05/01/2015 11:36 EDT | Updated 05/01/2016 05:12 EDT

Christine Elliott: Ontario PC Party A 'Toxic Brand' That Needs Rebuild

TORONTO - Running for the leadership of Ontario's Progressive Conservatives is something Christine Elliot says her late husband, former finance minister Jim Flaherty, would have wanted her to do.

"I feel sure that he would have been happy with my decision,'' the provincial Tory member from Whitby, Ont., said when she joined the race to replace PC leader Tim Hudak, whose campaign pledge to cut 100,000 public sector jobs was blamed for the Tories' defeat in last year's election.

The party's election platform alienated too many potential voters, especially young people and women, said Elliot, insisting the Tories also face a "gender gap" problem.

The once-mighty Progressive Conservatives, who ruled Ontario from the Second World War until the mid-1980s and enjoyed back-to-back majorities in the '90s, have since become "a toxic brand," added Elliott.

"It doesn't make me happy to say that, but the reality is there's large groups of people that don't want to hear what we have to say on any particular topic," she said. "We really need to change the tone and direction of the party."

After losing the last four Ontario elections, with three different leaders, the Tories need to rebuild the party "from the ground up," said Elliott.

"We really need to embark on a significant branding exercise to talk to people about what we're really all about, before anybody else has a chance to paint us into a corner," she said.

Her only remaining rival for the leadership, Barrie MP Patrick Brown, portrays 60-year-old Elliott as "more of the same old, same old," saying her campaign is supported by the strategists who devised the unpopular polices that cost the party four elections.

"That's absolutely, factually, totally incorrect," said Elliott. "The people who made the decisions in the last election have nothing to do with my campaign."

Elliott has the support of the vast majority of the PC caucus, and was endorsed by perhaps the most influential Progressive Conservative in the province, former premier Bill Davis, but she bristled at the "establishment candidate" label.

"I certainly don't see myself that way, no," Elliott said in an interview. "I see myself as standing up for the grassroots of the party, the people who have always been there to put up the signs and make the phone calls and to donate money."

Elliott, who was also endorsed by former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, says Brown's views are less progressive than hers, especially on social issues such as abortion, and his ideas are "at odds with what the mainstream people in Ontario want."

The mother of triplet boys, now aged 24, entered politics when she won a seat in Whitby, east of Toronto, in a March 2006 byelection, replacing her husband after he moved to federal politics. She placed third in the PC's 2009 leadership contest, won by Hudak, and is currently the party's deputy leader and health critic.

During the 2009 leadership race, Elliott preached the Red Tory mantra of fiscal conservatism and social responsibility — very different from Flaherty, who proposed jailing the homeless during his 2002 leadership bid.

Elliott rejects political labels, defining herself "as a Conservative, period,'' and says her beliefs are rooted in her experiences as a mother, businesswoman and advocate for people with special needs, including her son, John.

"As leader, I'll re-engage with our grassroots supporters and those that share our Progressive Conservative values by asking these questions — what is your vision for a prosperous Ontario and what can we do together to get us there?'' she said.

Despite selling fewer PC party memberships than her rival, Elliott says she's confident party members new and old will realize she's the candidate who can defeat the Liberals in the 2018 election.

"I really believe that the only way that we're going to win is with a positive, optimistic viewpoint looking forward that's inclusive of everyone, and that's what I represent," she said.

Elliott grew up in Whitby, where her dad was a teacher and her mom a homemaker and community volunteer. She graduated from the University of Western Ontario, where she also got her law degree, and later co-founded her law firm with Flaherty. She also worked as an international lawyer for a major Canadian bank for four years.

"I worked internationally, so I had the opportunity to become very familiar with financial statements, but also to understand Canada's place in the world and Ontario's place within that," she said.

"People used to pay me as a lawyer to solve their problems, and now the taxpayers pay me to solve those bigger problems that Ontario is facing."

Elliott said she doesn't get a lot of down time, but she does like to spend it with her sons whenever possible, especially Sunday dinners. She's also a runner, and was learning to ride horses before the leadership campaign began.

"One of my sons has a horse, so I go to the barn with him, and it's very relaxing, just being in the stables with him, helping get the horse tacked up."

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