Two of Charest's top advisers stroll into the sunset

Gagnier, Parisella were key in reversing the Liberals' political fortunes

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The Gazette, Sunday, October 4, 2009

The two guys most responsible for the turnaround in Jean Charest's political fortunes are moving on. Dan Gagnier, the premier's chief of staff for the last two years, left the building for the last time on Friday. John Parisella, who has served as a voluntary adviser to the Quebec Liberals, is leaving the country - going to New York as Quebec's delegate general.

Gagnier ran the province, along with Charest, while Parisella ran the party, along with Michel Bissonette.

When Gagnier joined the premier's office exactly two years ago, he promised Charest he would stay until the Liberals had regained a majority in the legislature. As of last December, that was mission accomplished, but Gagnier agreed to stay through the economic storm, and until a suitable successor could be found. And he is very comfortable with Charest's choice to replace him - Martin Croteau, who while associate deputy minister of municipal affairs, has a background in the Liberal Party.

If Charest had his druthers, Gagnier wouldn't be going anywhere, but the premier would be the first to thank him for bringing order out chaos in his office, and setting him on course for a political recovery.

Gagnier had recently retired as a senior vice-president of Alcan when he took Charest's call in September 2007, inviting him to the premier's home in Westmount for a chat. With his background in business and government - he was previously deputy clerk of the Privy Council in Ottawa and principal secretary to David Peterson at Queen's Park - he was the top name on Charest's short list. As a former public servant, he knew that by accepting the meeting with Charest, he was essentially accepting the job.

When Gagnier first took over the premier's office on Sherbrooke St. in Montreal and at the National Assembly in Quebec City, he had two conditions, that he have walk- in privileges at any time, and that everything went through him. At the legislature, he never occupied the spacious office reserved for the chief of staff, but instead took a smaller one next to the premier's.

"It took a while to get things turned around," Gagnier recalled on Friday, on his way to his last day on the job. "Remember, Jean's approval rating was at 20 per cent." Yes, and the Liberals were in third place in voting intention, behind the ADQ and the Parti Québécois.

"It was a long road back," Gagnier continued.

Not so long, actually. By March of 2008, at the time of the party's policy convention, Charest won a resounding 94 per cent approval in a leadership review.

By last fall, Charest was ready to pull the trigger on an election, dissolving the minority Assembly, and asking for a renewed majority, saying the gathering economic storm was no time for "three hands on the wheel" of government. Annoyed as they were with him for calling the election, the voters agreed with him. Gagnier spent every day of the five-week campaign in the war room of Liberal headquarters in Park Extension.

"The election was the culmination of the turnaround, and the premier did a fabulous job throughout the campaign." The smiling Charest, the one voters liked, was back.

As for Parisella's appointment to New York - a job that comes with a beautiful apartment in mid-town Manhattan - it started over cocktails a few months ago with Pierre Arcand, the minister for international affairs, who was looking for a new delegate-general. Parisella brushed it off, but Arcand persisted.

Finally, Charest himself came into the play, telling Parisella: "John, I'm sure you won't take it, but if you want it, it's yours."

For Parisella, a lifelong Liberal activist and former chief of staff to premiers Robert Bourassa and Daniel Johnson, the New York posting represents a return to public service after more than a decade as head of BCP advertising and as an adviser to the president of Concordia University. At 63, it also represents a new beginning for him and his partner, Esther Bégin, a lawyer and broadcaster.

Parisella's appointment has been greeted enthusiastically by Liberals, but he says, "I've also been touched by the reception across the floor." And why not? He has always played by the gentler rules of the game. A student of American politics who volunteered for Barack Obama in several states last year, Parisella's new job will require him to give up his daily blog for Maclean's. Some sacrifices are worth it.

The only thing better than going out on top in politics is going on top of a turnaround. And a CROP poll for La Presse at mid-week told the story - Charest and the Liberals lead the PQ by 43 to 35 per cent, and Charest comfortably leads Pauline Marois as best premier by a double-digit margin. Gagnier has also played an indispensable backstage role in mending fences between Charest and Stephen Harper, building bridges of his own to two key federal ministers, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Transport Minister John Baird, who's in charge of getting infrastructure money out the door.

After two years of non-stop days in the premier's office, Gagnier is going to push back and sit on his tractor for a while in Rawdon, where he and his wife Heather have several hundred acres at their farm.

Both Gagnier and Parisella deserve a great deal of thanks for all they've done for Charest and his government, which by extension has benefited not only our province, but our country.

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