Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives plunged deeper into turmoil Friday as former leader Patrick Brown, who stepped down amid sexual misconduct allegations weeks ago, vowed to reclaim his old job bolstered by what he called a groundswell of support from the party grassroots.
The 39-year-old Barrie, Ont., politician officially joined the race to lead the Tories shortly before a registration deadline, making him the fifth candidate to vie for the top post and stirring more controversy at a time when the party is trying to get back on course.
Brown, who has been waging a campaign to redeem himself in the public eye in recent days, said he found the strength to make his resurgence after hearing from the party faithful and believes he is the best placed to take on the Liberals in the spring election.
“I think my name has been cleared and now it’s about getting Ontario back on track,” he said at the party’s Toronto headquarters.
“This isn’t about me, this isn’t about the PC party, this is about making sure that on June 7, the Progressive Conservative party is successful,” he said.
“The support we’ve been getting across the province has just been so encouraging…frankly, it changed my opinion. This is not what I was thinking about but the support of the party membership has really inspired me.”
Support for Brown is far from unanimous, however. Just hours before joining the leadership race, Brown was kicked out of the Tory caucus, a decision that means he will sit as an
Experts said his candidacy could exacerbate tensions within the party and expose the Tories — who had been leading in the polls — to attacks from their political rivals as the province heads to the polls.
“It certainly throws the party into even more turmoil and it’s already in a lot of turmoil,” said Jonathan Malloy, a political science professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.
“I can’t see that he’s going to win the race but he can certainly do a lot to mix things up. But I’m not sure it’s going to help him or the party in the long run,” he said. “It’s becoming more about clearing Patrick Brown’s name than what’s best for the Ontario PC party.”
Brown’s ouster from caucus suggests not everyone in the party is behind him, said Nelson Wiseman, a political expert at the University of Toronto.
His candidacy could also give ammunition to the Liberals, who may question why the party is considering handing over the reins to a man accused of sexual misconduct, he said.
Brown fought to clear his name over the last week, alleging two women who spoke out against him in late January were lying and possibly manipulated by his political enemies inside and outside the party. He has also vowed to sue CTV News, which broadcast the allegations. CTV has said it stands by its reporting.
Brown’s run for the party leadership has already proved polarizing, however, with some of his competitors saying it would pull attention away from what should be the party’s real objectives — defeating the Liberals.
“Patrick Brown made the right decision to step down. A leadership election is not the place for him to clear his name,” Toronto lawyer and businesswoman Caroline Mulroney said on Twitter. “Our focus should remain on beating (Premier) Kathleen Wynne in less than 100 days. This is a distraction from that and I am disappointed.”
Former Toronto city councillor Doug Ford said in a statement that the party is stronger without Brown, citing a boost in fundraising and memberships since the former leader resigned.
“The Ontario PC Party needs to focus on defeating the (Kathleen) Wynne Liberals in June,” he said.
Former Tory legislator Christine Elliott, who came in second to Brown in the last leadership race, also stressed the importance of unity ahead of the spring election.
“With fewer than 100 days, now is a time for unity. I am the leader that can unite the party and beat Kathleen Wynne,” she said in a statement.
Social conservative advocate Tanya Granic Allen, who is also running, did not issue a statement, but during Thursday’s leadership debate she accused Brown and corruption and said he “left the party in tatters.”
In the days following Brown’s departure, interim Tory leader Vic Fedeli vowed to “root out the rot” within the party ranks. An internal audit ordered by Fedeli found a significant discrepancy in the party’s membership numbers, indicating the Tories had roughly 67,000 fewer members than the 200,000 claimed by Brown.
The party also decided to hold new nomination contests in two ridings after reviewing races plagued by allegations of voting irregularities under Brown’s tenure.
The party’s president, Jag Badwal, said Brown’s application will follow the same due process as the other four candidates.
The Liberals, meanwhile, said it doesn’t matter who leads the Tories because the party plans to roll back a planned increase to the minimum wage regardless of who takes over for Brown.
Ontario’s New Democrats said the Progressive Conservatives are not in a position to govern themselves, much less the province.
Paola Loriggio , The Canadian Press