Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli has been named interim leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party — but the leader who takes the party through the 2018 election campaign will be determined by a leadership contest the PCs plan to hold in the coming weeks.
The party's bookish finance critic, a former mayor of North Bay, was chosen by his caucus to lead in the wake of the resignation of Patrick Brown, who is facing allegations of sexual misconduct involving teenage girls.
Hours after Fedeli was chosen, party president Rick Dykstra announced that the executive had decided that the election of a new leader should occur before the general election, likely before the end of March.
"This will be a very aggressive timeframe," Dykstra told reporters waiting outside of a Bay Street law firm where the party executive met to discuss the issue. "This is going to be a very quick process."
He waved off concerns the leadership race could leave candidates bruised and the party vulnerable to divisions and bitterness, saying the fight would be "spirited" and "competitive" within a party that would stand "united" at the finish line.
Fedeli will be allowed to run in the leadership contest, and he told reporters that he intends to run and win.
He said Friday evening he "fully support(s)" the executive's decision, with the contest presenting "a great opportunity to make us the story every day." But five hours earlier he said he believed that he, as interim leader, should be the one to take party through the general election, as a leadership contest would take time and money away from the campaign.
"We are smack dab in the middle of an election campaign, right now," he said at an afternoon press conference, his first as leader. "We need to be out there going door-to-door with the People's Guarantee so we can talk about bringing real relief for families."
However, many of party's candidates had expressed support for a snap leadership contest that would see the 200,000-member party choose the chief who will steer it through the campaign.
And that means it could be a nominated Tory who does not have a seat — such as star candidates Rod Phillips and Caroline Mulroney.
Phillips was one of nearly 30 candidates to sign a letter asking the executive to call a leadership election before the province-wide vote.
"Party members and volunteers are the lifeblood of a successful political party," it says. "Together, they represent the collection of ideas and values we as candidates are proud to represent. We have a constitutional obligation to consult the members who have played an integral role in growing our Party to what it is today. Now more than ever, we need to ensure the voice of the grassroots is heard."
Earlier in the day, Fedeli's backing of a post-election leadership race was echoed by some of his caucus colleagues, including MPP Todd Smith, who said earlier in the day that he was keeping an open mind on who the interim leader should be, but supported Fedeli's bid.
"What would happen if we have a leadership race now? It could potentially cause a lot divisions within our party. We don't want that, we want to go into the next election united and ready to go. Time is ticking," Smith said. "We just simply don't have enough time."
MPP Randy Hillier had agreed, saying "the best opportunity for us, the best opportunity for Ontario, is that we select a leader who will then carry us through the June 7 election." He added that "there is no right" among party members to choose a leader immediately, noting the responsibility to pick an interim leader falls to the caucus.
Dykstra had attended the meeting to provide an update the caucus. He aligned with MacLeod and disagreed with Smith's assessment, telling reporters on his way in that there is enough time to hold a leadership vote.
“There’s a few different options," Dykstra said. "There’s mail-in, there’s certainly voting from home on the computer, there’s the style that is currently underway in most elections in the province, where people would come in to vote. So, we think we can manage. Those are all options that are on the table right now.”
MPP Jim Wilson, a political veteran and his party's house leader, said he believes a leadership race would be "doable" before the election — but he'd leave the how to the campaign "wizards."
MPP Lisa MacLeod had said that after speaking on the phone with about 50 community leaders in her riding of Nepean—Carleton this morning, she is open to a pre-election leadership race – “whether that’s a ratification of whoever is chosen today or a ballot, which allows somebody else to come in.”
Brown asked to leave PC caucus
Fedeli said he's asking Brown to take a leave of absence from the Tory caucus as he defends himself from the allegations against him.
"While the allegations against Mr. Brown did not occur during his time at Queen's Park, we need to ensure that our workplace here is a safe and comfortable environment for all of our very strong female staff," Fedeli said.
The leader has the power to boot MPPs from the party, but Fedeli said he would give Brown the chance to step down. However, Fedeli also said he will not sign Brown's nomination papers as a Progressive Conservative if the allegations against him still stand by election time.
He pledged to strengthen its workplace violence and harassment policies.
Fedeli said that Brown, like everyone, has the right to be innocent until proven guilty, but he also said he believes the women who accused Brown — and there's no conflict in those two views.
He said the last 48 hours haven't been easy for the Tories, or the brave women who came forward, and he was "disgusted" to hear the allegations.
-By Jessica Smith Cross and Christopher Reynolds
-Photos by Christopher Reynolds