POLITICS
03/09/2018 16:28 EST | Updated 03/10/2018 13:14 EST

Paul Calandra, Harper’s Former Top Defender, Wants A Second Act In Ontario

"Obviously, I was very controversial."

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Paul Calandra speaks in the House of Commons on May 6, 2013.

It's late January and Paul Calandra is all dressed up. And a little early.

The former Conservative MP has agreed to meet at a not-too-fancy steakhouse near Toronto's Union Station. He's taken a GO train in from Stouffville, the community he represented for seven years in the House of Commons.

Calandra is now looking for a second act in provincial politics. He is the Ontario Progressive Conservative candidate in the riding of Markham-Stouffville, exactly the kind of Greater Toronto Area riding that provincial Tories must win to form government this June.

In a black suit, crisp white shirt, and red tie with grey stripes, the 47-year-old father of two girls looks like he means business. But he's relaxed enough to joke about that pesky PC habit of losing winnable elections in this province.

HuffPost Canada/Ryan Maloney
Former Conservative MP Paul Calandra, shown here in Toronto on Jan. 23, 2018, is the Ontario PC candidate in Markham-Stouffville.

In exactly one day, Patrick Brown — who as a federal backbencher showed Calandra the ropes after his 2008 election victory — will face bombshell sexual misconduct allegations that spark his resignation.

In short order, a quickie leadership race will be called in which the central plank of a PC platform will be tossed out the window, Brown will chaotically enter and exit the race in the span of 10 days, and Calandra will make not one but two endorsements.

But on this easy day, the blissful calm before the storm, his thoughts are on Cobb salad with chicken and a cold pint of beer.

"It drives my wife to distraction because when we go to restaurants, I order the same three things no matter where we go," Calandra says. "It's either steak, a Cobb salad, or a chicken Caesar."

Calandra was defeated in the 2015 federal election by Liberal Jane Philpott, a doctor ushered straight into Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet. He lost by fewer than 4,000 votes.

'Obviously, I was very controversial'

Calandra says he's back because politics is his real passion, not just the cut and thrust but the meaningful work with constituents. He is worried about the direction Ontario Liberals are taking the province.

But he concedes it took some convincing for his wife Melanie to sign off on another go-around.

"It wasn't easy for her, the previous position that I had in Ottawa," he says. "Obviously, I was very controversial."

Calandra, who in real life has a bit of a potty mouth, is probably best remembered as prime minister Stephen Harper's parliamentary secretary. Tasked with fielding questions on his boss' behalf in the House of Commons, some observers called him Harper's mouthpiece or attack dog.

He landed the gig in 2013 just as the Senate expense scandal was approaching a boiling point.

"When the prime minister offered me the job he said: 'It's the worst job in politics and if you don't want to take it, I understand,'" Calandra says.

Adrian Wyld/CP
Former prime minister Stephen Harper answers a question in the House of Commons on March 11, 2015.

With the RCMP looking into Harper-appointed senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau — not to mention that $90,000 cheque the PM's chief of staff cut to Duffy — Opposition New Democrats had a seemingly endless supply of bruising questions on ethics and common sense.

Then-NDP leader Thomas Mulcair won praise for his prosecutorial approach in the House, where he rooted out inconsistencies that left Tories scrambling. Calandra did his level best to block shots.

He says Mulcair proved for those two years how an effective opposition leader extracts accountability from a government.

"Often the prime minister and I would go back and we just could not understand how this guy wasn't doing better in the polls than he was because he had just done a brilliant job."

Calandra says he was told by Harper not to contradict the government, to lie, or say anything that might interfere in the RCMP probes. He says he didn't have answers to questions coming in hot from the NDP benches.

"It is what it is. So, eat your shit sandwich. Just do it."

Calandra blatantly obfuscated, at times telling folksy tales that referenced his father's old pizza joint or the allowances he paid his daughters. It was seen as a transparent attempt to chew up time, ragging the puck.

Screengrab from AskPaulCalandra.com
A screengrab from the now defunct AskPaulCalandra.com spoof website.

As question period devolved at points into a spectacle, he became something of a household name — an unusual thing for someone not in cabinet.

Rick Mercer mocked him on his popular show. Pundits and panellists skewered him, too. A strange website — AskPaulCalandra.com — invited users to submit questions only to hear a recording of Calandra giving riotously unrelated answers.

"The staff and I thought it was hilarious," Calandra says of the now defunct spoof site.

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But his worst moment in the House had nothing to do with the goings-on in the upper chamber.

