Tim Hudak spent his life climbing the Tory ladder and now he has a shot at taking over Queen’s Park—but can he convince voters he’s more than just Mike Harris lite?

Tim Hudak spent his life climbing the Tory ladder and now he has a shot at taking over Queen’s Park—but can he convince voters he’s more than just Mike Harris lite?

Tim Hudak

Tim Hudak is riding in the back of an RV, a big, bouncy RV wrapped in an enormous picture of his smiling face, and he’s coming to see you. He’s really happy. So happy that he’s tweeting about it on his BlackBerry. “Outstanding,” he types, and, “On my way…” Now he’s peering out the front window, over the driver’s shoulder, toward one of the event venues where he’s going to meet you. “Shit, has this thing started?” He doesn’t want to be late. He wants to look you in the eyes and tell you what he thinks, and he wants to listen to you, too. The whole big meet-and-greet ball of wax: he loves it. This is who he is. “It gets in your blood, right?” he asks. Although that’s not actually a question. Putting “right?” at the end of certain things he says is just Tim Hudak’s way. “You are who you are, right?” he says. “I’m Tim Hudak.”

The man running to be Ontario’s next premier fuelled up for the day at The Egg and I in Stoney Creek, with black coffee, eggs over-easy, brown toast and sausages. This is not typical for Hudak. Normally he’s a cereal man. He has five kinds of cereal in his cupboard and can rhyme off all the popular brands from his youth—Franken Berry, Count Chocula, Cap’n Crunch, Lucky Charms (“They’re magically delicious!” he says). But today he had a big breakfast, because he needs lots of energy, because he’s going to spend the whole day shaking your hand.

Across from him in the RV sits his principal secretary and deputy chief of staff, Carrie Kormos. Smart, slender and blond, Kormos has known Hudak all her life. She grew up with him on the same quiet street in Fort Erie, watched him shoot baskets with his friends in the Hudak driveway. She has worked for him, off and on, ever since he began in politics, and she speaks of him now with a disciple’s passion, often referring to him as “The Leader.” On this morning, Kormos has eaten no breakfast because the face-plastered RV has such notoriously bad suspension that most staffers who ride in it become nauseated. “Everybody,” she says, “but The Leader.”

For 16 years, Hudak has been travelling the back roads of his Niagara West–Glanbrook riding, hitting one event after another: barbecues, church dinners, 50th wedding anniversaries. Lynette Corbett, his chief of staff, says, “Tim really is a phenomenal local politician.” He knows the area’s routes so intimately that he likens himself to one of the Dukes of Hazzard (“although I don’t jump over anything”) and mocks his staff’s reliance on GPS. But the leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative party spends so much time grinning and glad-handing at one event after another that he takes longer than he should. That means Avi Yufest, the young political operative tasked with driving the RV, has to rush between stops, and…is that a siren?

Hudak lifts his head. “That doesn’t sound good,” he says.

The police are pulling over Tim Hudak’s RV.

“Oh, Avi,” says Kormos.

While the leader of Ontario’s official opposition stays seated at the centre table, alert but apparently unconcerned, the officer informs Avi that he has been monitoring the speed of his vehicle, and it has been consistently 20 to 25 kilometres an hour over the limit.

“Are you late for something?” the officer asks.

“Yeah,” says Avi, “we’re trying to get Mr. Hudak to Grimsby.” In the back, Hudak chuckles and dips his head.

After a check of Avi’s driver’s licence and an aborted search for the RV’s registration, the officer lets him off with a warning.

“Thanks very much,” calls Hudak from his seat. “’Preciate it!”

“Check your mirrors once in a while,” says the officer as he turns. “Because I’ve had my lights on for quite some time trying to get your attention.”

“Jesus,” Hudak mutters. And when they’re finally underway, he grins sheepishly and calls forward to the driver. “Sorry about that, Avi. I shook too many hands!”

