Why Leslyn Lewis is the one to watch from the Tory leadership race

In normal times, Erin O’Toole’s victory would’ve been the biggest story of the night — but 2020 has been anything but normal
By Steve Paikin - Published on Aug 24, 2020
Leslyn Lewis finished third in the Conservative Party leadership race. (Tijana Martin)

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Normally, the biggest story to emerge from any party’s leadership race is the winner.

But 2020 hasn’t been a normal year for anything, so why should a leadership race be different?

Just after 1 a.m. on Monday, Erin O’Toole was declared the new leader of the federal Conservative Party, having garnered 57 per cent of the total points on the third ballot. In some respects, his victory wasn’t a big surprise: he came third three years ago, and given that the second-place finisher at the time, Maxime Bernier, quit to set up his own party, O’Toole seemed as logical an alternative as any to departing leader Andrew Scheer.

But in a year in which unprecedented numbers of North Americans have expressed their solidarity with Black Lives Matter, I’d suggest that the biggest story to come out of the early-morning results was the showing of Leslyn Lewis.

Lewis ran on, among other things, an unabashedly socially conservative platform. But candidates tend to do well when what they have to offer meets whatever the political moment requires — and Lewis’s being Black appealed to those Conservative Party members who were tired of hearing taunts from the left about their supposed intolerance.

The second-ballot results showed an almost even three-way split. Out of nearly 34,000 points up for grabs, O’Toole snagged 11,900, putting him fewer than 200 points ahead of Peter MacKay. But Lewis, with more than 10,000 points, was right behind them. It was an astonishingly competitive performance from a political neophyte almost no one had heard of when the race started.

In other words, Lewis, who has never been elected, who had run only once before for the Conservative Party — and that was five years ago — was neck and neck with MacKay, a former senior cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s government, and O’Toole, the eventual winner.

How much of a breakthrough was her performance? Well, to put it into some historical context, no Black woman had run for a major party leadership in Canada in 45 years (Rosemary Brown was the last to do so, in 1975, when she ran against Ed Broadbent).

Lewis actually came first in Saskatchewan. She came second in the territories (ahead of O’Toole). And she came second in Alberta (ahead of MacKay). The broadcaster Bruce Dowbiggin, a Calgarian, tweeted, “Love to see Lewis’ support in Alberta. Eastern media paint the place as racist and redneck. But that place is gone. The ideas are more important now. A black woman is their finger to the cliches.”

How Lewis handles this moment will be the next fascinating story to watch. The fact is, her lack of French made her a non-starter in Quebec, where she finished last among the four candidates. Her progressive views on the environment may have her running afoul of many Western party members. And her social conservatism (she’s staunchly anti-abortion, for instance) may still be a turnoff for red Tories — or for disaffected Liberals who would like to consider voting Conservative in the next election, but for whom that’s a bridge too far. I’m told that 14,000 Lewis supporters didn’t bother voting on the third ballot, presumably because neither O’Toole nor MacKay was socially conservative enough for them.

Conservatives often talk about needing to find another 1 million votes to beat the Trudeau Liberals in the next election. If Lewis is one of the faces of the new Conservative Party, finding those million votes among Canadians suspicious of social conservatism isn’t going to be any easier.

But for now, Lewis’s star is shining bright. She can likely have her pick of nearly any seat she wants to run in next time. You can expect to see plenty of pictures of her and the new leader smiling together.

And you can bet that Annamie Paul, another Black woman seeking a federal party leadership (with the Greens) will be taking note of this morning’s results.

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