Tag Archives: TJ Keil

Working under the Dome: A look at some political staffers hired to work for Alberta’s new UCP government

One of the results of a change in government is a mass turnover in the political staffers who occupy the offices of the premier, cabinet ministers and caucuses. As a new government enters office in Alberta, there are many dozens of political jobs that need to be filled. Here is a quick glance at some of the political staffers who have been hired to fill key roles since the United Conservative Party formed government in Alberta:

  • As has already been widely reported, former UCP Caucus Chief of Staff Jamie Huckabay is now Chief of Staff in Premier Jason Kenney’s office. Joining him in Kenney’s office are Howard Anglin as Principal Secretary, Katy Merrifield as executive director of communications and planning, and Christine Myatt as press secretary and deputy director of communications. Anglin previously served as executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation, deputy chief of staff in the office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and Chief of Staff to Kenney while he was the federal Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. Merrifield was communications director to former B.C. premier Christy Clark and senior advisor to the BC Liberal Party.
  • Paul Bunner has been hired as a Speechwriter in the Premier’s Office. Bunner served as a speechwriter and communications advisor in the office of Prime Minster Harper and as editor of the right-wing C2C Journal website, which is part of the Manning Foundation for Democratic Education.
  • Former UCP Caucus communications advisor Harrison Fleming is a special communications advisor in Executive Council.
  • Former Daveberta Podcast co-host Ryan Hastman is Chief of Staff to Minister of Community and Social Services Rajan Sawhney. Natasha Kornak is Sawhney’s press secretary. She is the co-founder of the Story of a Tory blog with Brooks-Medicine Hat UCP MLA Michaela Glasgo. 
  • Recent Daveberta Podcast guest co-host Lianne Bell is now Chief of Staff to Speaker Nathan Cooper. Bell previously worked for the Wildrose and UCP Caucus as director of stakeholder relations.
  • Jamie Mozeson is Chief of Staff to Minister for Service Alberta Nate Glubish. Mozeson was the director of operations at the UCP Caucus and ran for the federal Conservative nomination in the Sturgeon River-Parkland district in 2016. Glubish’s press secretary is Tricia Velthuizen, a former Wildrose and UCP Caucus staffer and candidate for Edmonton City Council in 2017.
  • Jonah Mozeson, who is married to Jamie Mozeson, is the press secretary in the Office of the Minister Justice and Attorney General Doug Schweitzer. His mother, Laurie Mozeson, was the UCP candidate in Edmonton-McClung in the 2019 election.
  • Craig Bellfontaine is Schweitzer’s Chief of Staff. Until recently he was a Toronto-based lawyer at the firm Farken and is a former federal Conservative ministerial staffer. Schweitzer’s Ministerial Assistant Kalyna Kardash is a former Outreach Coordinator for the UCP Caucus and Party during the election campaign.
  • Andrea Smotra is Chief of Staff to Minister of Energy Sonya Savage. Smotra was the director of election readiness for the UCP and previously worked as Regional Affairs Advisor in the office of Prime Minister Harper and deputy director of issues management for Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister.
  • Nicole Williams is Chief of Staff to Education Minster Adriana LaGrange. Williams is a former lobbyist and ministerial assistant who was the UCP candidate in Edmonton-West Henday in the recent election. Colin Aitchison is LaGrange’s press secretary. Until recently he was the Issues Manager for Ontario Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Lisa McLeod.
  • Warren Singh is Chief of Staff to Health Minister Tyler Shandro. Singh previously served as director of government relations with NAIT and vice-president policy and outreach with the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce. Before that he served in various chief of staff roles in the old PC government. Steve Buick is Shandro’s press secretary. Buick served as press secretary to former health minister Stephen Mandel and as a policy advisor to health minsters Gene Zwozdesky and Fred Horne. Previous to that he served as Director of Media Relations and Issues Management for Capital Health.
  • Kris Barker recently resigned from the UCP board of directors to start his new job as Chief of Staff to the Minister of Economic Development, Trade and Tourism Tanya Fir. Barker was elected at the party’s annual general meeting as the Edmonton Regional Director. He is married to Kara Barker, who ran as the UCP candidate in Edmonton-Riverview. Fir’s press secretary Justin Brattinga is a former BC Liberal Caucus staffer.
  • Mark Jacka is Chief of Staff to Transportation Minister Ric McIver. Jacka previously served as UCP Constituency Development Coordinator, as an assistant to Edmonton-West MP Kelly McCauley and as Director of Political Operations for the Wildrose Party. Brooklyn Elhard is McIver’s press secretary. She previously served as Scheduling and Tour Coordinator for the UCP leader. 
  • Tim Schultz is Chief of Staff to Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Devin Dreeshen. Schultz previously served as chief of staff to the Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education and the Minister of Finance in Progressive Conservative governments from 2008 to 2012. 
  • Mandi Johnson is Chief of Staff to Minister of Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women Leela Aheer. She previously worked for the PC, Wildrose and UCP Caucus. She is married to James Johnson, the Director of Research at the UCP Caucus. Payman Parseyan is Aheer’s press secretary. He ran for Edmonton City Council in 2017 and was a candidate for the UCP nomination in Edmonton-Whitemud. 
  • TJ Keil is chief of staff to Minster of Red Tape Reduction Grant Hunter. Keil previously worked as a Senior Stakeholder Relations Consultant with Alberta Real Estate Association and ran for the PC Party in Edmonton-Strathcona against first-time NDP candidate Rachel Notley in 2008. 
  • Steven Puhallo is chief of staff to Minister of Children’s Services Rebecca Schulz. He previously as chief of staff to various BC cabinet ministers from 2001 to 2008 and more recently was President and CEO of Cowboy Gaming (Canada), a country and western themed free online bingo and casino. Lauren Armstrong is Schulz’s press secretary. Armstrong worked as Kenney’s press secretary while he served as Minister of National Defence in Ottawa and until recently was chief of staff to Calgary city councillor Jeromy Farkas.
  • Former Wildrose Caucus staffer and Alberta Counsel communications lead Tim Gerwing is the press secretary for Minister of Municipal Affairs Kaycee Madu.
  • Former Hill & Knowlton senior consultant Jessica Goodwin is press secretary to Minister of Finance Travis Toews.
  • Ted Bauer is press secretary to Minister of Indigenous Relations Richard Wilson. Bauer is the former Communications and Media Coordinator for Homeward Trust Edmonton and editor for Global News and CityTV.