Tim Hudak
On the trail: Hudak with his wife, Deb Hutton, a former Mike Harris strategist, and their daughter, Miller 

Tim Hudak was made for this. He is this. A master’s grad in economics, he washed into government on the blue Mike Harris tide in 1995 at the age of 27. Since then, he has grown up, turned middle-aged, as a politician. Aside from a few temporary jobs—such as manning a customs inspection booth on the Peace Bridge—politics is all he has done, and he has done it so well that in the Niagara region, he is a kind of local hero. And yet for all his time at Queen’s Park, including several years as a cabinet member in minor ministries (Northern Development and Mines, Culture, Tourism and Recreation, and Consumer and Business Services), he has made until now virtually no impression on the wider Ontario public. Lynette Corbett admits as much. When he won the party leadership in 2009, she says, “Tim had little name recognition for a guy who’s been in politics a long time.” He was on the periphery, standing sort of over there, smiling his smile, while Harris and others crashed through the centre of the frame. Now that he’s leading the race to be premier of the province, the province can be forgiven for wondering who the heck he is, how he got here, and whether a career politician can be anything more than a flash of teeth and a warm, firm grip.

Well, let’s look at him. Waiting to speak, hands at his sides, he’s an unassuming figure. Not very fashionable—he admits his wife chooses his clothing. Middle age has brought to his face a kind of upholstered quality, with stitches under his eyes and at the corners of his mouth. The brightest thing he wears is his gunslinger’s grin, which is usually the first thing people notice about him. That’s fitting, because what Hudak seems to have been, more than anything else in his career, is likable. People who encounter him, even people in opposing parties, tend to regard him as personable, friendly. “Affable” is the word used by Gilles Bisson, a veteran NDP MPP. “He’s not hard to get along with.”

Hudak’s campaign team knows this is a strength of their man, a way to differentiate him from the divisive Mike Harris, to whom he is so often linked. So while Tory TV ads attack, The Leader’s personality traits become part of a subtler messaging: Tim is fun. Such a great guy. Party members will tell you about his tendency to assign nicknames to his staff and colleagues—Carrie Kormos is “CK,” his constituency assistant Mike Krkljus is “Juice,” senior policy advisor Ian Robertson is “Bunny,” MPP and friend Lisa MacLeod is “L-Mac.” They would also like you to know about his penchant for wonderful gestures—handwritten thank-you notes, a basket of peaches sent to a colleague’s recently widowed mother.

True, like a backyard-barbecue jokester, he can sometimes seem inordinately pleased with his own clever phrasings. He once said Dalton McGuinty looked “like he was on the losing end of a game of freeze tag.” Delays in closing coal-fired plants, he said, were “the broken promise that keeps on breaking.” He’s fond of alliteration, decrying the “summer of scandal,” the government’s “last-minute mad-money spending” and its “arbitrary, amateur way of moving public policy forward.” And any chance to use the word “boondoggle” is a chance Hudak can’t bear to pass up: merit pay and bonuses at eHealth Ontario were an “eHealth boondoggle”; a 2007 McGuinty trip to India was a “taxpayer-funded boondoggle.” In this he echoes Harris, for whom the boondoggles included non-profit housing and TVOntario.

When Hudak’s daughter, Miller, was in the hospital, he incorporated updates on her status into his Twitter stream

There was a person before the politician though. So let’s look there. By all accounts, not just his own, Hudak lived an idyllic boy’s life. On Saturday mornings, when he was maybe seven or eight years old, he would round up his friends and lead expeditions into the woods behind his modest split-level home on Lindbergh Drive. Raised a Catholic along with his younger sister Tricia, he attended Our Lady of Victory elementary school in Fort Erie and performed as an altar boy during Mass at St. Michael’s church. One of his jobs as a young server was to ring the altar bell at crucial moments during Mass. Once, when it was his turn to guide younger children through this task, Hudak’s mischievous sense of humour prompted him to trick one of the boys into ringing the bell at the wrong times. Then he watched, bemused, the rising ire of the priest.

Hudak’s father, Pat, was one of those “firm but fair” dads that so many boys crave. A high school teacher, later a principal, and an athletics coach, he believed in keeping his kids constantly active. So Tim and Tricia received instruction in a multitude of sports. That gave Tim an advantage at Notre Dame high school in Welland (the area’s Catholic high school), where he made every team he tried out for—football, soccer, basketball, track and field. Jack Chambers was the coach of the basketball team. Retired now, he remembers Hudak as a kid with not much of a shot, but “tremendous” heart and intelligence. “He was one of our top rebounders simply because he figured out where the ball was going to be before it got there.” Chambers made Hudak co-captain of the team because he hustled, the first one to get the drills going, always running to the next station. “He just worked his butt off,” says Chambers. When the Notre Dame Fighting Irish played for the zone championship against a team from Niagara Falls, Hudak played every minute of the triple-overtime win.

