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Sunday, April 20, 2014

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Irwin Cotler’s ‘wing man’

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Howard Liebman, left, and Irwin Cotler flank Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau in a photo taken last fall.

MONTREAL — Howard Liebman uses the term wingman in describing his role as Liberal MP Irwin Cotler’s chief of staff in the sense that he has been by his side – almost literally – for a decade.

But the term also points to the Howard Liebman few would recognize: the ardent aviation buff who worked his way through McGill University law school as a flight attendant.

When Cotler, as justice minister in 2004, called Liebman at his corporate law office at Stikeman Elliott to offer him the chief of staff job, he did not think twice before accepting it.

“He told me it would only be for a year or so,” Liebman remembers, since Cotler did not initially anticipate seeking a second term.

But Liebman realized that the job, as interesting as it would be to be working for one of the world’s best known human rights activists, would not come without sacrifice. His position would certainly not be as lucrative as his professional law career, there would be less family time, and his main role would be to serve in the background.

But it is a price, Liebman made clear in an interview, that he has been more than willing to pay and does not regret for one second.

“I would not have had it any other way,” he said.

Liebman has spent the last 10 years in full personal and professional service, and in support of Cotler, whom he still often refers to as “professor” and whom he considers his icon, mentor and father figure.

During their decade together, rarely has one been seen without the other, and the relationship has evolved into a warm, collegial and deeply abiding friendship despite their 33-year age difference (40 and 73).

Liebman has accompanied Cotler on visits all over the world, and they have often been in the room together when meeting with world and NGO leaders, politicians of all stripes, and when engaging in public diplomacy.

Liebman also has handled the logistics of trips, and tried valiantly to keep up with his boss’s energy level – “which I still cannot do,” Liebman jokes.

At home, Liebman has represented Cotler in the multicultural Mount Royal riding constituency office in Côte des Neiges. He is often seen filling in at community events Cotler could not attend, and serves as the riding’s ombudsman, intervening on constituents’ behalf on immigration and refugee issues (and others) on a regular basis – even when the phone rings at 2 a.m.

That particular responsibility, Liebman said, has been his “least known and most important role” in terms of his own public service.

Liebman has also made it a point to stay active within the Jewish community, especially with students, who call him regularly at the riding office for guidance and advice.

While at McGill, Liebman was very active at Hillel and in the Jewish advocacy issues of the day. While Cotler was never Liebman’s professor at McGill, he was fully cognizant of Liebman’s interest in community and public service, and that was one of the reasons Cotler called him when naming his staff.

So close, in fact, have Cotler and Lieb­man become that both issued major announcements on the same day, Feb. 5: Cotler’s was that he would not run in the next federal election, while Liebman’s was that he would not seek the Mount Royal Liberal party nomination, as it was speculated he might do, because he wanted to spend more time with his family.

“I cannot escape the many sacrifices my wife [Heather] and three young sons have made these many years,” he said in his announcement.

He told The CJN: “I received a lot of encouragement and support to continue [Cotler’s] great work, but the reality is that Heather and the children made incredible sacrifices.”

Cotler acknowledged that he was indeed grooming Liebman to succeed him, but that he fully understood and supported his decision not to run for political office at this time, given his still-young age and the many potential years of public service that lie ahead.

“He has been the best chief of staff there could be,” Cotler said.

Once Cotler leaves politics, which is expected to be sometime in 2015, Liebman said he would be looking to build on his decade of experience in government, law and business “to make best use of my skills  for a new and exciting chapter in my life.”

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