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Doug Ford says current PC candidates a ‘better slate,’ but insiders say team weakened by loss of top MPPs


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Doug Ford says current PC candidates a ‘better slate,’ but insiders say team weakened by loss of top MPPs

Last one out, please turn off the lights.

Of the 76 Progressive Conservative MPPs elected in Premier Doug Ford’s landslide victory four years ago, 19 of them will not be running as Tories on June 2.

Expulsions, one defection, and an unexpectedly large number of retirements have contributed to the 25 per cent turnover rate.

Asked earlier this month about the churn, Ford was defensive.

“I feel moving forward … I can honestly say we have a better slate now than we did from the previous — and we have an all-star team, but we’re just making it better,” he insisted March 4, as he took reporters’ questions about Health Minister Christine Elliott’s decision to retire.

Privately, senior Conservatives concede that the departure of key cabinet members like Elliott and former long-term care minister Rod Phillips, who retired in January, has weakened the team.

But, speaking confidentially in order to discuss internal deliberations, they argue Ford was not being delusional or hyperbolic by touting a “better slate” this time around.

“He really does feel this is his team with his stamp on it,” said one high-ranking official.

“You have to remember last time he inherited Patrick Brown’s team,” said the insider, referring to the former leader who stepped down in January 2018, six weeks before Ford took the party helm.

Another senior official notes that while losing a quarter of the caucus is “a lot,” the Liberals have suffered a far greater percentage of departures.

“Four of their seven MPPs (from 2018) aren’t on the ballot again — that’s (almost) 60 per cent of the caucus.”

That’s a reference to the fact that former premier Kathleen Wynne is not running again in Don Valley West and that Marie-France Lalonde and Michael Coteau are now federal Liberal MPs and Nathalie Des Rosiers stepped down in 2019.

The Liberals did, however, benefit from the addition of Amanda Simard, elected as a Tory in Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, who crossed the floor to join the Grits’ caucus in 2020 in protest of Ford’s cuts to French-language services.

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Simard was the only PC MPP to switch parties over policy differences with the government.

But the COVID-19 pandemic exposed far greater divisions in the Tory benches.

MPPs Belinda Karahalios (Cambridge) and Roman Baber (York Centre) were removed after questioning Ford’s emergency measures, such as lockdowns.

MPP Rick Nicholls (Chatham-Kent-Leamington) was turfed for refusing to abide by the premier’s edict that all Tory candidates be vaccinated.

(Karahalios and Nicholls are running June 2 — she under the banner of the New Blue Party and he for the Ontario Party. Baber is currently seeking the leadership of the federal Conservatives.)

MPP Lindsey Park (Durham) quit caucus after government house leader Paul Calandra said she “misrepresented her vaccination status” to her colleagues.

MPP Christina Mitas (Scarborough Centre), the lone Tory with a medical exemption from vaccination for an undisclosed reason, also said she wouldn’t be seeking re-election.

The Conservatives and the Liberals are not the only parties coping with attrition.

Four of the 40 members of NDP Leader Andrea Horwath’s caucus are not running again, including veteran MPPs Percy Hatfield (Windsor-Tecumseh) and Taras Natyshak (Essex).

But it was the surprise retirement of promising first-term MPP Rima Berns-McGown (Beaches-East York) that jolted the New Democrats.

In a statement Friday, Berns-McGown candidly cited her reasons for not running again.

“Because I am a deeply introverted person, this job takes an enormous toll,” said the MPP, who has a PhD and taught diaspora studies at the University of Toronto before entering politics.

“For my well-being, I’ve decided not to run for re-election,” she said, looking forward “to return to a life of letters and libraries.”

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie

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