Let’s put it bluntly: for many Ontario conservatives, Jim Karahalios is a big-time pain in the butt. And that hasn’t changed now that he’s running for Progressive Conservative party president.
Karahalios first made his presence felt back when Patrick Brown was PC leader. He became the Tories’ peskiest gadfly, stridently opposing the carbon tax that was once part of the party’s platform.
His one-man “axe the tax” campaign appealed to those party members who oppose all new taxes, especially on carbon. When Brown was in charge, his staffers refused to admit Karahalios to a PC convention and later revoked his party membership. They were concerned that Karahalios’s campaign could galvanize opposition to the carbon tax — and, as it turned out, they were right to be.
Karahalios’s campaign was so successful that after Brown was forced out as leader, none of the candidates to succeed him — Doug Ford, Christine Elliott, Caroline Mulroney, and Tanya Granic Allen — dared propose a carbon tax to fund their promises, lest their campaigns be considered dead on arrival.
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Karahalios, a corporate lawyer from Cambridge, also blew the whistle on irregularities that cropped up during the Tories’ candidate nomination process ahead of the June election. A stickler for following the rules, he was openly critical of the party when he heard allegations of ballot-box stuffing and that the leader’s office had been putting its thumb on the scale for preferred candidates (although Brown and Ford promised that wouldn’t happen). One of the major planks of his presidential campaign is that all Tory staff would be required to sign “an oath of neutrality in all PC nominations and PC Executive elections.” (Party brass has already nixed that idea.)
The party once sued him in an attempt to silence his criticisms — but in the end, after Brown’s departure, it offered him a public apology.
“No PC party activist conducting grassroots campaigns in accordance with our party’s constitution should ever have to go through what Mr. Karahalios went through: barring him from our party’s convention, revoking his membership, and forcing him to defend against a frivolous and vexatious lawsuit,” said interim leader Vic Fedeli back in March. “Our focus should be on unity and winning elections, not hopeless lawsuits against loyal conservatives.”
Now Karahalios is on a new mission. And though Brown is out and Doug Ford is in, the new leader’s office seems to have no more affection for him than the old one did.
Karahalios is convinced that the deck is stacked against him in his pursuit of the presidency — even though the party is supposed to run the race impartially. He insists that the party is not-so-tacitly backing Brian Patterson, a long-time backroom operative who knows where the proverbial bodies are buried.
In an email, the premier’s spokesperson, Simon Jefferies, wrote, "The Ontario PC Party executive races are open, transparent, and competitive. All candidates are travelling across the province, meeting with delegates, and sharing their messages. Premier Ford looks forward to electing a new party executive, uniting behind them, and getting to work building a party that can win in 2022."
But a senior party source told me, "Brian Patterson is the Premier’s preferred candidate. Jim Karahalios had many people’s sympathy during the Patrick Brown years, but he has now picked fights with every Party Leader since Tim Hudak. The way he has attacked the Minister of Finance during this campaign has rubbed many party and caucus members the wrong way.”
Karahalios says the committee organizing next month’s party convention is inviting Patterson to its meetings at the supposedly neutral party headquarters. He says it’s also been mailing out Patterson’s literature to party members while refusing to distribute Karahalios’s material.
“They are mailing without my literature and having meetings with my opponent,” Karahalios said in an email. “That’s not a fair race.”
So Karahalios has taken to the internet. Parodying the premier’s slogan, “For the People,” Karahalios has created a website called For the Insiders; it offers blistering criticism of Patterson and others running on his slate.
Just this week, he sent out a campaign letter stating that Patterson “served as the top employee of our party until he was let go in 2015 (by Patrick Brown) — a period that saw us lose four elections in a row. Brian will do anything to be back in charge.”
Karahalios also cites an e-blast from Tory MPP Stephen Lecce inviting party members to a wine-and-cheese reception for Patterson — which was held in the government house leader’s office at Queen’s Park — as evidence that the fix is in.
It’s worth noting that Karahalios’s wife, Belinda, was elected in June as the MPP for Cambridge — but, he told me, “My wife isn't bringing me in for this type of stuff.”
Many Tories hoped that with Brown’s departure, the party’s internal struggles would be over. Karahalios says they could be — if only the party would play fair.
I asked Patterson what he makes of Karahalios’s allegations. “I’ve been an activist in the party for 40 years — Jim’s been involved for about 40 minutes,” he told me by phone yesterday. “Is that an advantage to me? Well, I guess it is. I’ve worked for 10 presidents and nine leaders.
“I know the party is tired of the politics of negativity,” Patterson added. “My read is, especially in government, the party doesn’t want brickbat politics. We need to get ready for the next election.”
Karahalios had hoped a meeting with Ford might resolve some of his concerns. “I had a meeting set up [for September 21], and when I got to Queen’s Park, I waited for 45 minutes and the premier was suddenly unavailable,” he explained.
Races for party president aren’t ordinarily this ugly. But this is no ordinary race. The only thing that’s certain: all will be decided at the party’s annual convention on November 17 and 18.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Jim Karahalios's wife.