WATCH ABOVE: PC leadership candidate Patrick Brown talks about the key issues with Focus Ontario’s Alan Carter.
TORONTO – Little-known Tory MP Patrick Brown believes he can change the fortunes of Ontario’s once-mighty Progressive Conservative party in the aftermath of four consecutive electoral defeats.
Despite his outsider status – Brown is not a member of the provincial legislature – the 36-year-old former city councillor from Barrie, Ont., hasn’t encountered any trouble drumming up support for his leadership bid.
The federal Conservative backbencher says the provincial party needs “a reset” after running some terrible election campaigns, especially last year’s, says Brown.
He was at the campaign event last spring where then-PC leader Tim Hudak announced he would cut 100,000 public sector jobs to eliminate the $12.5-billion deficit by 2016.
“The election is over,” Brown recalls telling a friend on the way out of the venue.
Hudak’s controversial pledge, the centrepiece of his “million jobs plan,” is widely blamed for the Tories’ humiliating defeat. The party lost nine seats while Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals won a majority government.
Brown blames the party’s establishment for the last four election losses, saying the Tories have lost touch with the people of Ontario.
“How unfortunate it is for Ontario that a small, top-down gang at Queen’s Park derailed the last campaign with ideas out of left field like that,” he said in a recent interview.
His only remaining rival in the race for Hudak’s job is Christine Elliott, someone Brown regards as a representative of the old establishment.
“By not being involved in any of the past policy disasters, I believe I can bring that fresh start to the party,” Brown said.
While he has not generated a lot of attention as a federal MP, Brown is respected as an energetic hard worker within Tory circles, and is the chair of the party’s central Ontario caucus.
He surprised many political observers by selling over 41,000 party memberships – a requirement for all leadership contenders – before the cut-off date, while Elliott’s campaign sold about 34,000.
When the votes are counted on May 9, each of the 107 ridings will be given a total of 100 points, meaning the locations of where memberships were sold could be just as important as how many were sold.
Elliott says Brown’s support is concentrated in a relatively few ridings, a claim Brown rejects, calling it “typical sniping.”
“Obviously we’re going to see other campaigns attack us,” he said. “We’ve put ourselves in the frontrunner position by virtue of extraordinary sales.”
Brown said he has spent a lot of time reaching out to different ethnic communities in the seat-rich suburbs surrounding Toronto, often attending public events organized by local groups.
“What I find alarming is not on one of those occasions have I seen a provincial Conservative,” he said.
Brown is a runner and avid hockey player who helps organize an annual charity tournament in Barrie that attracts former NHL stars – his leadership bid was even endorsed by the Great One, Wayne Gretzky.
Only a handful of PC caucus members support Brown, although he has been endorsed by about 40 federal MPs as well as Conservative power brokers such as Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey, former senator Hugh Segal and Derek Burney, former Canadian ambassador to the United States.
When it comes to his political views, Brown rejects being placed in “ideological compartments.”
“I’m not far left or far right. I’m not a red Tory or a blue Tory or a social conservative or a blue Liberal,” he said. “I’m someone who is focused simply on being pragmatic.”
Asked repeatedly if he is pro-choice or pro-life, Brown would say only that he doesn’t want to open old issues.
“We’re not going to revisit that issue (abortion) and I support the status quo,” he said.
His interest in politics was fuelled by a 1993 speech by then-federal Conservative leader Jean Charest about fighting Quebec separatists. Charest later became a mentor to Brown, and even held a fundraiser for his leadership bid.
Brown worked summers in the offices of several Conservative MPPs at Queen’s Park, and at age 22, while attending the University of Toronto, was elected to Barrie city council, a job he held even while attending law school at the University of Windsor. After setting up a law practice in Barrie, Brown tried unsuccessfully to defeat the local Liberal MP in 2004, but was successful when he ran again in 2006.
Brown is single, but admits his 100-year-old grandmother is putting on the pressure for him to start a family, so he’s made a pledge to get married by age 40.
“She wants more great-grandkids, so I have made that promise, on camera, to my grandmother, and the rest of my family are going to hold me to it,” he said. “I do want to settle down at one point, but obviously I’ve been very committed to public service over the last 15 years.”