Analysis

Caroline Mulroney has name, resumé and backers, but leadership race will be decisive test

Less than a year ago, Caroline Mulroney said changing careers from business to politics was a matter of timing and opportunity. It seems both elements have come together because she has entered the race to be leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservatives.

Daughter of former prime minister is joining Ontario PC leadership contest

Caroline Mulroney will run for the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, CBC News has learned. (Caroline Mulroney)

Last May, Caroline Mulroney was asked whether she would ever consider a career change from law and business to politics. 

She was at the federal Conservative Party leadership convention, serving as a master of ceremonies, and she told the CBC's Catherine Cullen she had always thought about jumping into politics.

"What I've learned from watching my father and so many of our friends participate in it, it's all about timing and opportunity and getting all those things right," said Mulroney, daughter of former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

Less than a year later, Mulroney is not only a candidate for the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party in the June 7 election, but a timely opportunity presented itself for her to run for the party's leadership — and sources tell CBC News she's in.

The opportunity comes after Patrick Brown's resignation last week following a media report describing allegations of sexual misconduct against him. Brown denied the allegations during a hastily organized news conference, but a few hours later he stepped aside under pressure from his caucus and staff.

Pressure to run

The shocking turn of events has had high-profile party members re-evaluating their career goals and making some quick decisions. 

Peter Van Loan, a Conservative MP who knows Mulroney, said it was "definitely not her plan" to consider a party leader job given that she has never run for office.

Ontario PC Leader Patrick Brown attends the nomination meeting for Caroline Mulroney on Sept.10, 2017, where she's named the candidate for York-Simcoe. Brown resigned as party leader last week. (Twitter)

"Her plan was to be the MPP and she was very focused on that," said Van Loan, who represents the riding north of Toronto where Mulroney is running provincially, York-Simcoe.

Van Loan, speaking with CBC before Mulroney's leadership candidacy had been confirmed, said while the timing may not be ideal for Mulroney, she was being "strongly encouraged" to run.

"Sometimes you get these things thrust upon you and I think for her, while I keep saying she should make the decision based on what's best for her, I think that sense of duty hangs pretty heavy."

Mulroney's name was floated immediately after Brown resigned. She has impressed many in the party, some of whom feel the PCs would be wise to elect a female leader.

They point to the #MeToo movement and the party's scandals — first Brown, then party president Rick Dykstra quit on Sunday following an unproven sexual assault allegation made against him — and the fact the other two party leaders are women, Premier Kathleen Wynne and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

Others say gender doesn't matter; they just want a top-notch leader who can get the party back on track and beat Wynne in June.

Christine Elliott, a former MPP and deputy PC leader, announced Thursday she's taking a third run at the party's top job.

The resumé

Mulroney, 43, is a rookie when it comes to running for office, but as the daughter of a prime minister she has been immersed in politics since childhood.

Caroline Mulroney, the daughter of former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, said in May she has always thought about entering politics. (CBC News)

She is bilingual and was educated at Harvard and New York University law school. She's had a successful career in law and investment banking, working for big firms in the U.S., and now in Toronto.

She and her sisters-in-law co-founded a charity called Shoebox that delivers gifts to women and girls in homeless shelters.

Her social media accounts show she's been pounding the pavement in her riding north of Toronto since launching her candidacy for MPP. Mulroney, her husband and four children, moved to the area last spring.

Mulroney has declined interview requests from CBC and other big outlets such as the Toronto Star since launching her York-Simcoe campaign. Her team said she wanted to focus on local media only.

She has said in the past she is from the "progressive" wing of the party, but it's unclear where she stands on some controversial issues within the party, such as its proposed carbon tax.

The party's platform, released in November, moved the PCs more to the centre, a strategic move to eat into Liberal and NDP support.

Doug Ford, who announced his candidacy earlier in the week, has already indicated he wants to review the carbon tax policy as well as the province's revised sex-education curriculum, which Brown ultimately supported and said he wouldn't scrap if elected.

Former Toronto city councillor Doug Ford announces he's running for the Ontario PC leadership during a news conference in Toronto on Monday. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Jason Lietaer, a conservative strategist with experience at Queen's Park and on Parliament Hill, said the race to replace Brown is key to testing whether Mulroney is leadership material and ready to be premier of Canada's largest province.

"Without a race you can't know whether or not she'd be good," he said. "You really do need to be tested."

Whoever PCs choose will be tasked with unseating Wynne, a skilled and tough campaigner. Putting a rookie up against her could be risky, some conservatives say.

Lietaer said a key to success in politics is connecting with people and being authentic.

"People can forgive a lot, what they won't forgive is inauthenticity, and that will be the test for Ms. Mulroney and every other candidate that comes forward."

Building profile

The truncated time frame of the leadership race means if Mulroney jumps in, she only has a few weeks to raise her profile beyond York-Simcoe. Voting starts March 2 and the new leader will be announced March 10.

Chad Rogers, another conservative strategist, said Mulroney does have the advantage of name recognition.

"I think it's a shortcut to more people knowing your name quicker, the same as it was for the sitting prime minister," he said, referring to Justin Trudeau, another child of a former prime minister.

Mulroney's roots in the Toronto area and the rest of the province aren't as deep as Ford's, or another potential candidate, Rod Phillips, a well-known businessman in the city and former head of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation.

Ford mentioned in an interview with CP24 Wednesday that Mulroney lived in the U.S. for years (Ford has also worked in the U.S.), perhaps foreshadowing a campaign strategy not unlike the one federal Conservatives used against Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff in 2011. He was accused of "just visiting" Canada after living south of the border.

After Brown resigned, division emerged among PCs on whether to proceed with a leadership race so close to the election or to let interim Leader Vic Fedeli keep the job until after it's over.

Mulroney was among those pushing for a leadership race.

Come March 10, she'll know whether she picked the right opportunity at the right time.

About the Author

Meagan Fitzpatrick

Reporter

Meagan Fitzpatrick is a multi-platform reporter with CBC in Toronto. She previously worked in CBC's Washington bureau and covered the 2016 election. Prior to heading south of the border Meagan worked in CBC's Parliament Hill bureau. She has also reported for CBC from Hong Kong. Follow her on Twitter @fitzpatrick_m

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