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Why is Sheila Copps running? Because that's what she does

Sheila Copps wanted to run, so badly.

For more than 10 years, since her leadership loss in 1990, the feisty Heritage Minister had talked to her friends about the next time, in conversations starting: "When I run for Prime Minister again . . ."

But on a May evening in 2001, she may not have liked what she heard. Buoyed by press reports speculating that she was contemplating a run, Ms. Copps made a round of calls to friends seeking their opinions about a possible leadership bid. Those calls revealed concern and little enthusiasm from some of the people who had been with her in 1990.

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Her former staffer and best friend, Danielle May-Cuconato, and her husband, Mario, were not optimistic about Ms. Copps's chances in a fight against Paul Martin for the leadership of the federal Liberals and the Prime Minister's job.

Ms. Copps's husband, Austin Thorne, was also worried. A prudent man, the former electrician, now a labour-relations consultant, didn't want to see his wife hurt.

"Sheila, you've got to be careful," Mr. Thorne told his wife, according to a close friend.

There was genuine concern from these people; they didn't want her to look bad.

Some wondered what she needed to prove. There were those, too, who had plans, and other options, in mind. She could co-chair the leadership convention, and by remaining neutral ensure a spot in a Martin cabinet that would set her up well to run again for the leadership the next time. Even better, why not support the Martin bid, play a major and high-profile role in his campaign? That too would guarantee her a prominent seat in a Martin cabinet.

But Ms. Copps wanted to run -- because that's what she does -- and for all the negative responses, there were positive ones, from a new guard around her, encouraging her to explore her options.

And so this is how the 50-year-old wife, mother, cabinet minister and political animal found herself at a Tim Hortons in her beloved city of Hamilton on Thursday at lunchtime.

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Against the better judgment of those old friends -- and Brian Tobin and Allan Rock, who had dropped out of the race figuring Mr. Martin couldn't be beaten -- Ms. Copps announced her intention to run, becoming the first Liberal officially to launch a bid to succeed Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and take on Mr. Martin.

Jacques Lefebvre, her former director of communications, was one of the new guard, advising that she explore her options. So was Isabelle Metcalfe, a veteran Liberal organizer and an Ottawa consultant.

More important, Mr. Chrétien was in the background quietly giving her encouragement. "Sheila is very loyal to the PM," said one friend, adding that she would not be in the race today if she had not had his support.

It was Ms. Metcalfe who finally convinced Ms. Copps to go.

"Clearly, she always wanted to," a friend says.

This is why: When Ms. Copps was a teenager she planted herself in front of a liquor store, determining it was the best place to sell chocolate bars for a high-school fundraiser. The liquor-store manager didn't think so, and asked her on several occasions to leave.

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"I don't how many times this went on, but she kept on coming back," said Vincenza Travale, 64, Ms. Copps's former high-school Italian teacher. "Eventually, the manager gave up and let her stay there."

Ms. Copps plays politics with the same determination. She loves to debate ideas and to try to prove herself again and again. In everything she does -- from the plucky teenager selling chocolate bars to the savvy politician manoeuvring legislation through cabinet -- she is aggressive and persistent.

"When Sheila goes into something, she goes full bore," says a friend. She lobbies, she pesters, and she builds coalitions.

She likes to win.

And though she hasn't won the big prize yet -- the Ontario Liberal leadership in 1982 or the federal leadership in 1990 -- she seems to win despite the loss.

"Every time she has gone she has proven that she can carve a slice of the Liberal membership for herself and the ideas that she is trying to promote," another friend says.

From her bid against David Peterson in Ontario, the 29-year-old neophyte politician emerged with new strength in the party. From her bid against Jean Chrétien, she would eventually emerge as the deputy prime minister, environment minister and Heritage Minister.

But first came nine years in opposition, where Ms. Copps was defined by her aggressive tactics as a "rat-packer" and where she was famously called "baby" by Tory minister John Crosbie and jumped over chairs to get at another minister, Sinclair Stevens.

Essentially, that is the Sheila Copps most Canadians still think they know: the combative woman, who because of her gender and aggressive approach can be intimidating to many, especially men.