Hudak has the personality of a backyard-barbecue jokester. He assigns nicknames to staff and colleagues: “CK,” “Juice,” “Bunny,” “L-Mac”

The other co-captain was a kid named Agi Mete who became Hudak’s best friend. Together they formed a team in what was arguably Hudak’s best sport, doubles badminton. He covered ground in the backcourt while Mete played the front. In Grade 13, they won the southern Ontario championships and earned the right to go to the all-Ontario championship in New Liskeard. But Notre Dame was a basketball school and apparently didn’t see the value in paying for the trip. As the story goes, Mete tried to convince the school administration to pay for the trip and came out with little to show for it. Hudak then said he would try, and in his meeting with the vice-principal managed to win the school’s full support. Mete says it was the moment he began to see his friend’s political skills.

Tim Hudak
Follow the leader: Hudak in his office at Queen’s Park with his chief of staff Lynette Corbett (left) and his deputy chief of staff Carrie Kormos (right) 

Hudak doesn’t crow about his athletic achievements. If anything, he undermines them, because being boastful is not likable. He played left wing or centre in hockey because, he says jokingly, “I’d want to get all the glory and not work too hard.”

The same calculated modesty sometimes comes through when Hudak talks about academics. In speeches, he likes to tell the story of his parents, Pat and Anne Marie, also a teacher, taking turns to inspect his homework and filling the pages with red marks. He says he enjoyed reading, like his mother, and belonged to the Scholastic book club as a child, but he doesn’t volunteer that he tried his hand at writing poetry, plays and fiction, or that he entered public speaking contests at Kiwanis festivals. One of his favourite stories involves his meeting with Sister Mildred, his guidance counsellor at Notre Dame, as he was preparing his university applications. He had the required marks, but perhaps because he was so involved in sports, or perhaps because he was a bit of a smart aleck, Sister Mildred told him to “temper his expectations.” Which left him, he says, “a little crushed.” Isn’t that charming?

What he does proudly report on, because they add to his leadership bona fides, are his university achievements, both the scholarship he won to attend the University of Western Ontario, where he majored in economics, and his subsequent scholarship to the University of Washington in Seattle. At the U of W, Hudak earned his master’s degree, but here again, he emphasizes his regular-guyness. “I was a crammer in school,” he says. Essays were written and exams studied for during all-night sessions fuelled by, he says, “either Jolt Cola or wake-up pills.”

On the walls of his dorm room, Hudak hung posters of WWF stars such as Randy Savage, Hulk Hogan and Leaping Lanny Poffo

If Hudak was a crammer, it may be because he was also something of a partier. At Western he lived in the massive Saugeen-Maitland residence, a loosely controlled co-ed building known affectionately as “the zoo.” There, and later in a small off-campus townhouse that he shared with his friend Agi Mete, he organized regular stag game nights. Often they would coincide with World Wrestling Federation bouts. “Tim was a huge WWF fan,” says Mete. On the walls, he would hang posters of WWF stars such as Randy Savage, Hulk Hogan, Leaping Lanny Poffo and Rowdy Roddy Piper. On the tables would be cards and board games, some of which Hudak himself had invented. As a kid, he’d loved Monopoly, Risk and Dungeons and Dragons, and he’d channelled some of his energy into his own creations: board games built around managing hockey teams or building TV lineups (with pictures cut out of the TV Guide). During game nights at university, his efforts turned to drinking games, including a beer-swigging game of customs officers, travellers and smugglers based on Hudak’s part-time work at the Peace Bridge.

It was during his years at Western that Hudak first became interested in politics. Mete was an avid Conservative party member who’d volunteered locally for one of the Mulroney-era election campaigns. He and Hudak and another friend would watch Question Period and talk issues over beers. It was the height of the Conservative era, when Reagan and Thatcher held sway. Hudak read up on the actor president and became enthralled.

At the same time, his mother, who was frustrated with the lack of civic response to a matter involving her tennis club in Fort Erie, decided to run for city councillor. On a visit home from London, Hudak got an early taste of door-to-door canvassing (he found it “exciting”). And he learned the value of hunting down every vote. Anne Marie knew of a convent in the area that housed 10 cloistered nuns. Apparently none of the other candidates had bothered to knock on the convent’s door, but Anne Marie did, and she asked the Mother Superior for permission to talk to the inhabitants. The nuns were, in fact, overjoyed to speak to someone from the outside world, and all of them voted, delivered by the Hudaks’ van to the polling station. Anne Marie Hudak won her first election as a city councillor by 10 votes.

