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Ontario Tory Leader Tim Hudak a man of contradictions

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak is pictured at his office at Queen's Park on Wednesday.

chris young The Globe and Mail

He's bland. He's smart. And he stubbornly clings to the same script he's been reading now for months: increased spending for health care. More money for education. A harmonized sales tax. And all-day kindergarten for the province.

No, this is not Dalton McGuinty. It's his rival, Tim Hudak, the man who will spend the next month crisscrossing Ontario, pleading for an end to eight years of Liberal rule. And he intends to do it not so much by opposing Mr. McGuinty as by occupying his territory – claiming the middle ground for the Progressive Conservatives and squeezing the Liberals to the marginal left.

"There's no room in the centre, because we are sitting all over their turf," confided one senior party official, explaining the campaign strategy.

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It amounts to a gamble on ennui, a conviction that voters have grown tired of a Premier who has held sway for nearly a decade, and are hungering for a fresh face. But given the similarities between the two platforms, given both parties are trying to carve up the middle ground, voters would be forgiven for asking, just who is this fresh face? Who is Tim Hudak?

Accidental politician

The knock against Mr. Hudak, and it's a common one, is that he's a cipher. His positions on a range of issues suggest pragmatism over ideology, consensus over personal belief. Contradictions abound: His maternal grandfather was a socialist and union leader but Mr. Hudak gravitated to Mike Harris's Common Sense Revolution; he gives tough, tightly focused speeches but friends say his true style is non-confrontational.

And if Mr. Hudak is successful in winning the Oct. 6 election, his path to Queen's Park will have been an accidental one. After completing his masters in economics at the University of Washington on a full academic scholarship, he was planning to get his doctorate. But he ended up becoming a long-shot Progressive Conservative candidate in the 1995 election after his childhood friend, Anthony Annunziata, had to bow out over a conflict with his job.

Mr. Hudak defied the odds and was elected MPP for the riding of Niagara South in the 1995 sweep that ushered in the Progressive Conservatives under Mr. Harris. Tom Long, a party strategist and an author of the Common Sense Revolution, the Tory platform document for the 1995 campaign, said he had to go through the book of candidates on election night, searching for Mr. Hudak's photo.

"We didn't anticipate winning his riding," he said. "It took me a while to figure out who he was."

Mr. Hudak, now 43, did not remain in the background for long, nabbing the first of his three cabinet posts in 1999. A party insider said he was among a group of young MPPs who were deemed to be true believers, and promptly ensconced under the wing of Mr. Harris.

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Mr. Hudak may not have set out to be a politician, but that's not to say he wasn't steeped in politics.

He grew up in the small border town of Fort Erie in Southern Ontario, and was weaned on American culture: football, chicken wings and U.S. news. Every summer during university, he worked as a Customs officer. (His biggest achievement? He once caught someone smuggling a stash of cocaine and several handguns into Canada.)

But Mr. Hudak's political education had much more personal roots.

His mother's father, a pipe fitter and union president at Polysar in Sarnia, was a staunch supporter of the New Democrats. Growing up, Mr. Hudak remembers the NDP signs on his grandparents' front lawn when his family spent much of the summer in Sarnia.

His grandfather gave him books with a left-wing perspective, but it didn't take long for Mr. Hudak to chart a different philosophical course. He graduated from the University of Western Ontario with an honours degree in economics in 1990, just in time to face one of the bleakest job markets in recent memory. Bob Rae was NDP premier at the time. The recession prompted Mr. Hudak to veer right and embrace the Common Sense Revolution espoused by the Conservatives.

"I [was]expecting to take on the world," Mr. Hudak said in an interview in his office at the provincial legislature, "and I found myself shortly thereafter working at the duty-free shop, stacking beer."

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He never mentions his socialist grandfather in his speeches. But during the interview, he recalled how touched Thomas Dillon was when his grandson gave him a book on socialism for his 90th birthday.

It was shortly after Mr. Hudak arrived at the legislature in 1995 and he asked Mr. Rae to sign the book. His grandfather cherished a personal note Mr. Rae wrote inside, thanking him for his leadership in the labour movement and for supporting the NDP. Mr. Dillon died two years later.

