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Ontario PCs face a fork in the road as they look for Patrick Brown’s replacement

When it comes to choosing a new leader to replace Patrick Brown, Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party is in uncharted waters. 

The PC caucus will meet Friday to select an interim after Brown resigned early Thursday amid allegations of sexual misconduct. That person has to be a current PC MPP.

But once the interim leader is chosen, the party faces another choice: send that interim leader into the June election or hold a rapid leadership vote, which would open up the floor to candidates who don’t currently hold a provincial seat.

The party’s deputy leaders have been tight-lipped about which route they will take, and political strategists are split over whether a drop-of-the-hat leadership race is even possible, given the looming face-off with Premier Kathleen Wynne. 

Who are the front-runners? 

Inside the current caucus, several possibilities for interim leader have been tossed around, including: 

  • Vic Fedeli, MPP for Nipissing: Fedeli, reported to be the most likely pick, serves as the PC finance critic. The former mayor of North Bay ran in the 2015 PC leadership race before withdrawing, and made his interest in a leadership position clear on Thursday, saying that people had been telling him “It’s your time, Vic. You’re the person to do this.” 
  • Lisa MacLeod, MPP for Nepean-Carleton: Like Fedeli, MacLeod ran in the previous PC leadership vote before withdrawing. She’s held her Ottawa-area seat since 2006. 
  • Sylvia Jones, MPP for Dufferin-Caledon: Jones serves as deputy leader for the party alongside MPP Steve Clark. When asked during a Thursday news conference if she would run, she responded, “I don’t know.” 

Outside the caucus, well-known political names like Lisa Raitt, deputy leader of the federal Conservatives, and John Baird, former federal minister of foreign affairs, have been raised. Christine Elliott, a former Ontario PC leadership contender who lost to Brown in 2015, has also come up, though she is no longer involved in politics.  

There is also speculation that prominent candidates Caroline Mulroney, running in York-Simcoe, and Rod Phillips, former head of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp., running in Ajax, could be options. 

‘There simply won’t be enough time’ 

According to the PC Party constitution, a leadership election can be called by the party executive either within 18 months following the resignation of a leader or if a leader asks for one. At that point, the executive sets the rules for how the vote will be carried out.

Political strategist Aleem Kanji, vice-president of Toronto lobbying firm Sutherland Corporation Ltd., told CBC News that despite the constitutional option to do so, he believes “there simply won’t be enough time” to turn around a leadership race before June. 

Lisa MacLeod

Nepean-Carleton MPP Lisa MacLeod ran in the previous PC leadership vote before withdrawing. She says she believes the women who have come forward with sexual misconduct allegations against Brown. (Patrick Louiseize/CBC)

“My sense on this is that they are going to go with somebody on the inside, a sitting MPP that can offer them that stability and peace,” he said, noting that MacLeod and Fedeli, both of whom “have been with the party a long time,” would be solid options. 

A senior consultant at another government relations firm disagrees. Ginny Movat, of Crestview Strategy, says it’s more likely — and more desirable — for the PCs to take the plunge into a leadership election in the coming weeks. 

“I think the party needs a new permanent leader, and members need a voice,” she told CBC News, adding that it could be a chance to experiment with online voting.

‘Star candidates’ and ‘big names’

Going for a leadership election, Movat said, makes for a “much bigger bucket of potential candidates,” including candidates running in the upcoming election and “big names” from the federal level.

That opens the door to Raitt and Baird, she said, both of whom have “executive-level elected experience” as well as connections to Ontario.

On the candidate side, both Mulroney and Phillips are “star candidates” who have achieved independent success, said Movat. 

A tweet from Phillips on Thursday indicated he supports a pre-election leadership race. He said the PC leader must have a “clear mandate” from the party’s “some 200,000 members.”   

Neither Mulroney nor Phillips, however, has elected political experience, Movat noted — a potential knock against them in a leadership race against more experienced politicians.  

‘Momentum’ to choose a woman

MacLeod, Jones, Raitt and Mulroney may have the additional advantage of providing a clear break from Brown’s alleged misconduct.

“One advantage for the PCs with a woman leader is they would have an image of newness after Patrick Brown, which is harder to create if he were succeeded by a man with similar age and racial characteristics,” Sylvia Bashevkin, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said in an email to CBC News.

patrick brown conservative caucus

Ontario PC deputy leaders Sylvia Jones and Steve Clark have been tight-lipped about whether or not the party would hold a leadership vote before June’s election. Jones said they will know more following Friday’s caucus meeting. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

“What I’m hearing for the most part is there’s a lot of momentum toward making sure we’ve got a woman leader, or at least putting a woman forward as a possible candidate,” said Conservative strategist Jason Lietaer.

Like Movat, Lietaer feels strongly that a leadership vote will be imminent.

“There is time to introduce somebody, there’s time to put some advertising behind that person,” he said.

CBC | Toronto News