In September 2014, Calandra responded to a straightforward question on Canada's military mission in Iraq by bashing the NDP's position on Israel. The moment spurred Mulcair to openly question the neutrality of then-House Speaker Andrew Scheer for not enforcing rules on relevance.

The response in major newspapers was scathing. The Ottawa Citizen labelled Calandra the "smirking face of the government." An editorial in The Globe and Mail argued that to call him a clown would be a "disservice to the ancient profession of painted-face buffoonery."

The Globe editorial, in particular, left a mark.

"Holy shit," he says, laughing. "Oh God, I'm never going to live this one down. But your colleagues come to you and say, 'Don't worry about it. Keep going.'"

A few days later, Calandra stood in the House and tearfully apologized. His voice cracked as he foreshadowed that it wouldn't be the last time he let colleagues down.

"It was dumb," Calandra says of that time. "It took me a while to get to dumb."

Two things made him emotional, he says. The first was when his wife was confronted in Wal-Mart — in front of their daughters, Natalie and Olivia — by a constituent outraged by his behaviour. The second was a letter from a commander of a Canadian Forces base outlining why his infamous Iraq answer was unhelpful.

"He wasn't being hurtful or spiteful. He just said, 'Please don't do that again.' Ah, Jesus man, my kids... and this guy."

Harper told him not to sweat it.

"He came and sat down beside me and said, 'Don't worry. This stuff happens. The government is not going to win or lose because you made one mistake in Parliament.'"

Calandra says his staff was getting 1,000 calls a day from people calling him an asshole. He worried about participating in his riding's Santa Claus parade, waving from the back of a truck at a crowd he feared could turn on him.

'I truly loved every moment of it'

But he says many people back home rallied to his defence, believing that the media was picking on him.

In 2015, Calandra scored almost 43 per cent of the vote in his riding. Enough, perhaps, to start thinking about a comeback.

"Nobody ever believes me when I say this, but I truly loved every moment of it."

He isn't the only Harper-era Tory gunning for Queen's Park this spring, making it feel a little like a band trying to get back together. Defeated MPs Daryl Kramp, Susan Truppe, Parm Gill, and Greg Rickford are all running for the PCs and, like Calandra, could reasonably be in line for cabinet spots if the party wins government.

Calandra says his bid isn't about second chances or redemption. As someone with years of federal experience under his belt, he thinks he can help PCs govern after 15 years of Liberal rule.

But the platform Calandra had been taking door-to-door — the so-called "People's Guarantee," replete with a close-up of Brown on the cover — breaks from federal Conservative orthodoxy by buying into a carbon tax.

A screengrab of the cover of the Ontario PC party's "People's Guarantee" platform.

In the document, PCs pledge to use revenue from the tax and the scrapping of Ontario's cap-and-trade system to pay for cuts to middle-class income taxes, hydro and child care relief, and a massive investment in mental health care.

Not so long ago, Calandra railed in the House that a carbon tax would be a job killer.

"Look, I'm a realist. It's coming whether we like it or not. There's going to be a carbon tax," he says, referencing how the Trudeau government is demanding provinces impose a price on pollution. "And I'd rather be in control at the provincial level of how it's collected, how it's redistributed back."

He doesn't mind that provincial PCs are whistling a different tune on the issue than federal Tories who voraciously oppose the policy.

'Mr. Trudeau won an election'

"Mr. Trudeau won an election. He has the right and frankly he's got the responsibility to implement the policies that he campaigned on."

Though he fancies himself a fiscal conservative, Calandra says he is comfortable with all the planned spending in the platform and can live with the fact that a PC government would go into deficit in its first year.

"The government has to live within its means, cut taxes wherever we can, balance the budget, pay down debt. Those things are very, very important to me," he says. "But... there are just some instances where you just can't do that, where the government has to be prepared to invest and step up to the plate."

He feels parents should have been consulted more on 2015 revisions to the province's sex-ed curriculum, but says that most voters would rather talk about pocketbook issues.

Asked what Harper might think of what amounts to a big-spending platform, Calandra says his old boss was an "incrementalist" who knew when to pivot, as evidenced by the stimulus spending during the global financial crisis nearly a decade ago.

That's a good way to govern, he suggests. A good way to win.

***

Now it's March and it sure feels like everything has changed. Calandra is busy today but happy to chat by phone.

"It's been up and down, really," he says. "A lot of politics within the span of a month."

The six-week contest to find the next PC leader is days away from concluding and reaching a crescendo with mudslinging and insults.