"I was happy to sign it," Mr. Rae, now interim leader of the federal Liberals, said in an e-mail, "and wonder now how Tom would feel about how life has turned out."

A regular guy

By all accounts, Mr. Hudak is a good listener who draws people out, is open to new ideas, and never gets angry. Friends who went to school with him say he is a regular guy who likes watching sports on TV, particularly football.

They compare his low-key style to his childhood hockey hero, Mike Bossy, the high-scoring former New York Islander who criticized violence in the game. They also say he was a top student academically with a broad interest in the world around him and a talent for winning debates.

"That's the Tim that's going to govern the province, not the Tim at the podium," said Agi Mete, his university roommate and a Tory supporter.

Mr. Hudak presents a very different face in public. He is tightly scripted, sticks to his talking points and often engages in sloganeering to criticize the Liberals' "tired and out of gas" policies.

There is the occasional flicker of boyish personality, especially when he talks about his family. His face lights up when he mentions Miller, his three-year-old daughter who has had significant undisclosed health challenges.

Mr. Hudak is one half of a political power couple. His wife, Deb Hutton, was a former senior aide to Mr. Harris and is now a stay-at-home mom.

During the interview, Mr. Hudak sounded decidedly un-premier-like when he recalled the first time he noticed the "hot, impressive young woman" who worked in Mr. Harris's office. He waited until she left her job before "mildly hitting on her," he chuckled, but added that Ms. Hutton has no recollection of this.

The Tory Leader is trying to connect with voters by campaigning on nostalgia for a bygone era, a time when he says there were plenty of opportunities for people who "worked hard and played by the rules" to provide a better future for their children and grandchildren.

He uses his own family as part of this narrative, frequently telling the story of his father's father, who came to Canada from Czechoslovakia in the 1940s, barely speaking a word of English and with only a few dollars in his pocket.

"Because of the hard work and sacrifice of my grandparents, I came from Ontario's vast middle class," Mr. Hudak said at a pre-campaign stop this week. "And voters willing, I will be the first premier who can trace his family from outside the British Isles."

His campaign has hit a couple of bumps. The candidate for the riding of Pickering-Scarborough East, Salmon Farooq, quietly withdrew his candidacy last March, just days before he was charged with fraud. The Tories parachuted in Kevin Gaudet, a high-profile advocate for lower taxes, to replace Mr. Farooq.

The party also faced criticism over the ouster of Tory MPP Norm Sterling, who served in the legislature for 34 years. In a speech at a dinner for Mr. Sterling last Thursday, former Tory premier Ernie Eves said the party's treatment of the veteran MPP was not fair or compassionate.

"People were startled," said one person who was at the dinner. Most of the more than 200 people in attendance applauded, he said.

Mr. Eves was referring to the fact that Mr. Sterling lost a nasty nomination battle last March against Jack MacLaren, a local activist with the Ontario Landowners Association. Mr. Hudak acknowledged that having a "contest within the family" is difficult.

For Mr. Hudak, the campaign will give voters an opportunity to see whether he is the standard-bearer for the hard-right Common Sense Revolution of 16 years ago.

His arrival at the party's helm in 2009 was supposed to end seven years of flirtation with the political centre under Mr. Eves and John Tory, who led the party from 2004 until his defeat in a by-election in March, 2009. His mentor, Mr. Harris, endorsed his leadership campaign.

On Friday night, Mr. Hudak and his wife were among the Tory elite and other guests invited to a barbecue at Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's Etobicoke home. But Mr. Ford played coy, saying he is not ready to endorse anyone just yet.

Mr. Hudak was asked recently if he is a blend of a blue Tory and a red Tory. His answer does nothing to diminish his reputation as something of a political chameleon.

"Does that give you purple?" he asked.

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About the Author

Karen Howlett is a national reporter based in Toronto. She returned to the newsroom in 2013 after covering Ontario politics at The Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau for seven years. Prior to that, she worked in the paper’s Vancouver bureau and in The Report on Business, where she covered a variety of beats, including financial services and securities regulation. More

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