Patrick Brown says he's not to blame for Doug Ford's campaign woes
'This is the Progressive Conservatives' election to lose,' the former Ontario PC leader told CBC News
He's not the party leader anymore. He's not even running for a seat.
But former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown's name keeps popping up in the Ontario provincial election — whenever Liberals and New Democrats take his successor, Doug Ford, to task over lingering questions about contested PC nomination battles.
"You want to get answers on this, Patrick Brown was the leader under this whole group of people," Ford said during an event earlier this month in Baysville, Ont., when questioned about a private company's claim that data belonging to 60,000 customers had been breached.
The company, 407 ETR, runs a toll highway. Simmer Sandhu, who worked for the company for nine years, recently quit as the PC candidate in Brampton East over what he called allegations "pertaining to both my work life and my nomination campaign."
Brown has kept a relatively low profile since stepping down as leader in January after CTV News reported that two women were accusing him of sexual assault.
Brown has denied the reports and is suing CTV for $8 million. CTV News says it stands by the story.
But Ford's repeated claim that Brown left the party in ruins has drawn him out. Hours before the three major party leaders gathered Sunday night for the final debate of the election, Brown sat down with CBC News to talk about how the PC campaign is going so far — and to suggest that Ford is dropping the ball.
[The Progressive Conservatives] have snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory before, but never with a lead this big. - former Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown
"You know, Doug may not have wanted to say, 'Talk to Patrick Brown,'" he said. "Because the facts tell a very different story.
"When I left we had a 20-point lead in the polls, a massive financial advantage, the largest membership, the most diverse membership in the province of Ontario. And we were winning by-elections left, right and centre."
That early advantage for the PCs seems to have evaporated over the course of the campaign. On Jan. 13, less than two weeks before Brown's resignation, the CBC Poll Tracker gave the PCs a lead of 12.5 points over the governing Liberals; the NDP was trailing in third, at 22 per cent.
On Mar. 11, the day after Progressive Conservatives elected Doug Ford as their leader, the party held a 20-point lead over the Liberals. The New Democrats trailed far behind at 24 per cent.
PCs' election to lose
On Monday, the day after the final leaders' debate, the PCs were at 35.9 per cent to the NDP's 35.2 per cent in the CBC's polling average.
"This is the Progressive Conservatives' election to lose," Brown said, adding that — given the substantial head-start the party had going into the campaign — anything short of a majority PC government would look like failure.
"[The Progressive Conservatives] have snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory before, but never with a lead this big. Never with an advantage this big. The PCs had a slight lead in previous elections and it evaporated, but never anything like this."
Sandhu's resignation and lingering questions about 407 ETR data aren't the only dark clouds hanging over Progressive Conservative candidate nominations during this campaign. In February, the party overturned two nominations in Scarborough Centre and Ottawa West-Nepean following reports of voting irregularities.
More recently, Ford himself was accused of interfering in a local party nomination race by signing up bogus members to help a candidate of his choice. The Liberals released documents and an audio recording of Ford that they claimed show him suggesting the fees would be paid by others — a violation of party rules.
"It was so frustrating," Brown said. He called on Elections Ontario to run party nominations to avoid allegations of manipulation of memberships.
"A party run by volunteers isn't adequately equipped to run nominations because they can be enormous affairs," he said.
"When the stakes are the opportunity to become an MPP and the opportunity to be part of a winning team, people will go to extensive lengths to win those nominations. And we've seen in some cases inappropriate lengths to win those nominations."
Brown refrained from directly implicating Ford in any of the nomination controversies, but he also rejected the suggestion that Ford was completely out of the loop.
"Doug Ford has been a big part of the PC party for the last number of years," he said. "He was active in these nominations, particularly Etobicoke and Scarborough, and some of his candidates won and some of his candidates lost."
But how does Brown feel about Ford's approach to the campaign he'd been planning to lead himself? Brown said he's taking care to avoid directly criticizing his successor.
"I'm not gonna be a backseat driver, I'm not going to provide criticisms or advice to the current leader," he said. "[Ford] hasn't asked for that."
No love lost
But Brown acknowledges that Ford is further to the right — and that the two men aren't exactly friends.
"I'm not particularly close with Doug Ford," he said. "I obviously I'm more of a progressive conservative and we share different perspectives.
"I was proud to be the first PC leader to take an official delegation in the Toronto Pride Parade. I was proud to be the only Conservative leader in the country to speak against Islamophobia ... I was proud to lead a Conservative party that recognized climate change is man-made and we have to do our part."
Ford's populism has invited a lot of comparisons to U.S. President Donald Trump. Brown said that's not a brand that works in Ontario.
"But I think Bill Davis's moderate progressive conservatism was a great fit for this province and it was right for our times."
He said he has had "mixed emotions" about watching the progress of the Ford campaign from the outside — particularly after Ford blamed what he called the "mess" Brown left behind for his decision to appoint 11 candidates in ridings across the province.
"The turn of events that I went through I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy," Brown said. "But I still have lots of very good friends in the Progressive Conservative Party and I only wish them well.
"When I ... won the leadership of the PC Party of Ontario in 2015, we had a $7 million debt. We were almost financially bankrupt. We had the worst finances of all the political parties in Ontario. When I left we had $4 million in the bank.
"When I ran for the leadership we had 12,000 party members. When I left ... it was the largest in Ontario history and we had seen a membership growth that was unparalleled.
"So to say there was a 'mess' is a very inaccurate picture."
'Never say never'
No one from the Ford camp would comment on Brown's words. An official close to the Ford campaign suggested Brown is trying to rehabilitate his public image to clear the way for a return to politics.
Brown won't rule it out.
"You never say never," he said.
"I'm not going to jump to any quick decisions. I do love public service, despite everything I've been through. I believe politics and public service can be a means to do good for your community. But I feel very fortunate to have friends and family and good health. And I'm enjoying life."