'Desperate' hours in Ajax-Pickering fight

A whiff of desperation hangs in the air of the Ajax-Pickering riding as the election enters its final leg.
The Ajax-Pickering has seen extensive growth, as subdivisions expand north into the rural parts of the riding. ((Amber Hildebrandt/CBC))

A whiff of desperation hangs in the air of Ajax-Pickering riding as the election enters its final leg.

Allegations from both sides have peppered the campaign in the typically quiet bedroom communities east of Toronto as two high-profile candidates go head-to-head.

Twelve seats short a majority in the last election, the Conservatives are looking to this riding to increase their toeholds in the vivid red swath across the Greater Toronto Area.  

Under the blue banner is Toronto-born, Oxford-educated Chris Alexander, 42, an election rookie who earned his chops in the foreign service. He's up against Mark Holland, 36, three-time federal election champ in the riding who's known as the Liberal pitbull in the House of Commons and the hometown boy in his riding.
Chris Alexander is the Conservative candidate in Ajax-Pickering. ((Amber Hildebrandt/CBC))

Each is accusing the other of desperate measures.

"We see the desperation on all levels," Alexander says of the Liberals on the national and local stage.

"This is a sense of the desperation they have," says Holland of the other team.

Questions have dogged both. Alexander is brushing off about $10,000 in campaign donations received from the anti-gun control lobby determined to unseat Holland as a "tiny fraction" of the total amount. The Liberals also latched onto a quote where Alexander said the Conservatives will give tax relief first to businesses, then to families

"There is no government in my lifetime that has delivered more relief for families," he counters.

Meanwhile, Holland denied suggestions that the two underdog parties — the NDP and Green Party, who don't typically top 9,000 votes collectively in the riding — might be colluding with the Liberals by lowering their presence this campaign. 

NDP candidate Jim Koppens made headlines after it was revealed he went on a holiday in the midst of the campaign.

But Mike Harilaid, the Green Party candidate in the riding, scoffed at the claim he wasn't participating in the campaign, saying he has been at every all-candidates' event to ensure his party's "common sense" approach is heard.

"We have been at every debate, which the Conservatives have not, and will continue to campaign for a needed voice in both this area and the country," Harilaid told CBC News late Thursday.

"In short, if you want to find a party trying to circumvent the voters; look to the Conservatives. If you want one that respects Canadians then don't overlook the Greens."

A sea of red and blue

The streets are lined with an almost even mix of red and blue signs. If campaign signs were any indication of party success, the winner of this battle is anyone's guess. 

Since the riding was created since 2004, Holland has won each of the three federal elections, but the margin of his victory eroded by more than half in the most recent round, from a 17 percentage point lead to only seven.

The constituency has changed in recent years, with a rising population that is expanding further and further into the rural parts of the riding with new subdivisions full of suburban single-family homes. The riding is increasingly diverse, with about 36 per cent of the riding's population of 117,000 people considered visible minorities.

Each party believes the ever-increasing number of subdivisions in the northern part of Ajax will benefit them at the polls.

"There are a lot of people who are voting for the first time here in Ajax-Pickering because they've moved from Scarborough or Mississauga or from Trinidad or from the Philippines," says Alexander. "All of them are struggling with some aspect of this economic question that's before the country."

But the Liberals say every new subdivision is a boon for them. "Those newest areas are some of our strongest areas," says Holland. "They're coming from places that they've been traditionally Liberal for a long time."

Both are targeting new constituents like Ernesto Garcia, a 35-year-old computer engineer, who moved into one of the new subdivisions three years ago from Toronto. "I'm still undecided on who to vote for," he said.

Garcia, who commutes to Toronto for work, chose the area because the affordable housing, key as a first-time homeowner he could afford the houses here. But the only candidate name he's familiar with is Holland, so the Conservatives still have some work to do.

Figures for Conservatives and Liberals in the past three elections


2008 election

 Liberal Mark Holland 21,675 45
 Conservative Rick Johnson 18,471 38

2006 election

 Liberal Mark Holland 25,636 49
 Conservative Rondo Thomas 16,992 32

2004 election

 Liberal Mark Holland 21,706 50
 Conservative René Soetens 14,666 34

For more, see the riding profile.

Holland likes to point out that he's run in nine elections in the riding — rising up the ranks from municipal to federal politics — and the only one he lost was the one he was 100 per cent certain he'd won.

"The one thing I learned is to never take anything for granted," said Holland.

His volunteer team this time is three times the size of the 2008 crew. Every waking hour is devoted to door-knocking and phone calls. And at the end of the day, he debriefs with his campaign team then spends an hour personally responding to constituents on Facebook.

Holland has positioned his campaign headquarters on a busy shopping street in Ajax, Kingston Road East, even papering a streetside, about-to-be-demolished diner with red posters for extra prominence.

Though Alexander's campaign headquarters are tucked into a quieter, southern part of Ajax, his campaign has been benefitting from high-profile visits. Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper visited early in the campaign, as have several cabinet ministers.

Despite Holland's advantages, University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman says the Conservatives could pick up the GTA riding.

"They've poured a lot of resources into that," said Wiseman. "And the Conservatives are the best organized on the ground in constituencies they want to pick off."

Having a star candidate also helps. Alexander served as the Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan at the young age of 34 and later served as the United Nations special representative in the wartorn country.
Mark Holland is the three-time Liberal incumbent. ((Amber Hildebrandt/CBC))

He bristles at being called a political rookie. "I'm running as a candidate for the first time, but I've been engaged on political issues and seen the consequences of political choices around the world," says Alexander.

Alexander downplays suggestions of a hometown advantage for his Pickering born and raised opponent, saying he too is from the same area. He was born and raised in Toronto, and the riding is essentially all part of the sprawling Greater Toronto Area, he stresses.

Holland, meanwhile, says he's been bracing for a fight with the Conservatives for quite some time.

"I knew it was coming a long time before because I ended up being the lead on a lot of controversial issues," he says.

He's not taking any incumbency advantage for granted. "You can't ease up," said Holland. "The whole Conservative party is running against me."

Then again, neither is Alexander.