After Hudak graduated with his master’s in economics in 1993, he received an offer to work on his PhD at UBC. But his eye was on politics, and he asked his parents if they’d mind if he “took a stab at it.” In his first attempt, he volunteered for the campaign of a Port Colborne car dealer named Bradd Wilson, who was running as the local PC candidate in the ’93 federal election. Hudak figured he’d make connections that would pay off with a staff job in Ottawa. That was the election in which the PC party was reduced to two seats. There weren’t many job offers after that.

Tim Hudak: The Right Way
(Images: Hudak by Markian Lozowchuk; Baird by Jaquelyn Martin/AP; Harris by Adrian WYLD/CP; Hutton by Brian Finke; Flaherty by Sean Kilpatrick/CP; Harper by Remy Steinegger/World Economic Forum) 

Tim Hudak talks about the washout of his early political plans—another of those nuggets of self-deprecation—in a practised stream. There are times, even in casual conversation, when The Leader speaks apparently by rote, as if the words are scripted and his mouth is moving on autopilot. It shows up especially in his answers to questions he’s obviously been asked many times before, such as whether he’s a right-wing Conservative in the mould of Mike Harris. “You know, I’ll let others decide what labels to put on me, right?” he says. “I don’t play that game. If you want to know what I stand for, look at Changebook [the party’s published platform for the October election]. I think Changebook describes the values I was raised with, the values that reflect the vast majority of Ontarians, and policies to take on the challenges of 2011 and beyond.” That’s not conversational English, that’s an assembly of stock phrases. And it’s this quality that gives one the impression that Hudak is chained to a script.

Put this question to Hudak directly—do you acknowledge that you slide into talking points when you speak?—and at first he emits the forced, high-pitched chuckle that suggests he’s not sure how to respond. Then he says that the talking points are natural Tim. “Probably it’s actually the way I phrase things, right? So then it becomes part of what we’ll use in press releases.” Say, for instance, on the subject of the HST: “When I talk about ‘taking the HST off the basic necessities,’ that’s how I perceive that. It’s not like somebody wrote that. That might have actually been me.” He pauses, then flashes a smile. “Otherwise, I don’t have a scripted answer to give you on that one.”

How did he wind up in provincial politics? It was chance more than anything. In 1995, in advance of the provincial election, the PC party was having a hard time convincing any viable candidate to run for the nomination in Niagara South, because the riding hadn’t elected a PC MPP in decades. Hudak wondered if this was his opportunity. According to Agi Mete, Hudak usually came to quick, firm decisions. “For the first time,” says Mete, “I saw him contemplate and work out the pros and cons.”

In the end, it was 27-year-old Hudak against an accountant named John Fairlie, and Hudak grabbed the nomination by netting a large number of new party memberships and votes from friends, neighbours and acquaintances, all of them no doubt people who liked the young Hudak and his salt-of-the-earth parents. Not that anything more was expected of him. Niagara South had scant hope of going PC, and Hudak attended his first party candidates meeting as a kind of dead candidate walking. The future federal cabinet minister John Baird was there as the candidate for a provincial seat in Nepean, and Hudak, being close in age, introduced himself. When Baird, ever the climber, found out Hudak was running in Niagara South, he ended the conversation and walked away.

It’s fair to say then that Hudak was ushered into government in an election he likely would never have been a part of, had anyone in his party believed a PC could actually win his riding. After he did win by a bare 1,200 votes, thanks to the Harris tide, he was banished to the farthest reaches of the backbench in Queen’s Park, thrilled to be there and waiting to be noticed. After a couple of months, someone in the premier’s office, going through members’ resumés, saw that Hudak had a master’s in economics, and he was given a position as vice-chair of the Finance and Economic Affairs Committee. It was a position of such low status, Hudak likes to say, that the offer came not from the premier, or even from the premier’s chief of staff, but from the chief of staff’s deputy.

