Toronto·Analysis

Ontario PC leadership race is on: here's how it shapes up

For the vast majority of people, life was "nasty, brutish, and short" in the 17th century, according to English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. His words could well apply to the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership race of 2018.

The battle to replace Patrick Brown will be short, and quite likely nasty and brutish, too

Doug Ford (background) helped Raymond Cho (right) win a byelection in Scarborough-Rouge River for the Ontario PCs, under then-leader Patrick Brown (Twitter)

For the vast majority of people, life was "nasty, brutish, and short" in the 17th century, according to English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

His words could well apply to the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership race of 2018. 

The new leader will be announced on March 10, barely six weeks after Patrick Brown's emotional denial of sexual misconduct allegations and his abrupt resignation hours later. 

That certainly makes it short, in fact one of the shortest leadership campaigns in Canadian history. With little time for the traditional grunt work that wins these things (signing up new members), expect an air war to try to win over the party's existing grassroots.

Nasty and brutish? These past few days, the PCs have let everybody see how divided they are, laying bare the schism between the people that Brown brought to the party and those who considered his team as hostile takeover agents. 

A nominated PC candidate alleged an MPP harassed and intimidated her. A member of Parliament and close friend of Brown called his ouster "an inside job" and claimed party officials are now trying to strip the memberships of tens of thousands of people. The interim leader decided things are so bad in the party that he would not run for the leadership and instead focus on "rooting out the rot."  

And that's just the dirty laundry aired publicly. All week, PC insiders have told me privately about strife, wrangling and infighting, allegations of dirty tricks and strong-arming. "The knives are out and there's blood on the floor," said one.  

Doug Ford, a one-term Toronto city councillor, announced his candidacy for the Ontario PC Party leadership with a statement to the media from the basement of his mother's house. (Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC)

So, here's who's in the leadership race and others who may take a shot:

Doug Ford

Until Patrick Brown's resignation, all the signs indicated Doug Ford would be running for mayor of Toronto in 2018. He may still end up doing that as well, but for now Ford is the only declared candidate for the PC leadership. He announced his intention to run on Monday. Many people in the PCs tell me the timing was a pre-emptive strike by Ford to prevent the party executive from drawing up rules that would exclude him from the race.  

Ford jumped into politics by aiding his brother Rob's successful "stop the gravy train" run for Toronto mayor in 2010, while comfortably winning Rob's longtime city council seat in that same election. He then ran for mayor in 2014 when his brother was fighting the cancer that later killed him, losing to John Tory. As one of the heirs of the family business Deco Labels, Ford is a millionaire, while his political pitch is like Rob's: speak up for the taxpayer and speak out against "the elites."  

Caroline Mulroney

Elite might be a word that gets tossed at Caroline Mulroney, should she run for the leadership. The Harvard-educated daughter of a former prime minister, Mulroney has a law degree from NYU, and work experience on Wall Street. She has never held elected office and has only rarely faced the media, beyond this quick interview with CBCs Catherine Cullen at last year's federal Conservative leadership convention. 

Former Ontario PC Leader Patrick Brown attended the party's nomination meeting in York-Simcoe last September when Caroline Mulroney was named the party's candidate. (Twitter)

After she was acclaimed as an Ontario PC candidate in September, Mulroney declined interview requests except with local news outlets in the riding of York-Simcoe. She has not spoken publicly since Brown's resignation, choosing instead to make statements on Twitter. My sources within the PCs indicate much of Brown's campaign apparatus has shifted to Mulroney, and most of the party's Bay Street fundraising muscle is with her, as well. 

Rod Phillips

Rod Phillips has been more visible than Mulroney since Brown's departure, taking calls from reporters, giving interviews and showing up at Queen's Park this week. The former head of Ontario Lottery and Gaming says he is actively considering a run. Phillips is the PC candidate in Ajax. Like Mulroney, he has never held elected office.

My sources indicate he is backed by Paul Godfrey. That should surprise no one, since Godfrey served as chair of OLG during Phillips' tenure, while Phillips was chair of Postmedia until stepping down last fall to run for the PCs. 

Rod Phillips (right), the PC candidate in Ajax, is considering running to replace former PC leader Patrick Brown (left). (Twitter)

Todd Smith

If he enters a race against Ford, Mulroney and Phillips, PC energy critic Todd Smith would be the dark horse candidate, as well as the only member of caucus. Smith worked in radio news in Belleville for 18 years before knocking off a Liberal cabinet minister in 2011, in the riding of Prince Edward-Hastings. 

PC energy critic Todd Smith has indicated he is considering a run for the party leadership. (Ontario Legislature)

He told me in an interview Wednesday that his decision will in large part depend on the leadership race rules set out by the party executive.

"I have serious concerns about being able to raise the funds that may be necessary to contend this race considering some of the people who are talking about entering," Smith said. He said he believes there is "a place in this race for somebody who has looked [Premier] Kathleen Wynne in the eyes and challenged her for some of her destructive policies." 

Christine Elliott and Erin O'Toole

Some Tories are pushing the former deputy leader Christine Elliott to quit her job as Ontario's patient ombudsman and enter the race. But she lost in the last two PC leadership campaigns (in 2009 to Tim Hudak and in 2015 to Brown). My sources indicate she is getting contradictory advice from her closest friends, with some urging her to run and others telling her not to. 

Erin O'Toole, the Conservative MP for Durham and son of the former PC MPP John O'Toole, says he is not ruling out a run.

"I got my start in many ways from the Ontario PC party," he told CBC News in Ottawa on Wednesday. "I have great friends, and support, and I've been talking with them about how I can help make sure we recover from this period quickly and win the next election," he said.

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