In some respects, Tim Hudak doesn't have much job experience. After returning home to Ontario in 1993 with an economics degree from the University of Washington, he worked briefly as a travelling manager with Walmart Canada, and then as an economic development officer in Fort Erie. In the 1995 provincial election, at age 27, he won a seat in the Mike Harris Progressive Conservative landslide. In 2009, Hudak was elected party leader. But after an election loss to Kathleen Wynne's Liberals in 2014, he gave up the helm. Now aged 48, he stepped down last month as an MPP to become CEO of the Ontario Real Estate Association (OREA).
Were you surprised when you were elected the first time?
People didn't like Mike Harris's chances, and big-name local Conservatives stayed out of the race. I said, what the heck, I'll run. I'll lose. I'll get a policy job at Queen's Park and I'll run when I'm an adult, in my 40s or 50s. So watch what you wish for.
What have been the high points since 1995?
I held three cabinet portfolios. I had a chance to be on the biggest stage in the province as leader. I met my wife, Deb Hutton—she was a top adviser to Mike Harris. And we have two beautiful girls. But in terms of politics, the biggest high was the 2014 leaders' debate.
It's an extraordinary experience, and I won't be in anything like it again. There were just four of us in a cold media studio: Premier Wynne, [NDP leader] Andrea Horvath, me and our moderator, Steve Paikin. You have no idea if you've done well. But I got a huge hug and kiss when I walked out from Deb, who was one of Mike's debate advisers.
But you lost the election. Did you have a victory speech written?
You have three speeches—win, lose or tie. We were confident we were going to win, if not a majority, a minority. But I did the right thing. I said I'd be stepping down as leader and went home to Wellandport with Deb and my girls.
Your campaign platform promised to create one million jobs, but also to lay off 100,000 civil servants. Did you strike the right balance between optimism and pessimism?
I'm actually a very optimistic person. Our ads were positive—how a stronger economy is going to help our most vulnerable citizens. I think it's more pessimistic to believe that you always have to have government borrowing and spending to advance the economy.
Why quit politics altogether?
Sometimes politics is like sports—athletes can stay past their prime. We have a nice cottage-like home—14.5 acres on the Welland River. It's sort of my escape. I've planted 11 acres of trees—maples, oaks, pines, birch. It's part of a conservation authority program to convert marginal farmland back over to Carolinian forest.
Has your world view changed after 21 years?
One great thing about this business is that you learn a little bit about a lot of different things. On social issues, too, you get more understanding. If you'd stood for same-sex marriage in Niagara Region in 1995, you wouldn't have got the Conservative nomination. But, in 2002, I was the first consumer minister to sign same-sex marriage certificates.
Why did you choose to become CEO of OREA?
They chose me. I had a very good relationship with OREA over the years, from the time I was consumer minister. I like the people. I like their energy. They're self-starters, fiercely independent and highly entrepreneurial. And I want to try this brave, bold place I've heard about called the private sector.
This interview has been condensed and edited.