Some months after that he moved up the ranks to parliamentary assistant—a kind of training position for future cabinet ministers—in the Ministry of Health. He did well enough during a time of tumultuous change in that ministry—making lesser public appearances, meeting with stakeholders, taking on projects—to keep the job under two ministers, first Jim Wilson and then Elizabeth Witmer. But looking back, Witmer struggles to fix the young Hudak in her mind. She refers to him in the plural—“They were very energetic and very keen”—often enough that you have to ask her why. “I say that because when I think of Tim I think of John Baird,” she says. The two were by then close friends, equally willing to take on tasks. “Sometimes,” she admits, “it’s hard for me to separate Tim from John.”

Hudak began to make connections on the far right of the party. In addition to Baird, he developed close ties with Jim Flaherty, then a provincial cabinet minster, and Guy Giorno, one of the most important unelected players in the Harris government and more recently Stephen Harper’s chief of staff and national campaign chair for May’s federal election. Hudak would later support Flaherty in both of his leadership bids. Indeed, in 2002, during the race to replace Mike Harris, which Ernie Eves would win, Hudak and Baird were the only Tory cabinet ministers to back Flaherty, whose positions were so extreme they included a plan to make homelessness illegal—an idea that Witmer called “disgusting.”

Another key figure in Harris’s office with whom Hudak became friendly was Deb Hutton, the premier’s chief of staff. Hutton was a controversial figure in the Harris government. One Tory MPP remembers her as “domineering,” and the way she spoke to members, even cabinet ministers, when passing on Harris’s orders is the stuff of legend. But Hudak obviously saw something in her, and the two were married in October of 2002. At the wedding, Hudak’s best man was Guy Giorno. Baird, Harris, Flaherty and Flaherty’s wife, Christine Elliott, were also there as invited guests.

Oddly, one person who wasn’t invited to Hudak’s wedding was his one-time best friend Agi Mete. When asked why he wasn’t there, Mete sounds rather melancholy. “I don’t recall,” he says quietly. “I think it was just a small gathering.”

It was about 75 people. Hudak laughs that harsh, awkward laugh of his when asked why he didn’t invite his old friend, who’d been there with him through high school and university, and who helped him in all of his local campaigns, before and since. “We had a relatively small wedding gathering,” he says, clearly uncomfortable. It was more of a cocktail party, with no speeches, which was a concession he made at the request of his wife. “Which meant,” he insists, “we couldn’t invite all of our friends and relatives.” Not even Agi Mete? Hudak, cornered, just laughs and repeats.

His new friendships must have been helpful to him, because between 1999 and 2003 Hudak was given three cabinet posts. None of them were headline ministries—he jokes that as minister of Northern Development and Mines, he could walk past the gallery scrums “unmolested”—but he encountered some unexpected challenges. He was the minister for Culture, Tourism and Recreation on September 11, 2001, when tourism all but ceased, and he was minister for Consumer and Business Services when SARS gutted the commerce of Toronto in the spring of 2003. In each case he handled his duties—gathering industry reps around a boardroom table, getting consensus, ordering up ad campaigns—in such a way as to attract little or no attention. Which, in the eyes of many in government, marks a successful cabinet minister.

Tim Hudak
Yes, Minister: Stephen Harper has said a Hudak win would put anti–left wingers in all three levels of government and “complete the hat trick”. (Image: Herman Cheung) 

At all times he remained likable. He also learned from his mistakes. When the Harris government chose Niagara Falls for the site of a major casino instead of Fort Erie, in his own riding, he accepted and even defended the decision, like a good Tory soldier. He now says he wishes that he had “shown more spine” in defending his riding’s interests. The next opportunity came when four small Fort Erie–area hospitals were slated for closure in the Harris government’s massive health system restructuring, and Hudak found himself, he says, in the uncomfortable position of having several thousand people “screaming and yelling” at him in the local Leisureplex arena. That was when he was still parliamentary assistant in the health department, and with the backing of other MPPs whose small hospitals were under threat, he established protections for hospitals designated as rural or northern, which kept the Fort Erie hospitals open.

By making friends inside Queen’s Park, Hudak climbed his way into a kind of prominence. By the time the 2003 election swept out the Eves-led Tories, he was seen within his party as a rising star, and perhaps a future leader.

Neither John Baird nor Mike Harris responded to interview requests for this story. Jim Flaherty provided only an impersonal quote through his staff about Hudak’s ability to “deliver the change Ontario needs.” Perhaps in their view there was nothing to be gained in answering questions, what with the PCs holding a lead in the summer polls.

