OTTAWA — Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh remembers being deeply impressed the first time he got to know Willy Blomme, the woman who would later become his new chief of staff. He also remembers thinking something else: the feeling wasn’t mutual.
“She wasn’t won over right away,” Singh said of the 2015 encounter, which took place in Toronto at a tribute to former leader Jack Layton. “I was won over by her right away, but she wasn’t necessarily won over by me.”
Blomme recalls the encounter a little differently.
“I was really struck at that point by how he connects with people,” she said, describing how he asked questions, pressed her for information and showed a genuine interest in her perspective. “Listening was really the primary thing he was doing.”
Blomme, 36, has been involved in progressive political circles and the NDP since she was a teenager, but her new job is sure to be the most influential role she’s played for the party to date — even more so than her work on Layton’s own leadership campaign, and later as a speechwriter for the highly regarded NDP leader. She also pitched in as an influential player on Singh’s own successful bid for the same job.
Now, her experience in the whirlwind world of partisan politics is about to come in handy.
“To me, leadership isn’t just about dictating,” Blomme said. “Leadership is about building consensus, it is about building a team where everyone feels empowered and this is something that Jagmeet is really interested in as well.”
Singh also has a secret weapon, Blomme added: his rivals frequently don’t see him as a threat, a fact that helped him get elected to the Ontario legislature in 2011.
I think Jagmeet often gets underestimated,” she said. “People told him he couldn’t win. He just put his nose to the grindstone, worked hard, got a great team around him and he surprised everyone.”
Blomme brings with her a PhD from John Hopkins University, experience managing the leadership campaign of new Montreal mayor Valerie Plante and skills she harnessed as the Broadbent Institute’s director for Quebec — political, organizational and academic strength that Singh singled out when he was choosing his new right-hand decision maker.
“It is tough in often male-dominated spheres for people to get acknowledged for their skills,” Singh said.
“I want to just celebrate that she is so good. Age is not a barrier, gender is not a barrier and I really want to … highlight how for me it is important to have positions of influence and power in the party and in my team that are occupied by talented people and particularly by women.”
One of Blomme’s obvious strengths is her know-how in navigating Quebec’s political landscape, Singh said, adding she has spent time working in and getting to know what is important to the province even though her family is non-francophone from Toronto.
“There’s a certain sensibility she has to Quebec issues which gives … me an incredible advantage because of that knowledge she brings to the table but also the respect that people in Quebec have for her,” Singh said.
Singh, a turbaned Sikh who faced questions about secularism during his leadership campaign, said Blomme is someone to whom he has already turned for advice about how to navigate a complex political landscape that can often be vexing for an outsider — especially one whose faith is so unmistakably prominent.
“She’s also someone that I consider a friend; during the campaign, she helped out a lot in strategy and particularly Quebec-based strategy,” he said. “She’ll just do more of that now.”
Together, the two complement each other nicely: Singh describes himself as more of a risk-taker, while Blomme likes to carefully consider her next move.
“My general personality is I like to take a chance and be bold and … she’s very thoughtful,” he said.
“We share the same vision in terms of being really bold on progressive issues, so we are similar that way. I just think I’m not prone to not at all worry about the risks of something.”
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Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press