In the rooftop lounge of one of those newly-built glass and steel condo towers that loom over Toronto's Bay Street south of Bloor, three of the declared candidates for the leadership of Ontario's Progressive Conservative party spoke to and mingled with about sixty party members Tuesday night to drum up campaign support.
Christine Elliott, Lisa MacLeod, and Vic Fedeli all came across as articulate, intelligent, and determined about improving the fortunes of their flagging party which ironically, and likely not coincidentally corresponds to the tailspin that Ontario's economy has taken under Kathleen Wynne's Liberals.
The reason that all these high profile candidates would bother with a small gathering, in what for the Tories is the desolate wasteland of downtown Toronto, is directly linked to the decimation of the Progressive Conservative party. While they were in power while Mike Harris was Premier, there were about 100,000 card-carrying Ontario Progressive Conservatives. But in the aftermath of the lackluster leadership of Tim Hudak, that number has dwindled to about one-tenth of the membership during Harris' time. So rounding up as many of those few remaining voters in order to secure the leadership is worth the trouble to the candidates of seeking them out in every nook, cranny, and condo lounge where they can be found.
All of the candidates discussed the need to expand the Ontario PC's beyond their current base, but whether they are capable of that remains to be seen. In order to win the province, the Tories need to make major headway in urban centers, where they severely trail the Liberals and NDP. Christine Elliott discussed trying to recreate the "Big Blue Tent" of Premiers Davis and Harris. But while Harris may be a figure of pride and nostalgia for some of the more hard core Tories, his party was ideologically and politically a very different one from that of Bill Davis' in the 1970's and early 80's. Harris was able to win majority governments by pitting rural voters against urban ones to the disadvantage of the cities, which Harris seemingly scorned and cynically used to finance his a smoke-and mirrors economic trick that reduced the Provincial economic burden by downloading many fiscal requirements to municipalities. Harris rejected a referendum which overwhelmingly opposed it and forced amalgamation on Toronto and its suburbs, then saddled the city with costs for social services which the Province had previously covered. The bottom line for the Province's coffers may have improved under Harris, but from the perspective of the taxpayer in the cities, it was just shifting the taxload to one place from another, with no actual benefit to them, and indeed, often making that burden much worse.
For lots of people in cities like Toronto, Mike Harris is still a toxic association and trying to resurrect his spirit in the "new" Progressive Conservatives in urban centers would probably be as helpful to them as it would be to US Republicans if they campaigned by talking about "the good old days of Nixon."
Vic Fedeli presented as sincere and very well-informed. His focus was on reducing Ontario's exorbitant energy costs which have been made worse recently by the Wynne government's incompetence, highlighted by their wasting a billion dollars on two cancelled gas plants. Fedeli seems like a genuinely nice guy, and very policy-oriented.
The surprise of the evening was Lisa MacLeod, who in her TV appearances seems able, but in person is passionate to the point of being fiery and has a sly sense of humor. If she can manage to translate her personality to a more effective media profile, she could have a real shot at becoming the Tories' as well as the province's next leader. I have to admit I came to like her a lot more after I was able to entice her to down a tequila shot with me at a bar after the gathering was over. However, I had to instruct her in the whole process of licking the area between the base of the thumb and forefinger, salting it, licking the salt, downing the tequila, then sucking the lime. How someone originally from Nova Scotia would need to be taught that is beyond me, and I'm sure it somehow accounts for why she was exiled here to Ontario. But nonetheless, she has lots of good ideas about how to improve the province and particularly encouragingly, she is unafraid to use other people's good policy proposals, such as those that Vic Fedeli would like to see in place where it comes to energy and employment standards revisions.
A rather odd inauguration to the evening's questions for the candidates was when a little old lady began by asking the candidates what they felt about Israel and Palestine. It's not really a matter of provincial jurisdiction as such, even though Ontario does maintain a trade mission to Israel. All the candidates basically fell over each other to express their support for the Jewish state, which is hardly a surprise. No serious politician in Canada is anti-Israel. Kathleen Wynne is also an enthusiastic Israel supporter and under her government, Ontario has expanded its relationship with the middle east's only liberal democracy. In mainstream political parties, it's only a few obscure backbenchers within the federal Liberal Party and some of the human detritus in the NDP from whom you'd expect to hear anti-Israel sentiment.
The love-in among the candidates wasn't confined to their agreeing about Israel. It's early days in the PC leadership race, but at this point, they are all essentially agreeing with each other and unless that changes, the next Ontario Tory leader will be decided as a matter of organization and personality rather than on issues. But that isn't unusual in politics.
I'm not sure what it's like for political parties these days, but back in the day when I was involved in party politics years ago, one of the great benefits of being a young Liberal was that the Liberals always had open bars at their events. I'd crashed a couple of NDP parties and they always seem to have cash bars, which is probably one of the plethora of reasons why they're always so miserable. The Tories had a cash bar too, so after having a few at the Tory meeting, in the end it just made more sense to head to the bar where the aforementioned tequila shots were downed.
Among some of the other friends who came out with me that night was my dear friend and former War Room Director Skippy Stalin, and as invariably happens when he's around, mischief ensued. After many drinks in the first bar, we soon made our way up the street to a chic bar just a few doors away from the Prince Arthur Avenue offices of Ben Levin's lawyer, Clayton Ruby. The place was small, dimly lit, with a small bar, behind which a lighted wine refrigerator with about half a dozen very expensive bottles of open wine were vertically on display. Sitting at bar, it seemed like a New York scene from the Warhol 70's. An old, long-haired rocker, maybe in his 60's, was pouring expensive wine out of a wide-bottomed carafe. A buxom blonde in her 20's with sleeked back hair and a plunging neckline who looked like either a vampire or an Eastern European prostitute (I always confuse the two) was seated at the bar, vivaciously gabbing about something in some indeterminable accent.
Almost immediately after entering, a sleek brunette, whom I would guess to be in her mid 40's and as Skippy observed, had the body of a twenty-five year old, approached us and asked for a cigarette.
I'm not a tobacco smoker, but Skippy, ever the gentleman, always has a smoke available for a lady in need. However it turned out the cigarette was not for her, but a friend. The brunette told us how she had been scouring the streets in the cold for her friend. I observed how that was a particularly nice thing to do, and had it been me, I would have let my friend scour for his own cigarettes, and she responded that he seemed to have the shakes and that she would always go out and do something like that for someone in need.
I can neither confirm nor deny whether or not I then made a joke about possibly getting the shakes if a woman didn't volunteer to perform an anal sex act with me, but the brunette right away then did decide to walk over to another part of the establishment. So Skippy and I sat down and resumed our drinking. while we were imbibing, the brunette, who had not been sitting in the chair next to me prior to our brief exchange, sat down in it, keeping her face turned away from me the whole time, but regularly bumping her back into me.
However, I decided to ignore all that because, well, you know, Massimo Pacetti and all. At this point, if a woman wants to leave a bar with me, I insist that not only does she have to publicly beg me to do so, but I want a notarized document in advance. Which is why I seldom leave bars anymore with anyone I didn't come in with, and sometimes, not even them.
However, Skippy and I did close down the place and as the late, great Kurt Vonnegut Jr wrote, "so it goes."