellow candidates, and discussing issues. Collins was thrilled when Brown won the Ontario PC leadership in 2015, and his ouster early this year was another reminder of how politics can be a blood sport. He was happy to see him gain both personal and professional redemption in winning the race for Brampton mayor. But Collins gave little thought to joining the Brown team – until he met with him after the election.
He said Brown’s game plan is to bring civility, unity and discipline back to the council chambers, and work to improve the economic fortunes of Canada’s fastest growing large city. Collins is a good-natured team player, and his loyalty is unquestioned. He's not a black ops guy with a sinister Machiavellian bent, or the kind of staffer who Brown said didn’t have his back during his time at Queen’s Park. The chilling conduct of his senior operators, more interested in their own reputations than helping save that of the man who hired them, was candidly exposed in his new book.
Collins knows Brampton. He met most of the city’s business leaders during his time with the BBOT. He's also well known to the staff at city hall and is well aware of the dysfunction that infested the past two regimes under Linda Jeffrey and Susan Fennell.
He, like other citizens, was outraged by the lack of decorum during the past four years, and was distressed when nothing of substance got done. He's confident Brown has the right stuff to unify council and infuse city hall with real energy. He believes no one will outwork the man whose redemption from political ruin was made possible by Brampton voters. Collins says the mayor has something to prove after being rudely ousted from the top of the PC ticket. While Doug Ford, not Brown is premier, being mayor of Brampton is a pretty good consolation prize, says Collins, and Brown will enjoy the challenge.
“First of all, he's going to get to be able to sleep in his own bed after he’s finished work each day. It’s a big bonus not having to travel back and forth to Queen's Park.”
It’s a metaphor, as much as a statement about the increased time for productivity. Brown gets to stay focussed on the one place that needs his attention.
Davis was probably the last premier of the province to keep a promise and get home each night after his day at the legislature. This will give Brown more time to work for the citizens of the city, says Collins – and also spend time with his new wife Genevieve Gualtieri (they were married during his run for mayor).
Collins thinks this might be doubly important because the newlyweds might want to start a family here.
Collins isn't flashy. He has no political ambition, according to those in his circles. He enjoys the day-to-day tasks of being an instrument for the people, behind the scenes. He likes the idea that former councillor Elaine Moore headed up a transition team that taught new staffers how to get around at city hall. Her goal, says Collins, was to show the new hires how to work in concert with the needs of councillors. That meant not being dismissive or confrontational. Collins thinks those were the kind of problems that cropped up early on in the Jeffrey regime, and dogged her down to the day she lost the election to a candidate she continually described as an outsider with no connection to Brampton.
Collins knows that connecting to Brampton has nothing to do with where you’re from, it’s all about what motivates a leader, their disposition and personality.
Picking policies that unite, not divide, and having an open door to everyone that wants to propel the city forward or needs attention will be an important aspect of the Brown regime, says Collins.
He observed that Jeffrey seemed to have difficulty making the transition to city hall from a series of cabinet postings as a Liberal MPP at Queen’s Park. There are no party loyalties that come before the constituency, no ministry to run as the boss and the chief executive’s vote is no more important than the others around the council dais.
Brown is a quick study, Collins says, and will make a smooth adjustment to a council dynamic. He remembers his days as a young municipal politician in Barrie and has already vowed to work with council to solve the major issues of the day: increased violence in the streets, a need for more economic activity, and fulfilling some of the opportunities for growth laid out in the 2040 Vision document.
His handling of the Main Street LRT issue early in December, when councillors aligned with Jeffrey were determined to fulfill her stated goal of getting the route that was approved by her previous Liberal colleagues at Queen’s Park, regardless of the political price, revealed Brown’s ability to see the bigger picture. Something Jeffrey, driven by party loyalties and old grudges, seemed blind to.
Her chilling style, making cutting comments during council meetings, publicly accusing those she didn’t like of things like being under police investigation for their spending at city hall (while the focus of the 2014 police probe, former mayor Susan Fennell, was welcomed with open arms by Jeffrey into her public campaign events) is a manner Brown eschews.
Collins says his new boss makes a point of working with those on the other side of the aisle, regardless of how contentious the debate is. It seems like common sense. Those with thin skin have no place in politics, Collins says. But Brampton has for too long been kept back by the inertia of leaders who lacked the disposition to move the city forward, even if it meant doing so with people you don’t always see eye to eye with.
Brown's notable love of sports, especially hockey and tennis, will produce positive changes for the city, says Collins. The new mayor has already made noise about putting a roof over the Brampton Tennis Club in the downtown and plans for a Hockey Day in Brampton will be another Brown-led initiative. Collins has observed the new mayor’s inclusive nature, and says he’s dedicated to growing all the recreational facilities in the city that serve its diverse interests.
Collins is as eager as his boss is to engage with all the groups that make Brampton one of the most unique cities in Canada. Those who spoke of him on background swear his gatekeeper role, unlike leaders who seek such protection by staffers to keep the public away, will be the opposite. Collins wants the public to have access to the mayor, and says that’s the only way to understand the city and build relationships to move it forward.
Everyone is on a steep learning curve at city hall, and Collins promises it will look and operate a whole lot different from the last one, and the one before that.
He brings a wealth of experience and wants to play a key role in seeing his beloved city grow into one of the most livable in Canada.
Trustworthiness might be his best quality, say those who have worked with him over his three decades of service to the public, and although he’s the ultimate behind-the-scenes politico, he’s neither cynical nor shopworn, they say. He simply enjoys being in the shadows – the role player who helps the team in ways most people don’t see. It’s all about letting the mayor and council fulfil their mandate to the taxpayers, he says.
Life is too slow for some and races by for others. Collins likes to keep everything on an even keel. He’s the ultimate political wonk, say those who know him best.
If there is anything that makes him a little wistful about taking on his new job, it is that after over two generations in Brampton, he and wife just bought a new home in Acton.
With his caffeinated boss, and a city screaming for leaders to get things done, he’s going to be spending a lot more time here than there.
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