NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. – Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives are choosing to stick with their leader Tim Hudak, but injected fresh new blood in the party machinery following a humbling election defeat last fall.
Conservative strategist Richard Ciano, 38, was elected party president Sunday, beating out former provincial cabinet minister turned columnist John Snobelen and Kevin Gaudet, a former taxpayers’ advocate and party candidate.
It was a hotly contested race, with Ciano – who helped propel Toronto Mayor Rob Ford to power – pulling out all the stops in a relentless effort to obtain what is essentially an unpaid and often thankless full-time job.
Ciano is a guy who “knows how to win elections, and a guy who knows how to win elections in the city of Toronto by helping run Mayor Ford’s successful campaign,” Hudak said.
The Tories failed to make inroads in the vote-rich city in the last election – something Hudak has vowed to change next time around.
He praised Ciano’s “outstanding” organizational skills, noting that no matter where he travelled in the province, Ciano was either there at the same time, or had arrived right before him or immediately after him.
“That’s what we need to see in the time ahead,” Hudak said.
While many expected the rookie leader to get a second shot, the presidential race may have helped take the heat off Hudak by providing an outlet for change within the party without a divisive leadership race.
Hudak, who received support from 78.7 per cent of Tory delegates who attended the weekend convention, spent much of the weekend assuring the party faithful that he’d learned his lesson from last fall’s election.
While the party did pick up 12 new seats, the Tory defeat was a bitter pill to swallow for those who believed voters had finally tired of Premier Dalton McGuinty after eight years of Liberal rule.
Hudak acknowledged in a keynote speech Saturday that his central campaign team could have been more “courteous” and “respectful” to local organizers, that the party’s platform was more of a “critique” of the governing Liberals than a vision for Ontario, that he didn’t “find his voice” during the campaign.
He’s vowed to turn things around and put forward a “clear conservative alternative” to the Liberals, but it’s still unclear what shape that may take.
Hudak’s speech was the turning point for many unhappy party members, said Snobelen.
“I think that turned the tide,” he said. “People recognized that their voices had been heard, and that the things that we needed to address from the last election will be addressed.”
Hudak wouldn’t say what new ideas the party is mulling over, but he did take Ford’s side in Toronto’s transit battle. As premier, Hudak said he would direct the provincial agency Metrolinx to work with Ford to build more subways, rather than the light-rail plan endorsed by a majority of city councillors.
The process of putting together new PC policy will likely kick into gear now that a new party executive is in place. The Tories will also have to deal with the $6 million debt they were saddled with after the Oct. 6 vote – and quickly, before a snap election is called.
Ciano, who received endorsements from federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Government House Leader Peter Van Loan, had been openly critical of the previous campaign and ran on the blunt slogan, “Time to Win.”
“It’s a mandate to strengthen the party, to provide more support for our riding associations, our local campaigns,” he said Sunday following his first-ballot win.
“My main message was that we’ve got to strengthen the support for our grassroots and our volunteers, because that’s how we’re going to win more seats and make Tim Hudak the next premier.”
At times, Ciano’s presidential run looked more like a leadership campaign. There were unabashed displays of organizational might throughout the weekend, from hiring a shuttle bus to ferry his supporters to and from the convention centre to young volunteers handing out Ciano buttons, bags and other political swag at every turn.
As Ciano made his way to the stage Sunday for a final pitch to delegates before voting, he was followed by dozens of chanting, sign-waving supporters to Elvis’ “A Little Less Conversation” – an appropriate tune for the man promising to get down to the nitty-gritty business of winning elections.
Party veteran Snobelen took a more low-key approach by taking the stage solo, delivering a more personal speech about his experience as a former minister and longtime party activist.
It’s the first time the presidency has been contested since 1994, when former premier Mike Harris – a hero to the party’s most devout conservatives – was on the ascent to power. And it’s the first three-way race since the Second World War, Hudak said.