Another Tory who had reason to comment on the subject of Hudak’s ambition, one person who may not have liked him terribly, was John Tory, who led the party in opposition from 2004 to 2009. Tory didn’t respond to multiple interview requests either, but a veteran Conservative MPP, speaking on the condition that he not be named, says that Tory thought of Hudak as an enemy. Why? “John thought that Tim was running a leadership campaign while in his cabinet,” he says.

Tory had made Hudak the PC party’s finance critic. That didn’t keep Hudak, according to a close friend of Tory’s, from “basically talking behind John’s back.”

Hudak’s grinning, aw-shucks demeanor temporarily falls away and his tone becomes clipped when he’s asked to respond to this, the idea that he was organizing his own bid while Tory was still leader. “That’s nonsense,” he says. Would he care to expand on that? “I don’t think I need to. It’s nonsense.”

Was he, perhaps, less than supportive of Tory? Did he talk about Tory’s leadership troubles with other party members, or with the media on background? “You’d be hard pressed,” says Hudak, by way of a non-answer, “to find somebody who did more events than I did when John was leader, to support our cause, whether it’s speaking to the media or fundraising for the team, and that’s why he elevated me to a position of leadership within caucus as finance critic.”

The notion that Hudak was already talking about a leadership run before Tory resigned in March of 2009 gains some circumstantial heft from the fact that, three and a half weeks after Tory’s resignation, he’d already convinced half the 24-member Conservative caucus to line up behind him. That was far more than any of the other three candidates, Christine Elliott, Frank Klees and Randy Hillier. One of Hudak’s supporters was MPP Gerry Martiniuk, who felt the party needed rejuvenation and thought the 41-year-old Hudak’s combination of youth, enthusiasm and experience would be ideal. In fact, Martiniuk approached Hudak and encouraged him to run—while Tory was still the leader. “It was obvious,” he says, “that the leader at that time was going to resign, and I looked around and determined who would be best able to carry on the leadership of the party, and I approached him.”

Hudak applied himself to the task of winning with his usual smiling doggedness. As the MPP Bill Murdoch says: “He was ready to go. He was the most organized. He probably deserved it more than anybody. He worked harder than anybody.”

And Hudak again leaned to the right in his alliances. One of his rivals for the leadership was Randy Hillier, an avowed libertarian and founding president of the Ontario Landowners Association. The OLA advocates on behalf of rural landowners against legislation and regulations that it perceives as government interference—“This Land Is Our Land,” goes its slogan, and its website favours phrases like “Rural Revolution” and “Back Off Government.” The OLA is an outgrowth of the Lanark Landowners Association, which Hillier led when it sent Liberal cabinet minister Leona Dombrowsky a picture of a dead deer, labelled “Leona,” to protest the government banning the shooting of “nuisance deer” on farmers’ properties. During the leadership race, Hillier repeatedly called for the scrapping of the Human Rights Tribunal, and Hudak, despite leading the race, took up this cause. It became a point of debate and controversy, some of it unpleasant, but successful in one regard: Hillier announced that he would throw his second-ballot support to Hudak.

As soon as he won the leadership, Hudak began building a campaign team filled with top Conservative operatives. Lynette Corbett had worked for two federal cabinet ministers, spent a year in Harper’s office as director of strategy and, in 2009, restored order to the office of Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt when Raitt left a sheaf of secret documents at a TV station. The sarcastic and slightly rumpled campaign manager Mark Spiro, who ran Hudak’s leadership bid as well, has worked on two Harper campaigns. Jason Lietaer, who handles messaging, ran Harper’s war room during the most recent federal election. There are many more. According to Spiro, Hudak wants the input to be broadly based, so there can be as many as 60 or 70 people in some meetings.

The sheer repetition of Hudak’s denunciation of Liberal tax hikes and bureaucracy has a Tea Party tinge

Because Hudak started with a name recognition problem, the majority of the campaign’s effort and money has been spent on what Spiro calls “voter-facing”—that is, putting Hudak, his name and his message in front of as many voters as possible. Every one of his press sessions involves Hudak standing in front of a blue panel festooned with the words “Tim Hudak.” And if it’s light outside, he’s on the road somewhere in his face-wrapped RV. “The more people he meets,” says Jason Lietaer, “the more people like him.”

