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Trudeau promotes star recruits, hopes to influence nomination outcomes

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Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau attends a plenary session on day three of the party's biennial convention in Montreal, Saturday, February 22, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

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Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau attends a plenary session on day three of the party's biennial convention in Montreal, Saturday, February 22, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

MONTREAL - Justin Trudeau has vowed that anyone who wants to run for the Liberal party in the next election, himself included, will have to win a fair, open nomination contest.

But that doesn't mean he won't try to influence the outcome of those contests.

Indeed, his marked preference for certain contenders has created murmurs of discontent at the Liberal convention, where the leader's hand-picked star recruits have been on prominent display.

Privately, some Liberals grumble that Trudeau is tipping the scales by promoting his favoured contenders.

Jeremy Broadhurst, the party's national director and a member of Trudeau's inner circle, doesn't deny it.

"A commitment to a fair and open process doesn't mean an indifference to the outcomes," he said in an interview Saturday.

Trudeau has gone to some effort to recruit potential star candidates, people of intellectual heft and sterling economic credentials whose presence on the Liberal team he hopes will dispel qualms about his fitness to be prime minister.

And he's making no secret that he'd like them to win their respective nominations.

"He is going out and recruiting people to be part of that team ... and I don't think it's unusual for him to say, 'I hope this person runs and I want that person in the caucus,'" said Broadhurst.

"But he's been exceedingly clear with all of them that there is a first step in the process and it's you go to your local community and you get their support to be the candidate."

"I don't think there is a problem with him having a preference," Broadhurst added, "as long as that preference doesn't in any way impact the way we run those (nomination) races."

He said no one is more committed to wide open, fair nomination contests than Trudeau.

Some of the star recruits have been showcased at the Liberal convention, given prominent roles as keynote speakers, panellists and even as co-chairs of the gathering.

Retired general Andrew Leslie, who is expected to run in Ottawa-Orleans and has been named a special adviser to Trudeau on military and foreign affairs, took his star turn with a well-received keynote speech Friday. When it was over, Trudeau mounted the stage to give him a big hug.

On Saturday, the lineup of speakers included Jim Carr, former president of the Business Council of Manitoba; Bill Morneau, Toronto-based head of the country's largest human resources consulting company and chair of the C.D. Howe Institute; and Jody Wilson-Raybould, Assembly of First Nations regional chief for British Columbia.

Trudeau bounded on stage to hug Wilson-Raybould and Morneau at the conclusion of their speeches. And it was announced that Morneau has joined Trudeau's economic advisory council, along with previous star recruit Chrystia Freeland, who won a Toronto byelection late last year.

Wilson-Raybould and another prospective member of team Trudeau — Chima Nkemdirim, chief of staff to Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi — are co-chairing the convention.

Some supporters of other would-be candidates are fuming over what they perceive as the leader tilting the nomination playing field to favour his hand-picked stars.

For instance, some Manitoba delegates are privately seething over the attention lavished on Carr, who intends to run in Winnipeg South Centre. That's the same riding where Karen Taraska-Alcock, a businesswoman, longtime party activist and widow of former MP Reg Alcock, is seeking the nomination.

They grumble that the leader's apparent preference for Carr is poor thanks for Taraska-Alcock co-chairing Trudeau's leadership campaign in the province and incompatible with his vow to field more female candidates.

Taraska-Alcock herself shrugs.

"It doesn't bother me," she said in an interview. "You know, campaigns are going to be won on the ground and we've got a very good, healthy group of people on the ground."

She said it's good for the riding to have a competitive nomination race, adding that she respects the fact that Carr, a former provincial MLA, has "come back after such a long absence from the party to run."

Taraska-Alcock also said she's seen no evidence that Trudeau is trying to orchestrate a Carr victory.

"He has been really committed to a positive approach and no more old boy, backroom style politics and I have to take him at his word."

For his part, Carr said he expects the nomination contest to be "vigorous."

Broadhurst doubted that a prominent role at the convention will give much of a leg up to any of the so-called stars.

"I think people vastly over-estimate the value in a local nomination race of getting 15 minutes on the stage at national convention. It's still, at the end of the day, going to be about selling memberships and pulling the vote and I don't think anybody who appeared on stage today was selling a membership while they were doing it."

At the same time the convention is being used to promote Trudeau's star recruits, insiders say behind the scenes pressure is being applied to dissuade a raft of former MPs from trying to make a comeback. As much as possible, Trudeau wants to surround himself in the 2015 campaign with fresh faces, a team untainted by past internal feuds or election losses.

"There's definitely an effort in this recruitment to get faces that aren't necessarily the common faces," said Broadhurst.

"We don't want to run the best slate of candidates for 1997. We want to run the best slate of candidates for 2015."

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