TORONTO – Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak openly acknowledges that he’s not the most popular person in the room.
His opponents, Premier Kathleen Wynne and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, tend to score higher in public opinion polls. People have criticized him for doggedly sticking to his political script, repeating prepared talking points over and over.
It’s a fight that Hudak can’t seem to win. But he says he doesn’t mind. He just wants people to like his plan, which can be summed up in one word: jobs.
“That’s what I’m going to be talking about each and every day,” Hudak said last week after the June 12 election was called.
“I’ve got a million jobs plan to get hydro under control, to get taxes down to encourage investment and job creation again, to have a government that spends within its means.”
Hudak, 46, grew up in the Niagara border town of Fort Erie with his younger sister Tricia, the grandchildren of immigrants from the former Czechoslovakia. His parents both worked in schools: his father Pat was a Catholic school principal and his mother Anne Marie was a physical education and special needs teacher.
According to friends, Hudak had a typical middle-class upbringing, living in a neighbourhood where kids would gather for pick-up games of hockey or shoot hoops in the driveway. He was athletic too, but also a good student who stayed out of trouble, they said.
Politics was in his family’s blood. His mother was a three-time councillor and her father, Thomas Dillon, was a union leader in Sarnia’s petrochemical industry and a strong CCF and NDP supporter.
The political bug bit his grandson in university. It was the late 1980s, a golden era for conservatives, with Ronald Reagan in the White House and Margaret Thatcher ruling Britain. An impassioned speech on free trade by John Crosbie clinched the deal: Hudak was hooked.
He volunteered with the local Tory party association and at age 27, won a seat in the 1995 Conservative sweep. He was elevated to cabinet in 1999, with stints in northern development and mining as well as tourism and culture, rubbing elbows with John Baird, Tony Clement and Jim Flaherty.
The late ’90s was a turbulent period in Ontario’s history. Premier Mike Harris had an aggressive agenda to slash spending and cut taxes, which sparked walkouts, strikes and even a riot that reached the steps of the legislature.
Hudak, who cut his political teeth on the Common Sense Revolution, will have to overcome Premier Kathleen Wynne’s accusations that he’ll do the same, sparking a war with labour unions and dismantle Ontario’s cherished public services.
The Liberals have stoked those fears since Hudak was elected leader of the Tories in 2009, with the party swinging back to the right from the Red Tory tradition that was the hallmark of its 42-year reign in post-war Ontario.
Polls had put the Tories ahead of the Liberals months before the 2011 election. But Hudak’s first election campaign as leader proved disastrous, dogged by controversial remarks about a Liberal promise to provide tax credit for companies that hired new immigrants, saying it was an affirmative action program for “foreign workers.”
A dozen more Tories were elected, but the party failed to crack seat-rich Toronto, relegating them to the Opposition benches once again.
Hudak survived a leadership vote and appears to have learned from past mistakes, dropping an controversial “right-to-work” policy that some Tories feared would backfire with voters.
As for the role of newcomers in the Ontario workforce, “I see immigration as an economic powerhouse for our province,” he said last week, adding that the province should make an effort to retain top foreign students.
And while the Tories didn’t fare well in byelections, they finally cracked Toronto last August with former city councillor Doug Holyday.
Hudak is now a 19-year veteran of provincial politics, eight years longer than Wynne. He and his wife Deb Hutton – a former adviser to Harris – welcomed a second daughter, Maitland, a few weeks ago, and have a six-year-old, Miller.
It’s not clear whether the second time around will prove more successful than the first. The governing Liberals are swimming in scandal and have just tabled a big-spending budget with a larger-than-expected $12.5-billion deficit.
But this time, Hudak said he’s not interested in winning any popularity contests.
“I may not be the best actor on the stage and I may not be getting an Oscar,” he said in a recent interview.
“If you want leaders who are more focused on being popular by making short-term spending announcements to maintain popularity, you’ve got two choices, Kathleen Wynne or Andrea Horwath,” he said.
“But if you want a leader focused on a turnaround plan for the province, who is serious about the issues and gets us back on track, that’s me and that’s my team.”