Each of the four remaining contenders — former MPP Christine Elliott, former Toronto city councillor Doug Ford, lawyer Caroline Mulroney, and anti-sex-ed activist Tanya Granic Allen — have ruled out imposing a carbon tax, Trudeau be damned. They're also pledging to scrap the Wynne's government's cap-and-trade program.

Justin Tang/CP
Ontario PC leadership candidates Tanya Granic Allen, Caroline Mulroney, Christine Elliott and Doug Ford pose for a photo after participating in a debate in Ottawa on Feb. 28, 2018.

Taking both steps would create what is being called a $9.8 billion revenue hole in the "People's Guarantee," all but killing the platform months before an election and cueing up a possible fight with the feds.

Granic Allen, the spirited social conservative, has successfully forced sex-ed onto the agenda, needling front-runners Ford and Elliott into committing to revisit the curriculum.

Calandra endorsed Mulroney early, joining the four other ex-MPs nominated as PC candidates in calling Brian Mulroney's daughter the best person to win the next election.

Just weeks later, however, Calandra switched his allegiance and hitched his wagon to Elliott. So too did Gill, leaving Kramp, Truppe and Rickford in Mulroney's camp.

A slew of big-name federal Tory MPs are also backing Mulroney, including current MPs and former cabinet heavyweights Lisa Raitt, Rob Nicholson, Tony Clement, Peter Van Loan, and Diane Finley, as well as ex-minister Peter MacKay.

Calandra says another trip to Wal-Mart the day after Brown made his stunning, short-lived decision to jump into the race sealed the deal. It became a two-and-a-half hour "fiasco" with shoppers asking him what in the hell was going on and telling him the party needed to get its act together.

"I got back, started talking, and thought we need to move quickly in the direction where the party can be... unified," he says. "And it just became very clear to me that Christine Elliott was the only candidate who could do that and have us ready for the next election."

It's been a rollercoaster. The night that the Brown news broke was horrifying, he says.

"Just a huge, huge disappointment having read what the two young ladies had talked about and then more and more allegations of things have come forward with respect to party management," Calandra says. "Just frankly, disappointment."

He hasn't spoken to Brown since it all fell apart.

On the carbon tax debate that came to define the abridged leadership contest, Calandra says he is happier that PCs are vowing to rail against what he once suggested was a foregone conclusion.

"I was always a reluctant soldier on that one," he says, hoping he said in an earlier interview that it's not something he wanted.

"We're going to fight Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals on this by joining with like-minded premiers."

Things have also changed for his chief opponent in Markham-Stouffville. Liberal Helena Jaczek, who previously served as minister of community and social services, was named minister of health in late February.

Calandra says he's not worried about the party coming together under a new leader so late in the game. The ultimate goal of replacing the Wynne government will be enough to unify Conservatives across the province.

"It's never lost on me that we have to earn the right to do this. It's not just going to be our turn," he says. "People aren't that way."

***

On that January day, the one before things went haywire, Calandra sips coffee with milk and concedes Wynne can't be taken lightly.

"She's tough. And they're going to throw everything they possibly can at it. I think the next budget will be a fiscal disaster for the people of Ontario," he says. "But she's a fighter and she's going to fight to win."

He's sure some of those headlines from his days in Ottawa will make an appearance in the campaign but he isn't fretting.

Calandra worked as a staffer in Queen's Park from 1995 to 2003, the last time PCs were in power. He credits the anger that he felt as a young man toward the Ontario NDP government of Bob Rae as the reason he got involved in politics.

Later, when they both served in the House, Calandra says he saddled up to him one day and told Rae that he had never hated a politician as much as he hated him. Rae just laughed about it.

"Bob Rae turned out to be one the nicest men I've ever met," Calandra says. "There's a lot to learn from a guy like that."

'Where was that guy?'

Calandra also recounts the reception that he got to a 2015 interview he gave to CBC's "Power & Politics" about a week after voters gave federal Tories the boot.

Chatting then with host Rosie Barton, Calandra dispensed with talking points and spoke about how his party made a mistake focusing on identity issues, such as the wearing of niqabs during citizenship ceremonies. His relaxed, jovial appearance was a stark contrast to earlier performances on the show when, as Harper's spokesman, he defensively towed the line.

He said his Twitter feed was filled was full of people saying some version of: "I've always hated you but you were really nice. Where was that guy?"

As he eyes a new chapter, Calandra says people shouldn't expect him to be a different kind of politician.

"I'm still going to be a hard-nosed, very passionate, forceful contributor if I'm lucky enough to get elected," he says.

"It's just who I am."