#onpoli newsletter: The bright political future of Leslyn Lewis

How a relative unknown became the breakout star of the Conservative leadership race
By Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath - Published on Aug 25, 2020
Leslyn Lewis finished third in the Conservative Party leadership race. (CP/Tijana Martin)

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Hello, #onpoli people: 

The federal Conservatives named Erin O'Toole as their next leader — but it was the third-place finisher who caught the attention of podcast hosts Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath. They discuss the future of Leslyn Lewis.

Is it time for an election? 

Man speaks at podium
Erin O'Toole is the next Conservative Party leader (CP/Tijana Martin)

Steve Paikin: Well, JMM, I thought it would be fun to begin this edition with a truly arcane factoid about the just-completed Conservative Party of Canada leadership race — and I think I've found one. Did you know that Erin O'Toole is the first person from Ontario to become the leader of a federal conservative party since former premier George Drew in 1948? Now before you get all John Michael on me and remind me that Stephen Harper was born in Toronto and Andrew Scheer was born in Ottawa, let me acknowledge that's true. But they were both truly leaders of western Canada. And while O'Toole was born in Montreal, his father was a member of the Ontario legislature and he's been an Ontarian for almost two decades — and the MP for Durham for almost eight years. So as far as I'm concerned, O'Toole is the first "of Ontario" conservative leader since Drew. You sold?

John Michael: I have no strong urge to “well, actually” this point to death. (For once!) The last prime minister of any party to be from Ontario was Lester B. Pearson, who represented Algoma East. Like O’Toole, Pearson was a Canadian military veteran. O’Toole obviously comes to the leadership of his party at a bit of a crazy time — there’s this whole pandemic thing our readers may have heard about — but he at least already has that seat in the Commons. He’s got all of a few weeks to determine his response to the next throne speech, which will come after MPs return from the prorogation Prime Minister Trudeau announced last week. I don’t think it will be terribly surprising if the Tories vote against the government, but they can’t bring down the Liberals on their own. Can O’Toole figure out some way to cajole the NDP into forcing an election? Does he even want to, right now? There are definitely arguments for waiting until he’s had some time to settle into the leadership role. All of this stuff will play out in the coming weeks. And yet, that’s arguably not even the most interesting part of the CPC leadership vote.

A three-candidate race

Steve: I totally agree with your last point. Normally, we would all be fussing over the winner. But since we're wandering down memory lane, can you tell me the last time a Black woman ran for the leadership of a major Canadian political party, having never won an election — heck, having not even contested an election in five years — and finished with 30 per cent of the votes on the penultimate ballot? That's what Leslyn Lewis just did. Most people won't know that 45 years ago a Black MLA from British Columbia named Rosemary Brown scored 31 per cent on the third of four ballots in losing to Ed Broadbent. Admittedly that was the NDP, which has never formed a national government. And those were delegates, not points in a one-member-one-vote ranked ballot system. But the point stands: Lewis has become the star of this leadership election race, despite finishing third. That she did it for a party that won the most votes in the last federal election and currently has the largest opposition contingent in Canadian history? That's a big deal. She will be one to watch. 

John Michael: In the last few weeks there had definitely been chatter that Lewis would surprise people with a strong showing, but nobody I knew was seriously expecting it to be this strong. A small correction, because I think it’s notable: she won 30 per cent of the points awarded in her final ballot — under the weighted one-member-one-vote system the Tories use — but she actually won 35 per cent of the votes cast. That's more than either O’Toole or Peter MacKay in that round. Because of the way those points are awarded she didn’t move on to the final ballot, but in terms of actually winning real votes from real people, Lewis pulled off something truly impressive. This kind of success in a partisan leadership race doesn’t always translate into election victory, but I imagine that if Lewis wants a shot at a conservative nomination in the next election, she’ll find the party will make room for her.

A cautionary tale

Steve: Unquestionably. In 2015, she contested Scarborough-Rouge River as a Harper-appointed fill-in candidate, after the nominated candidate messed up and had to drop out. Next time I'm sure she’ll have her pick of ridings. But to me, the story worth following at this point is if O'Toole can keep her and her supporters (overwhelmingly socially conservative) engaged in the Big Blue Tent, without turning the policy-making levers over to that part of the conservative coalition? Social conservatives are, of course, an influential and important part of that party's base. But if the Conservatives need to another 1 million votes to form the next government, I haven't met too many people who think they can do that by appealing even more to that fairly thin slice of the electorate. It's a major challenge for the new leader and I'll be interested to see how he stickhandles his way through it. As we know, Doug Ford had the same issue. He won the leadership of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives in 2018 with support from fellow leadership hopeful Tanya Granic Allen and her socially conservative base. Then, when some of Granic Allen's less tolerant views became more prominent, Ford essentially kicked her out of the party. A cautionary tale for Erin O'Toole.

Just a reminder...

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