And looking at the legislative branch:

  • Robyn Henwood is executive director of the UCP Caucus. Henwood will be known by political watchers as the chair of the party’s leadership election committee and as campaign manager for Len Rhodes’ election campaign in Edmonton-Meadows.
  • Brianna Morris is deputy director of the UCP caucus. She previously served as Senior Advisor to the UCP House Leader and as a Legislative and Outreach Assistant in the Wildrose Caucus.
  • Author and one-time Daveberta Podcast guest Jamil Jivani is a Stakeholders Relations Manager for the UCP Caucus. 
  • Tim Uppal is also a Stakeholders Relations Manager for the UCP Caucus. Uppal served as the Member of Parliament for Edmonton-Sherwood Park from 2008 to 2015 and is currently the nominated federal Conservative candidate in Edmonton-Mill Woods.

As has already been noted in a previous post, former UCP campaign director Nick Koolsbergen is now the CEO of the Wellington Advocacy lobbyist company. Matt Wolf, who served as Kenney’s Deputy Chief of Staff and director of the UCP campaign war room, is now a vice-president with public affairs giant Hill & Knowlton. Also with new jobs outside of government are UCP President Erika Barootes and former UCP Caucus director of issues management Peter Csillag have been hired by the Toronto-based public affairs company Enterprise. 

Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky speaks to Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid in the Legislature Rotunda in 2011. MLA Dave Taylor is seen in the background.

Former Speaker Gene Zwozdesky has died at age 70. The “Wizard of Zwoz” started as a Liberal and became the PC Party’s charm machine.

Gene Zwozdesky, the former Speaker of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly, has died of cancer at the age of 70.

Known for being incredibly approachable and having the ability to lay-on the political charm in a grand way, Zwozdesky became known in the latter part of his time in elected office as the “Wizard of Zwoz” for his seeming ability to reverse unpopular decisions made by his cabinet predecessors. But while Zwozdesky is known to many Alberta political watchers from his time in the Progressive Conservative cabinet and later as Speaker of the Assembly, he started his political career in the opposition benches as a Liberal.

Gene Zwozdesky Alberta MLA

Gene Zwozdesky’s official MLA portrait photo in 1997.

A teacher and champion of Alberta’s Ukrainian musical and cultural heritage, Zwozdesky was first elected to the Legislature in 1993 as Liberal in Edmonton-Avonmore.

Zwozdesky defeated five other candidates to win the Liberal Party nomination that year, taking the nomination on the fifth ballot with 660 votes out of 757 votes castLed by former mayor Laurence Decore, Zwozdesky easily unseated two-term New Democratic Party MLA Marie Laing as the Liberals swept the capital city.

