By Jordan Omstead
Less than three months before the June 7 Ontario election, the Progressive Conservatives are still without a candidate in Ottawa Centre.
The PC riding association has struggled to find a nominee to replace Rob Dekker, policy director for Conservative MP John Brassard and a former vice-president of the Centretown Citizens Community Association, who ran unsuccessful campaigns for the Conservatives in the 2011 and 2014 provincial elections.
Several people have expressed interest in running, say party insiders, but officials have yet to receive a completed nomination package.
While candidates for the other major parties — including incumbent Liberal MPP Yasir Naqvi, Ontario’s attorney general — knock on doors and rally voter support, Conservative partisans in Ottawa Centre have been forced to canvass for PC candidates in adjacent ridings.
“Our experience is that it’s really difficult to get any sort of foothold in a riding when you don’t have a candidate,” Dekker conceded. “When you’re looking at trying to pull voters from the Liberals to your side, it makes it difficult.”
If history is any indication, the Tories are facing a steep uphill battle in Ottawa Centre. In the 50 years since the riding was established, no Conservative has ever held the seat.
Naqvi and his Liberal predecessor Richard Patten have kept Ottawa Centre in that party’s hands since 1995, but former New Democrat MPPs Evelyn Gigantes and Michael Cassidy held the seat for stretches totaling more than 20 years in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
When a Progressive Conservative candidate is eventually nominated, the party’s flag-bearer will be looking to upset Naqvi, who’s vying for his fourth consecutive term as the Liberal candidate. In the 2014 election, Naqvi took nearly 52 per cent of all votes, well ahead of the NDP’s Jennifer McKenzie — a former school trustee who now leads the provincial NDP in New Brunswick — who garnered 20 per cent support. Dekker got 18 per cent of the votes, and Green candidate Kevin O’Donnell finished fourth with eight per cent.
The NDP has also been campaigning fervently since selecting candidate Joel Harden on Oct. 29. A senior researcher with the Canadian Federation of Students and longtime community organizer, Harden has modelled his campaign on those of other democratic socialists including Vermont senator and former U.S. presidential contender Bernie Sanders and U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Cherie Wong, a 23-year-old queer woman of colour and recent graduate of the University of Ottawa, will try to build the Green Party’s support in the riding.
Dekker said at least one PC member was almost ready to submit a nomination package, which requires at least 20 signatures and a $2,500 fee. Dekker expressed hope that a nomination meeting would be announced shortly after a new provincial Progressive Conservative leader is chosen on March 10. The riding association must give members three weeks notice ahead of a vote, so a candidate will not be chosen until the first week of April at the earliest.
Dekker’s first run for office in 2011 took place under a similar time line, when he was acclaimed just a month before the writ dropped. By comparison, he had a full year to campaign as the PC candidate ahead of the 2014 election.
“Having that year in 2013 leading into 2014, we were out every weekend, we were out in the evenings,” he said. “I can’t speak enough to the advantages of having the candidate six, eight, 12 months ahead of the election.”
The low likelihood of a Conservative win in Ottawa Centre has made it difficult to recruit local candidates, said Roland Renner, who sits on the riding association’s board of directors.
“People basically have to do it for experience and for the sake of flying the flag of the party,” he said. “The chances of winning are challenging and all of the stars have to align for that to occur.”
The stars have been anything but aligned for the Ontario PCs since late January.
Patrick Brown was forced to resign as the party leader on Jan. 25, hours after allegations of sexual misconduct were detailed in a CTV News report. The resignation sparked one of the most confounding stretches of Ontario political history.
In the following days, interim leader Vic Fedeli promised to “root out the rot” in the party, exposing allegations of corruption under the former leadership.
On Feb. 16, Brown was kicked out of caucus after casting suspicion over the legitimacy of his resignation, and proceeded to register as a candidate in the leadership race just hours before the deadline.
Finally, 10 days later, Brown dropped out of the race to the relief of a caucus that feared his presence would distract and divide the party.
Progressive Conservatives in the eight other Ottawa-area ridings have selected their candidates in lead up to the election, but not without controversy. Karma Macgregor initially won the nomination in Ottawa West-Nepean in May 2017 amid allegations of ballot-stuffing and fraudulent memberships. After Brown dismissed the concerns and signed off on the nomination, the riding executive quit en masse.
Brown’s chief of staff at the time of the nomination was Tamara Macgregor, Karma’s daughter.
In early February, the PC nomination committee decided to call a new race in both Ottawa West-Nepean and Scarborough Centre, where similar voting irregularities cast doubt on the nomination. Jeremy Roberts, who lost by 15 votes in the first contest in Ottawa West-Nepean, was acclaimed as the candidate on March 7 after Macgregor failed to submit her nomination papers in time to run again.
Macgregor is challenging Roberts’ candidacy. Her lawyer, Joshua Henderson, sent an email to party officials saying they never properly informed Macgregor that her candidacy had been overturned.
Despite the tumult, the Progressive Conservatives remain ahead of the Liberals — who have been governing Ontario since 2003 — in nearly all provincial polls.
Thomas DeGroot, the Progressive Conservatives’ regional vice-president for eastern Ontario, was adamant that the controversies of the past six weeks and the ensuing leadership race have had no bearing on the party’s ability to attract a candidate in Ottawa Centre.
“Our party is much larger than it was in 2014,” he said. “The party is always bigger than one individual.”