By Andrew Macdonald
The top hired gun for Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative leadership contender John Lohr is a Baptist churchgoer who came of age in the remote, tight-knit fishing community on Digby Neck and the Islands.
The Ottawa-based father of two teen girls Steve Outhouse, 42, is the paid campaign manager for Lohr.
Outhouse was an influential backroom player during the 10-year long regime of Conservative leader Stephen Harper, and served as chief of staff to two cabinet ministers, including Prince Edward Island’s Gail Shea, who headed the Fisheries department.
Outhouse, a native of Freeport on Long Island, grew up in a non-political family, the son of a school teacher and shopkeeper who ran a bakery and convenience store. He is a nephew of prominent Halifax lawyer, Bruce Outhouse, with whom he often stays when campaign duties necessitate he be on the ground in Nova Scotia.
Outhouse has a policy of not talking to news media about his political roles, but made an exception to talk to The Macdonald Notebook because he says we reach a sophisticated political audience in the Maritimes. We spoke on the phone for 30-minutes.
Growing up in Freeport, Outhouse was president of his high school student council, a primary-to-12 school known as Islands Consolidated School, which has a reputation of producing outstanding graduates.
His dad was a teacher and guidance counsellor at the school, and his mother operated a bakery and convenience store.
“That was one of my first jobs, working in my mother’s family business. I was a delivery person delivering bread and sweets and driving them to customers in Digby, Annapolis and Bear River, and Cornwallis“.
He says he learned a strong work ethic from his mother and the value of a day’s hard work.
“When you are running your own business, it is a lot like campaigning, there is more work than can ever be done — that you never really finish. You learn how to invest your time and make the biggest impact you can,” says Outhouse.
“My parents are both hard workers. My dad and mom also have a lot of volunteer commitments.”
He has a younger brother and a younger sister. The brother is a teacher in northern Alberta, and his sister is on maternity leave.
The product of a Baptist family, he first worshipped at a church on Digby Neck, and later served from 2008 to 2011 as a Baptist pastor in Ottawa where he regularly attends church.
Growing up, “there were definitely unique challenges living on an island,” he says, and recalls “Digby was the big town for us. Digby and Yarmouth were the places to go.
“Freeport is a very tight knit community, and people were there for each other,” he tells The Macdonald Notebook.
He remembers in his youth how the community mobilized when a fisherman fell overboard. Residents combed the beaches, later finding the man’s body.
“There were also challenges as everyone knew everyone’s business. We were definitely a tight knit community.”
As far as entertainment in his youth, “We didn’t get cable television until I was in grade 8.”
Outhouse became bitten by active partisan politics while studying public relations at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, first joining the Young Liberals.
A co-op work term in Ottawa further piqued his political interest. “That’s where I started to get interested in politics, both federally and provincially,” he tells The Macdonald Notebook.
While studying at the Mount, he also wrote a political column in the Digby Courier, a weekly newspaper edited by John DeMings, my first print boss 30 years ago in Port Hawkesbury, and now copy editor of The Macdonald Notebook.
In Ottawa, Outhouse initially toiled as a Young Liberal, participating during the Chretien regime.
“I found politics very exciting, especially when the Chretien Liberals were slashing the debt.”
But he became disillusioned during Paul Martin’s regime, he tells The Macdonald Notebook. “I didn’t like where he was taking the Liberal party and started to listen to Stephen Harper, who was running for the Conservative leadership.
“I found out later I leaned more to Conservative policies,” says Outhouse.
In 2004 he joined the Conservative party, which had been formed by the merger of the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance.
During the Harper administration, Outhouse became chief of staff in 2013 to Gail Shea. “She was the fisheries minister from PEI,” and he still keeps in contact with her.
“I liked working with Gail. She is a wonderful person and a class act,” he tells The Macdonald Notebook. “That job was a great experience.”
Two years later, he took over as chief of staff to Human Resources Minister Pierre Poilievre.
That was during a time that Nova Scotia’s Scott Armstrong was also working as parliamentary secretary to Poilievre.
Outhouse also worked with a Poilievre aide from Truro, a bright, handsome Tory strategist, Chris Guinan, who many party folk consider a future Truro MLA.
For now, Guinan is a second generation stockbroker in the Hub Town, where he only takes on clients who have a threshold of $100,000 or more to invest in the stock market.
“I really enjoyed working with Chris and Scott.”
While now serving as John Lohr’s campaign manager, he has prior experience and in last spring’s federal Conservative leadership race when he managed the campaign of Pierre Lemieux.
With the digital age, Outhouse is able to work from Ottawa to manage the campaign of Lohr, a two-term Valley MLA, but comes to Halifax and Nova Scotia frequently.
“It’s a bit of both, being in Ottawa and making regular trips down to Nova Scotia so I can meet with people in person — because having that personal touch is important,” says Outhouse.
“But, yes, so much of what you do you are tied to your computer or phone.”
Outhouse says he was attracted to Lohr, who is also a Baptist church member, because “he’s an authentic, nice person, and I felt I could add value to his team.”
He also liked Lohr’s policy ideas, which have ranged from removal of tax on sales of second-hand cars, to selling wine at Loblaw and Sobeys supermarkets, and removing provincial funding for universities that don’t allow free speech by students and professors.
“I like a politician who wants people to discuss ideas — we are both Conservatives —and that people shouldn’t be overtaxed.
“John is involved with his Baptist church. There are times we get to open our meetings and having discussions with a prayer. That is nice to have that common background.”
Lohr is running a policy-oriented campaign, and espousing his views on a multitude of issues which has so far set him apart from leadership opponents, who are not releasing statements on issues.
While fellow PC leadership contenders Tim Houston and Cecil Clarke have told me they want to develop policies by robustly canvassing the party membership, Outhouse says Lohr’s policies have also come from four years of listening to party members.
The leadership convention planned for Halifax this October will used a ranked ballot system. Outhouse refrained from saying who might be his second and third choice in voting for a new party leader.
Outhouse tries to vacation back in Digby Neck once a year or every other year – adding his Ottawa home is busy with his wife and two teenaged daughters.
“They all have different things on the go in the summertime,” he adds.
His wife is a youth director at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Ottawa, where he served as a pastor from 2008 to 2011 when he took a break from politics.
“I really enjoyed that job. It was very different, but I had a chance to really connect with people and move out of government and be with people during very difficult times of loss and personal tragedies, during times of death to be with family,” he tells The Macdonald Notebook.
“That job really grew my passion to help people.”