But after nearly a decade as a senior cabinet minister and as she attempts to become Prime Minister, are the negative labels fair?

"In opposition she was basically a closet New Democrat," says a friend. "In government she's become more mature . . . she has learned how to say no. I think she is a lot less tax-and-spend than she was before."

Perhaps, but behind the scenes, Ms. Copps can be the old rat-packer. She fights hard for her cultural industries.

In 1996, in the years of government belt-tightening, Ms. Copps, with the help of Mr. Martin when he was finance minister, plowed $100-million into the television industry.

She fought with Industry Minister John Manley over copyright laws. She won. And a battle is being played out right now with the current Industry Minister, Allan Rock, over foreign-ownership review of telecommunications-services companies.

Her personal life has settled down.

Two marriages did not work out, although the second one in 1985 produced a daughter, Danelle. Today, Danelle is 15 years old, a smart young woman, interested, as is her mother, in the arts.

Ms. Copps's third marriage, to Austin Thorne in 1994, has lasted. He is by all accounts a lovely man. His friends talk about his three adult children, whom he raised, and his mother, who lives with the couple and Danelle in their west Ottawa home.

At her 50th birthday party last November at her Centre Block office, Ms. Copps was teary-eyed as she spoke about her husband.

(Ms. Copps has also been known to turn on the tears in cabinet when she is not getting her way.)

"She said that for the first 40 years she searched for herself and for the last 10 years she has found her soulmate," one birthday guest recalls.

The couple have a large sailboat, Skipper Vic, that they sailed from St. John's to Boston several years ago. The boat is named, in part, after Ms. Copps's father, Vic, long the mayor of Hamilton.

Her father once told her the key to success in politics was truth and hard work.

Although more mature than when she arrived in Ottawa in 1984, Ms. Copps still has her moments. She can be as mercurial in her personal relationships as in her political ones.

For a time, insiders say, she was angry with Isabelle Metcalfe over leadership issues and did not attend Ms. Metcalfe's daughter's wedding last fall, although friends say Ms. Copps was out of town. Whatever happened, the two have since patched things up.

Fiercely loyal to her leader -- she supported the embattled John Turner and has always been there for Mr. Chrétien -- she is loyal to her friends and colleagues, too, and she demands the same from them.

That loyalty has led to some of her darkest moments, such as in 1996 when Ms. Copps was forced to resign her seat under pressure after her 1993 campaign promise to quit if the Liberal government did not get rid of the GST.

"Sheila's never hid from anything in her life," a friend recalls. "At that time she was avoiding media. She was avoiding friends. She wasn't herself."

For this, she blamed Mr. Martin. "It was unbelievably strained," a Martinite says. "It was a very tense time. Their relationship was very strained."

Mr. Martin apologized for the government's failure to keep the promise, and her view, according to insiders, was that Mr. Martin had triggered the backlash that led to her resignation.

But the Cuconatos soon made an effort to repair the relationship, arranging for Ms. Copps and Mr. Martin to have dinner at a local Italian restaurant, a very boozy dinner as it turned out.

Worried that it was not going well, they were relieved when Ms. Copps called and it was clear to everyone the two were having a wonderful time.

"They were well into the grape, the two of them," laughed the Martinite. "It went fabulously."

Leadership tensions have since forced the two apart, with Ms. Copps taking some pointed shots at Mr. Martin and his record.

Still, there is a view that Ms. Copps has an extreme appeal on the left of the party. Her campaign will be aimed at galvanizing gays, immigrants, women, aboriginals and other groups she believes don't share equally in the benefits of Canadian society.

Though she is popular in her hometown of Hamilton, many Canadians feel she is too combative. Canadian Alliance MPs often invoke her name at western rallies as an example of Central Canadian arrogance, one Alliance MP says.

Ms. Copps is a lightning rod. It's both her strength and weakness as a politician. It turns off some; it compels others.

A friend of hers was asked this week when she started to seriously campaign for the November leadership: "In 1990," he said. "It's always been there. She just needed someone to push her."

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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