He was easily re-elected in the renamed Edmonton-Mill Creek district in 1997, holding his vote share in an election that saw Liberal vote decline from its high-water mark in the previous election.

Respected by his opposition colleagues for his work as treasury critic, community development critic, caucus whip, and co-chair of the party’s outreach committee, Zwozdesky was seen as a contender for the party leadership to succeed Decore in 1994 and Grant Mitchell in 1998, but chose to decline the leadership on both occasions.

In 1997, Zwozdesky was briefly a candidate in the Speaker election following Stan Schumacher‘s retirement but was convinced by his caucus colleagues to withdraw from the contest. It is believed that the 18 Liberal MLA votes in that Speaker election helped secure Barrhead-Westlock MLA Ken Kowalski’s win over Premier Ralph Klein’s preferred choice, Dunvegan MLA Glen Clegg.

In 1998, he left the Liberal caucus and crossed the floor to the PC caucus less than one month later. The official reason for his departure was said to be a disagreement with new party leader Nancy MacBeth over fiscal policy, but it was widely suspected that Klein had been personally trying to recruit Zwozdesky. He was appointed to cabinet as Associate Minister of Health and Wellness in 1999, a shrewd political move to create a foil to counter opposition criticism of the PC government’s Bill 11: Health Care Protection Act, a bill that opponents argued would have increased the privatization of Alberta’s public health care system.

Gene Zwozdesky (second from the left) with PC candidates Carl Benito, TJ Keil and Naresh Bhardwaj, and Premier Ed Stelmach at a Feb. 2008 campaign event at Jackie Parker Park.

Gene Zwozdesky (second from the left) with PC candidates Carl Benito, TJ Keil and Naresh Bhardwaj, and Premier Ed Stelmach at a Feb. 2008 campaign event at Jackie Parker Park.

Zwozdesky was re-elected as a PC candidate in Edmonton-Mill Creek in 2001, 2004, 2008 and 2012. He served as Minister of Community Development from 2001 to 2004, Minister of Education from 2004 to 2006, Associate Minister of Infrastructure from 2007 to 2008, Minister of Aboriginal Relations from 2008 to 2010, and Minister of Health & Wellness from 2010 to 2011. In his roles as Minister of Education and Minster of Health, he was generally seen as a calming force appointed for the purpose of providing stability in the wake of a disruptive predecessor.

As Health & Wellness Minister, Zwozdesky was given the nickname “the Wizard of Zwoz” by the media after he entered the role with a full-court charm offensive. 

Only three weeks into the job he’s the Wizard of Zwoz, a minister who can reverse unpopular health-care policy with a wave of his BlackBerry,” wrote the Calgary Herald’s Don Braid in February 2010.

In this role, Zwozdesky was responsible for mending the fences smashed by his combative predecessor, Ron Liepert. While he was only in the role for a short period and largely continued to support the PC government’s ideological creep towards privatization in health care, he did oversee important labour negotiations and the swift departure of Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett following the “cookie” controversy.

He was dropped from cabinet when Alison Redford became premier in 2011 and following Kowalski’s retirement in 2012, Zwozdesky was elected Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. His only challenger in that contest was Edmonton-Centre Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, who was a rookie in the Liberal caucus when Zwozdesky mounted his first campaign for the Speakership in 1997.

While generally seen as a fair Speaker of the Assembly, Zwozdesky had some partisan blindspots, most notably when he ruled that Redford did not mislead the Assembly over the tobacco-gate scandal. He was highly criticized for that decision. 

He served as Speaker until his defeat in the 2015 general election to New Democrat Denise Woollard.

Although it had become clear by the final week of the last election that a giant NDP wave was going to splash through Edmonton, it was difficult to believe that Zwozdesky would lose re-election. But when the votes were counted in Edmonton-Mill Creek, the six-term MLA fell 5,174 votes behind Woollard, ending his 22 year career in Alberta politics.

Following the 2015 election, Zwozdesky helped the new class of NDP and Wildrose Party MLAs transition into the Assembly and then gracefully stepped away from the political spotlight following the election of Medicine Hat MLA Bob Wanner as Speaker. And while a political comeback was unlikely for Zwozdesky after 2015, he continued to stay connected to his political past, being elected as President of the Alberta Association of Former MLAs in 2018.

Photo: Gene Zwozdesky speaks to Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid in the Legislature Rotunda in 2011. MLA Dave Taylor is seen in the background. (Photo source: Dave Cournoyer)