It's time for a "kinder, gentler" Ontario Progressive Conservative party.
That was the message from Vic Fedeli Wednesday as he announced his long-anticipated leadership bid at a lunch-hour barbecue in an office tower in Toronto's financial district.
"It's not about being on the right or the left or the centre – it's about doing what's right for Ontario," he told a crowd of about 200 supporters. "I believe in a big tent."
A folksy two-term MPP from North Bay, Ont., Mr. Fedeli is the third candidate to enter the race. MPPs Christine Elliott and Monte McNaughton have already thrown their hats in. Federal MP Patrick Brown is expected to declare at an event in Barrie, Ont. this weekend; MPP Lisa MacLeod is set to launch next month. Party members vote in May of next year.
Mr. Fedeli's moderate pitch explicitly rejected the hard-right tilt former leader Tim Hudak adopted in the June election, when he was crushed by Kathleen Wynne's Liberals. Mr. Fedeli pledged, for instance, to recruit candidates from unions – a group Mr. Hudak frequently attacked.
"When we are a more dynamic, a more inclusive, a more pragmatic party; when we are bold, but not mean; a kinder, gentler party," Mr. Fedeli said. "We can make our party better."
But he will have some trouble distancing himself from Mr. Hudak's agenda. As finance critic, he often promoted its controversial fiscal policies. Among other things, Mr. Hudak promised to slash 100,000 public sector jobs.
Asked how he could dump an ideological tack he campaigned on just three months ago, Mr. Fedeli told reporters: "It's what's in my heart – I believe we need to be less about ideology ... We've got to stop giving people reasons to vote against us."
Mr. Fedeli also promised a series of changes to the party constitution that would force future leaders to seek the approval of grassroots members for their election platforms – a safeguard meant to prevent such things as the job cut pledge. He also promised annual leadership reviews and for party members at conferences to vote by secret ballot, instead of through a public show of hands, as they do now.
"Like you, I'm tired of having to apologize for my party and the campaigns we run," he said in his speech.
He also used the address to pitch himself as a premier, with references to "making Ontario first," a brief biographical sketch emphasizing his success as an entrepreneur, and a passage in French – something most PC MPPs struggle with.
The 58-year-old Mr. Fedeli founded and ran an advertising agency in North Bay before getting into politics. He served two terms as mayor and was elected to the legislature in 2011.
And he returned frequently to his central promise to broaden the party's reach, promising to bring in candidates from non-profits, First Nations, Metis and new Canadian communities. This desire for an expanded tent, he said, was the reason he kicked off his campaign in Toronto, where the PCs have been nearly shut out for the last decade.
"This is where the rebuilding of the party needs to begin," he said. "We're here for you, we know the GTA is the place to launch our new beginning."