Hudak running as true-blue, small-c Conservative
Tim Hudak has a secret.
It's not something you would expect from the man Mike Harris has named his heir -- a Common Sense revolutionary whose devotion to the party's neo-conservative beliefs has earned him the keys to the former premier's kingdom.
He's backed by prominent Tories from that era, including John Baird and Tony Clement, who now sit at Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet table. He's even married to Harris's former chief of staff, Deb Hutton, with whom he has a 20-month-old daughter, Miller.
But Hudak's true Blue Tory roots don't run quite as deep as you'd think.
"My grandfather, by the way, was a strong CCF and NDP activist," he says.
"My mom says when she was growing up, there was always an NDP sign on her lawn."
Hudak's granddad, who died about 10 years ago, was a union leader in Sarnia's petrochemical industry. Even though they sat on opposite sides of the ideological fence, the two managed to find common ground, he recalls.
"The values of hard work, fighting for families, the importance of home ownership -- all of those values got passed on to me, and Debbie and I will work hard to pass on to our daughter Miller," he says.
Differences aside, his grandfather was "very proud" to see Hudak win a seat in the legislature in 1995, he says. Ironically, it was the same election that saw Bob Rae's NDP government swept away by Harris's breakthrough Progressive Conservative victory.
Hudak, then 27, took the now-defunct riding of Niagara-South from the Liberals -- territory they'd held since 1967.
The electoral triumph was a watershed for the Ontario Tories, who found that they could win on a radical, right-wing platform that promised to slash taxes, balance the books and end government handouts -- even in Toronto ridings that were seen to be more left-leaning.
Fourteen years later, Ontario is once again mired in economic hardship, a ballooning deficit of $18.5 billion and the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs.
The Common Sense Revolution may be over, but its ideals still resonate with Ontarians, Hudak says.
"I don't think that anybody is saying that 2011 is the same as 1995," he says of the next provincial election.
"(In) 1995, the BlackBerry was something you bought at the fruit stand. The world has changed considerably. I am somebody who believes in putting conservative ideas into action, to standing on those principles."
A self-described "border boy" and high-school jock, Hudak grew up in Fort Erie with his younger sister, the grandchildren of immigrants from the former Czechoslovakia.
His father, a Catholic school principal, and his mother, a teacher, weren't really into party politics but were very involved in their community, he recalls.
His mother served three terms as a town councillor, wanting to make it "a better place," he says.
Hudak didn't catch the political bug until university, where he studied economics. Realizing his beliefs were more aligned with the Progressive Conservatives, he volunteered with the local party association, where he cut his teeth in "grassroots retail" politics.
His heroes include former U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose 1,200-page biography by Conrad Black is currently on Hudak's reading list.
Now 41 with a couple of cabinet postings under his belt, Hudak has ambitious plans to restore Ontario to its former glory as Canada's economic powerhouse by slashing business taxes and cutting government spending.
Ontario needs to end its "corporate welfare" programs that provide direct investment to specific businesses and scrap its "rich" wage agreements with public sector workers in order to negotiate better terms, he says.
Harris's cuts, which included a 22 per cent reduction in welfare rates, sparked widespread protests that culminated in a violent clash between police and anti-poverty activists on the front lawn of the provincial legislature in 2000.
But those are the kinds of risks the party has to take, Hudak says.
"There will always be entrenched interest groups who will oppose our policies, but if we are afraid to take courageous positions, to make change for the better, PC voters will stay home and we'll forever be in Opposition."
Hudak won't say whether he'll repeal tax harmonization, which will increase the cost of many consumer goods when it takes effect in 2010. But he says he wants to do more for families and seniors, such as introducing a newborn savings plan, where parents can watch $1,000 per child grow tax-free in a locked-in account.
He also plans to get rid of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal and have discrimination cases heard in specialized courts, a move his rivals Christine Elliott and Frank Klees predict will ruin the party's chances of forming the next government.
Riled by accusations that he would be handing the Liberals another election victory, Hudak accused Klees during a televised debate of being "Liberal lite" -- breaking Reagan's 11th Commandment to never speak ill of another Conservative.
It's difficult to avoid the "strenuous debates" that go along with leadership battles, but Hudak insists he can unite the party despite his pledge to do away with one of its most cherished legacies.
Reforming the "human rights bureaucracy" will bring the Tories together, judging by the support he's seen for the proposal, Hudak says.
Tories can't back away from real problems just because Premier Dalton McGuinty doesn't like it, he adds.
"If we had followed that sort of tail-between-our legs mentality, we never would have brought forward work for welfare, or scrapped job quotas in the province -- two policies that resonated with Ontarians from Toronto to Niagara to northern Ontario -- and are still in place today."
If anyone can unite the party after nearly two years of infighting, it's him, says fellow caucus member Lisa MacLeod.
He reached out to her three years ago when she was a 31-year-old rookie fresh from an Ottawa byelection win, and the two have been close friends ever since, says MacLeod, whom Hudak fondly refers to as "L-Mac."
"He's very gracious, he's more than willing to help build the team, and to see the strength within our own bench," she says.
"I've always seen that side of Tim. It's never been about him, it's been about our team. ... He is the ultimate team player who's now ready to take over the team."