TORONTO — Ontario's Progressive Conservatives will hold a leadership race to replace Patrick Brown, who resigned this week in the face of sexual misconduct allegations.
Party officials and members are downplaying the risk it will create divisions within the party ahead of a spring provincial election.
The party's executive voted late Friday afternoon to hold the race and select a new leader sometime before March. The move will please some candidates and grassroots party members who insisted they should have a direct say in the leadership decision but runs contrary to the wishes of the party's caucus, which named Tory finance critic Vic Fedeli as interim leader earlier in the day.
The caucus of elected legislators wanted Fedeli to lead the party through the election to avoid a divisive, and potentially costly, race.
Party president Rick Dykstra said the executive has not yet established a firm time frame for the race but conceded it will be a challenge.
"This will be a very aggressive time frame," he said. "Look ... this is going to have to be a very quick process."
Dykstra said the party will form a committee to set up and oversee the leadership race. He insisted that the PCs can remain united throughout the contest.
"At the end of the day this party always stands united, always stands focused and I can assure you that when this is finished before the end of March, we will be ready to take on government in June of 2018," he said.
Listen to HuffPost Canada's "Follow-Up" Podcast on Brown's stunning fall:
Fedeli told reporters that he respects the decision and will be a candidate for the permanent leadership.
"I fully expect to be the leader that takes us into the election," he said. "I was made party leader by the caucus in a unanimous decision today and now the executive have asked that we go into a leadership race. I fully support their decision. They have the final say the way our constitution works."
Fedeli said he will stress his record, both in business and political life, in upcoming race. He also downplayed the notion that the race could cause fractures in the party.
"I think it's going to be time to shine a light on the party," he said. "You're going to see lots of great people having lots of spirited debates. As long as the light is shining on our party and people are hearing about the PC platform I think it's a great opportunity."
More from HuffPost Canada:
Rod Phillips, the former Postmedia executive and star candidate for the party running in Ajax, Ont., co-signed a letter Thursday with 27 other Tory candidates asking the party executive to hold a leadership election.
"This is good day for the Ontario PC Party," Phillips said in a social media post. "As I said yesterday, the Leader who takes us into the election must have a strong mandate from our members; putting us in the best position possible to defeat Kathleen Wynne and her government. I look fwd to hearing more details."
This is good day for @OntarioPCParty. As I said yesterday, the Leader who takes us into the election must have a strong mandate from our members; putting us in the best position possible to defeat Kathleen Wynne and her government. I look fwd to hearing more details #PCPO#Onpolipic.twitter.com/slT42iCQEF— Rod Phillips (@RodPhillips01) January 26, 2018
Phillips is one of a number of Tory members not in the legislative caucus touted as a potential leadership candidate, including Caroline Mulroney and Christine Elliott. Asked by The Canadian Press earlier on Friday if he intends to run if a convention is set, he wouldn't say.
Mulroney, the daughter of former prime minister Brian Mulroney who is also running as a provincial PC candidate, greeted the news positively.
"Our party is stronger when all of our members across the province have their voices heard about who will lead us into the next election," she said in a statement on Twitter. "Together, we will emerge from this leadership race stronger and more united to take back Ontario from Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals."
Our party is stronger when all of our members, across the province have their voices heard about who will lead us into the next election. Together, we will emerge from this leadership race stronger and more united to take back Ontario from Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals.— Caroline Mulroney (@C_Mulroney) January 26, 2018
The race was prompted by the sudden resignation of Patrick Brown as party leader early Thursday, hours after emphatically denying what he called "troubling allegations" about his conduct and his character. The allegations, which have not been independently verified by The Canadian Press, were made by two women who spoke to CTV News.