POLITICS
12/26/2018 09:03 EST | Updated 12/31/2018 13:25 EST

Stephen Lecce, Stephen Harper’s Boy Wonder, Comes Of Age Under Doug Ford

The MPP for King—Vaughan says Ontario’s PC government will leave the next generation better off.

Marta Iwanek/Canadian Press
Ontario Premier Doug Ford and MPP Stephen Lecce attend the Nobleton Victoria Day Fair in Nobleton, Ont. on May 21, 2018.

TORONTO — Stephen Lecce was 23 years old when he talked his way into a job in the Prime Minister's Office.

At the time, the Progressive Conservative MPP was president of the University Students' Council at Western University. He and other young leaders scored a five-minute meeting with then-prime minister Stephen Harper to talk about student issues.

"He took an interest," Lecce, now 32, says of Harper. "One thing led to another and I went to a series of meetings and literally that week, those three days that I was there, culminated with them saying, 'We're impressed. We'd like you to join our team.'"

There certainly is an upward mobility in this place ... You could be 25 and do well.Stephen Lecce

Lecce started in a junior role and climbed the ladder quickly. By his 25th birthday, he was sitting at the table with eight to 10 of Harper's key advisors as his deputy director of communications.

He is now part of Ontario Premier Doug Ford's Progressive Conservative caucus, representing King—Vaughan, and one of the province's millennial MPPs.

"What I like about politics is ... ageism isn't really contemplated. It really is more so about ability," he tells HuffPost Canada. "There certainly is an upward mobility in this place ... You could be 25 and do well."

While most people would say that working in the PMO at age 23 constitutes "doing well," Lecce says there are two people who weren't that impressed: his parents. They wanted him to go to law school.

"Often I find parents, immigrant parents particularly, project their aspirations onto their children," he says.

STEPHEN LECCE/INSTAGRAM
Ontario MPP Stephen Lecce and his parents pose with Premier Doug Ford at Queen's Park.

Law school wasn't an opportunity available to Lecce's parents, who came to Canada from Italy as immigrants in the late 1950s. Their sacrifice may not have led to a law degree, but it did inspire him, Lecce says.

"It's a very humbling thing to think that my parents and grandparents took a boat voyage at sea, in literally the lower class, to come to this country without a lick of English, no job, no relatives other than a distant cousin, so that the next generation could be better off," Lecce says.

Lecce makes it obvious that his family is important to him. He says he's thankful that both his nonnas and his brother, who has two young daughters, still live in his riding of King—Vaughan so he can see them regularly. The riding has a large Italian population. More than 20,000 of the area's 132,000 residents speak Italian.

Lecce says he's ready to sacrifice almost anything, including eating (which he does during the interview, as his lunch sits on his desk getting cold for 35 minutes), for his job. But he won't sacrifice time with his three- and four-year-old nieces, Valentina and Vivian.

ONTARIO PC PARTY VIDEO
Stephen Lecce and his mother are seen in a childhood photo taken from an Ontario PC party video.

The family was never particularly political until he got into politics, Lecce says. His parents have voted for both Liberal and Conservative candidates over the years, Lecce speculates, probably supporting Liberal candidate Jean Chrétien for prime minister in 1993 but then voting for Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris in 1995.

The only exposure he got to politics was watching Global News, which came on after "The Young and the Restless." Instead, it was their values that paved his road to conservative politics.

"My parents raised us to be producers, to contribute to the country, to give back, to feel a sense of obligation and duty as a citizen to add value to the country," Lecce says.

"I would argue immigrant values are instinctively conservative."

Lecce first got involved in politics when he was 13 years old. He volunteered on the provincial re-election campaign of Progressive Conservative Al Palladini in 1999. Since then, he's been conservative through and through.

I would argue immigrant values are instinctively conservative.Stephen Lecce

The MPP talks at length about his admiration for both Harper and for Ford, his new boss.

He says the two men share a commitment to surrounding themselves with people of all ages, races and sexual orientations.

"When you go to a Ford rally, it really is a beautiful mosaic of the country."

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But Ford's government hasn't been free from scandal, and neither was the Harper administration where Lecce got his start.

Lecce was working in the PMO when higher-ups were scrambling to contain a mounting controversy around the expenses of Conservative Sen. Mike Duffy. During Duffy's criminal trial for fraud, bribery and breach of trust, emails were entered as evidence that showed Lecce was aware of a communications plan which would see the senator repay his disputed expenses — potentially with help from the party — and tell the public he hadn't meant to do anything wrong.

The trial vindicated Duffy. Justice Charles Vaillancourt cleared him of all 31 charges and said that he had been played by Harper's staff. The PMO tried to save itself embarrassment by forcing a senator who had done nothing wrong to say that he had.

"In the context of a democratic society, the plotting as revealed in the emails can only be described as unacceptable," Vaillancourt told the court room.

STEPHEN LECCE/INSTAGRAM
Ontario MPP Stephen Lecce spent years working in former prime minister Stephen Harper's office in his early and mid-20s. On Instagram, Lecce thanked Harper for his ongoing friendship.

In a follow-up email to HuffPost, Lecce said he has no regrets.

"I am proud to have served Prime Minister Harper to advance the economic and security interests of Canadians at home and abroad, including working to attract investment and create good jobs in this country."

Lecce says that's what he'll continue to do now that he's in government himself. He holds a slew of high-profile responsibilities, serving as parliamentary assistant to both the premier and the minister of infrastructure and as the government's deputy House leader.

"I'm not a doom and gloom conservative. I think we win when ... we can give people hope there's a better job at the end of the line, higher income, a higher opportunity to realize someone's full potential."

For Lecce, that means conserving the best of Ontario. He says a government's responsibility is to be careful with tax dollars, spend within its means and ensure that future generations have economic opportunities.

On that, he believes the last Liberal government failed miserably.

We don't believe that the last generation should punish the next generation simply because they can't live within their means.Stephen Lecce

"I think it is morally reprehensible that the last government is leaving the current generation and the next, and the next and the next, with a debt load that is so unsustainable," Lecce says. When the deficit comes up, his friendly smile disappears.

Ontario spends billions of dollars more than it brings in every year. The province's total debt stands at $347 billion, which works out to be more than $24,000 for each Ontarian. The government spends more every year servicing the interest on its debt than it does on the justice system.

"I think it is absolutely wrong," Lecce says. "We don't believe that the last generation should punish the next generation simply because they can't live within their means."

ONTARIO PC PARTY VIDEO
MPP Stephen Lecce is seen with one of his nieces in an image from an Ontario PC party video.

Like all his other beliefs, Lecce traces this one back to his family roots. He invokes his nieces.

"They're beautiful, they're cute, they've done nothing wrong. They were born in Ontario and there's $24,000 debt on their head," he says. "I find that so unfair."

This profile is part of a HuffPost Canada series on Ontario's millennial MPPs. Check back for features on PCs Vijay Thanigasalam and Goldie Ghamari, and NDP members Bhutila Karpoche and Gurratan Singh.

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