The party’s election platform has been thoroughly focus-grouped to appeal to the broadest range of plausible voters. Called “Changebook” to press home the party’s change theme (the Liberals immediately tried to stain it by dubbing it “Strangebook”), it highlights five areas of focus: lowering taxes; reducing home heating and hydro bills; injecting more money than the Liberals into health care and education (approximately $6 billion to their $2 billion); eliminating “waste, fraud and secret deals” in government; and taking a harder line on the treatment of criminals.

In most election campaigns calling for “change,” the change has more to do with replacing the party in power than with altering anything fundamental about the way government runs. The specific contents of the Progressive Conservative platform include pledges to allow income sharing for couples, reduce income taxes on the first $75,000 of taxable income, drop the HST from home energy bills, rescind the $7 billion Samsung deal for wind and solar technology plants and close the Ontario Power Authority and the Local Health Integration Networks. None of these ideas seems particularly hard right—since when has a Conservative government had a problem with foreign investment? But Hudak provides plenty of ammunition for those who want to label him an ideologue and a clone of Mike Harris. The sheer repetition of his denunciations of tax hikes and bureaucracy under the Liberals has a Tea Party tinge. His pledge to make prisoners work up to 40-hour weeks has the same populist bark as Harris’s vow to get rid of photo radar. His tone turns sneering when he describes Liberal efforts to promote a green economy as McGuinty’s “grand vision for turning us all into manufacturers of solar panels and wind farms.” And there’s something xenophobic about his pledge to end the foreign scholarship program “that puts foreign students ahead of Ontario students.”

Hard-right Conservatives also tend not to be terribly friendly toward cities, and sure enough, Hudak’s Changebook contains precious few pro-urban pledges. There’s even one that might be considered a threat. At the moment, 89 municipalities benefit from the province’s gas tax revenue, including Toronto. Hudak would increase that to 444, to include “communities too small to have bus or subway systems.” While the platform promises that “no municipality will receive less funding,” Toronto could forget about getting more.

But there are differences between Hudak and Harris. Hudak, for one, isn’t ignorant of the needs of cities. In addition to handling finance under Tory, he was municipal affairs critic. And as minister for Culture, Tourism and Recreation nearly 10 years ago, he was directly involved in talks that led to the funding of major projects, including the Opera House and the ROM and AGO renovations.

Moreover, their personalities are very different. Harris was willful and even confrontational in his approach, standing fast no matter how loud or large the protests. While Hudak talks admiringly of Harris’s determination to push through his policies, even though, he says, “there probably wasn’t a blade of grass that wasn’t trampled at Queen’s Park,” his own approach as leader so far suggests a more consensual style.

Tim Hudak
Into the blue: Hudak washed into government on the pro–Mike Harris tide in 1997, when he was just 27, having recently completed a master’s degree in economics. (Image: Tara Walton/Getstock) 

Ask him what was the first thing he did as leader and he says, “Consolidate the team.” Mindful of the disunity that existed in the party during Tory’s leadership, he has employed arguably his best skill, his affability, and brought the party together. He’s created something called the Supercaucus, a combination of sitting members and riding candidates, to flesh out the 24 MPPs to a number closer to 100, many of whom have had input into the party’s platform for the coming election. Witmer says the caucus is united for the first time she can remember. “There’s nobody,” she says, “who doesn’t support Tim.”

Hudak watches Pawn Stars and Mad Men. He likes chicken wings, hockey and Buffalo Bills games

Well, Norm Sterling might not be a fan. Technically still a member of the caucus, a former cabinet minister and a 34-year veteran of Queen’s Park, Sterling didn’t attend the party’s convention in May because in April he was defeated at the nomination meeting of his Carleton–Mississippi Mills riding. The man who defeated him was Jack MacLaren, an eastern Ontario farmer who touted Rob Ford as his exemplar and happened to be a past president of the same Ontario Landowners Association as Randy Hillier. Sterling, who failed to respond to multiple requests for an interview, accused Hillier of organizing against him. And apparently Hudak did nothing to intervene on Sterling’s behalf.

The episode was, says Hudak, “personally very difficult, because Norm had helped me out a lot when I was getting my start.” This might seem to be another case of Hudak choosing the interests of his new friends over his old ones, but in the PC party, he says, it’s the local riding associations that choose the candidates, not the leaders. “And now Jack is our candidate, and we’ll be behind him 100 per cent in the upcoming campaign.”

