NEWS
09/02/2015 13:27 EDT | Updated 09/02/2016 01:12 EDT

PC Leader Patrick Brown tries to get into legislature in Simcoe North byelection

Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown is banking on a byelection win Thursday night to allow him to slip into the Ontario legislature just days before it resumes from its summer break.

Brown ran for, and won, the party leadership in May after resigning his federal seat as the Conservative MP for Barrie. He spent the last few weeks of the legislative session as a leader sidelined without a seat in the house, but that could soon change.

Garfield Dunlop, an affable longtime Progressive Conservative MPP, but also one of the caucus members the most openly critical of Brown during the leadership race, announced in July he would resign his Simcoe North seat to make way for the new leader.

Brown has spent the summer putting to work the canvassing and campaign organization skills that saw him beat out caucus favourite Christine Elliott for the party leadership. With all of his door-knocking and an endorsement from Dunlop in a riding he held for 16 years, Brown is expected to win.

"I think what he has shown as a politician to date, when he was the MP for Barrie, was that he was a constituency politician, that he'd work hard and that he'll out-hustle his opponents," said Rob Leone, a political science professor at Western University and a former PC member of the legislature.

"Those certainly were characteristics that allowed him to succeed in the leadership. He worked tirelessly, he had full-day schedules and he made so many personal phone calls to people that I just don't think the other candidates could match that kind of work ethic."

It also helps Brown that Simcoe North is a neighbour to his old Barrie riding, where he served federally for nine years and won the last federal race by a landslide.

"I think there's a lot of congruency between his riding that he represented in Ottawa to this one," Leone said.

"First of all, the media market is quite similar, so the people around Barrie and Orillia will know Patrick, so lots of familiarity with him and his abilities with representing the people."

In addition to rival candidates, Brown has also been battling the federal election for voters' attention.

Lucky for Brown the riding is also Conservative federally, but he said in an interview last week that voters are having no trouble distinguishing between the two campaigns, making it clear they are fed up with the provincial Liberal government, especially its decision to sell Hydro One.

But the Liberals are not letting Brown take the riding without a fight.

Deputy premier Deb Matthews sent a letter to 47,000 homes in Simcoe North portraying Brown as an extreme right winger who voted in Parliament "to take away the right of same-sex couples to marry and...to examine changes to the Criminal Code to eliminate a woman's right to choose."

Matthews also pointed out that Dunlop had criticized Brown for opposing an update to Ontario's sex-education curriculum, and said his resignation "shows there's no room left for moderates in Patrick Brown's extreme-right PC party."

Liberal candidate Fred Larsen lost to Dunlop in the previous two elections. NDP candidate Elizabeth Van Houtte is a professor of social work at Lakehead University, which has a campus in the riding in Orillia.

With Brown running in Dunlop's relatively safe seat, the party is expecting to avoid an embarrassing repeat of former leader John Tory's attempts to get into the legislature.

Tory lost in the 2007 general election to now-premier Kathleen Wynne in her Don Valley West riding in Toronto, then he ended up resigning after he failed to win a seat in a 2009 byelection in Peterborough.

The legislature is set to resume Sept. 14.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press