More than most prominent politicians, Tim Hudak seems, somehow, ordinary. He watches Pawn Stars and Mad Men. He likes chicken wings, hockey and attending Buffalo Bills games. He says “reco’nize.” He is not even aggressively, belligerently ordinary in the manner of, say, Rob Ford. He passes that arbitrary test modern society seems to want to put to its politicians: he is one party leader with whom you could actually imagine having a beer.

And thanks to extraordinary circumstances, voters have had a greater window into his personal life than they normally get with their political leaders. Early this year, word leaked that the Liberal campaign might throw negative attention on Deb Hutton and her history in the Harris regime. She’d been a target before, when key Liberals reportedly passed around buttons featuring images of Harris, Hudak and Hutton and the message “Team 3H: Because we didn’t screw things up badly enough the first time.” Hudak, says Lietaer, “flipped out” at the idea of his wife being a campaign target and demanded a private meeting with Premier McGuinty to insist that spouses be out of bounds.

And then this summer, for 26 days, Hudak seemed like any worried dad. Almost four years earlier, just a week before the previous election, his daughter, Miller, had been born prematurely and required care in the neonatal ICU. Since then, his only child has had persistent, though undisclosed, health problems. Still, those problems hadn’t prevented her from entering the picture that Hudak presented to voters. No longer the smart-aleck sports guy, he was maturing. He was a dad now, see? He often referred to Miller in his speeches, along with his wife, Debbie, as an inspiration in his efforts to do the right thing for Ontario families. At Hudak’s public appearances, little Miller could sometimes be seen running around, like any rambunctious child, and many times, when Hudak gave speeches, she would want to climb up onto the stage to be with her dad. When this happened, Hudak would often bend down and pick her up, finishing the speeches with Miller in his arms. It was a lovely picture.

The trouble seemed to come on rather suddenly. Miller had been present at the PC convention at the end of May and in her father’s arms as the cameras snapped after his keynote address. But a week later, the day of the nomination meeting in his riding, word passed around that The Leader might not be able to attend because Miller wasn’t well. And though that proved a false alarm—Hudak was there as promised, and he gave a typically rousing speech—the campaign staff became guarded about the subject of her health. On Father’s Day, Hudak tweeted rather emotionally about Miller: “What a great joy: the love of my daughter, big hug and giant smile, the pull on my hand to go play, show me what she’s done.” Not long after that, Hudak did have to cancel his appearances at a number of events, and the campaign felt the need to issue a short, vague statement: that Miller was in SickKids hospital and the family appreciated being granted its privacy.

For more than a week, she was in intensive care, and communication with the Hudak campaign stopped. Eventually the crisis lifted. Miller remained in hospital, but she was out of ICU and steadily improving. Hudak began to re-enter the campaign, making limited appearances at first and then, gradually, taking on full days.

The day he was out in his RV, shaking hands and getting stopped by police, the people he met asked him repeatedly about Miller, and one older couple presented him with an enormous stuffed lion to give her. He dealt with each person warmly, though with a necessarily pat answer about Miller still being in hospital, getting good care. Inside the RV, Hudak was often on the phone with his wife, and he ended one call in what seemed a particularly good mood. “Miller got a day pass,” he said, leaning back in his seat with a smile as the RV lurched along the road. “She gets to go outside the hospital.” He wasn’t sure if that meant she would still be home when he was done his events—the Hudaks have a home in Toronto and a large, quiet property in Wellandport, situated between farms on the winding Welland river—but by the end of the day, he was preparing to spend the night with Miller in her hospital room. They would play games and watch TV, and he would sleep beside her on a cot. “I’m looking forward to a beer,” he said, chuckling, “although I found out the strict rules of the hospital don’t allow you to bring that in.”

The outpouring of concern and affection that Miller’s trouble generated for Hudak was pretty constant for a while and, as if he were figuratively holding his daughter onstage, Hudak incorporated updates on Miller’s status into his Twitter stream. The day after she was released from hospital, he tweeted this: “My heart burst at the sight of her sleeping peacefully in her own bed again. Miller came home last night. My beautiful little girl is home.”

These are all perfectly natural, even laudable sentiments for a loving dad. They are also now, quite obviously, part of The Leader’s political messaging. Because it seems Tim Hudak can’t help himself. It gets in your blood, right?