Behind Kellie Leitch’s ‘sort-of’ campaign for Conservative leader

In her tentative bid to lead the party, Kellie Leitch has a high-profile team behind her, even if most Canadians don’t know who she is

Labour Minister Kellie Leitch answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Thursday, June 4, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Kellie Leitch answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Thursday, June 4, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The Conservative leadership race got off to an oddly tentative start this week, when Ontario MP and former cabinet minister Kellie Leitch threw her hat into the ring—sort of.

Leitch’s candidacy had been widely expected, but then she and her team touted the launch of an “exploratory committee” rather than an actual leadership campaign—even while acknowledging that she had in fact filed the paperwork that made her a candidate. Immediately afterward, Leitch was travelling and unavailable for interviews, leaving broadcast producers puzzled by a leadership hopeful who wasn’t clamouring for exposure.

“ ‘Sort-of candidacy,’ I think is a fair observation,” campaign co-chair Sander Grieve said. “It’s sort of binary, the way the Elections Act works: you’re either in or you’re out. You gotta be in if you want to get started, so we’re in.” Under the Elections Canada Act, anyone who accepts funds or racks up leadership campaign expenses must register as a contestant, even if they ultimately decide not to run. “We think it’s premature, 14 months away, to have a podium with balloons and big speeches,” says Grieve, a Toronto lawyer and longtime friend of Leitch’s dating back to their undergraduate days at Queen’s University. Leitch, an orthopedic surgeon by training, is one of the least-known names among potential Tory leadership candidates. Maxime Bernier launched his bid this week as well, and others thought to be considering a run are Jason Kenney, Peter MacKay, Tony Clement and TV personality Kevin O‘Leary.

Still, Leitch has drawn a high-profile Conservative team to her cause. Her campaign chair is Nick Kouvalis, the controversial backroom operative who helped win the Toronto mayoralty for Rob Ford and then John Tory; Andy Pringle, chairman of the Toronto Police Services Board and Tory’s former chief of staff, has been tapped as chief fundraiser; and John Simcoe, longtime chief financial officer for the Ontario PC fund, will fill the same role on Leitch’s team.

Leitch was born in Winnipeg and lived there for the first few years of her life, then grew up in Fort McMurray, Alta., after her family relocated so her father could start a construction business. She earned an undergraduate degree from Queen’s, an M.D. from the University of Toronto (she still takes volunteer shifts once a month at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, performing pediatric orthopedic surgeries), and an M.B.A. from Dalhousie University. Leitch represents the riding of Simcoe–Grey, north of Toronto, having parachuted into that race in 2010 to defeat former cabinet minister Helena Guergis, who ran as an independent after being booted from the Tory caucus.

As a leadership candidate, Leitch will position herself as someone with roots in the West and East, and—at age 45—the face of the new guard. “We think she’s going to be quite an exciting leader,” says Grieve. “It’s a generational shift within the party.”

Still, pollster David Coletto of Abacus Data says the results when people are asked who would make the best Tory leader suggest Leitch faces an uphill battle. “Regardless of the candidates that we test, Kellie Leitch consistently comes near the bottom,” he says. “Most Canadians don’t have much awareness of who she is.” But, he notes those respondents are general voters, not the party faithful who will vote at the Conservative convention in May 2017.

Leitch reached arguably her greatest visibility during the 2015 election campaign, though it came through infamy more than anything else. She and Chris Alexander—a cabinet minister who subsequently lost his Toronto-area seat—were trotted out to introduce a tip line for so-called “barbaric cultural practices.” The moment was widely seen as one of the turning points that lost the election for the Tories, and was even criticized from within party ranks.

Related from macleans.ca: Three turning points that defined the campaign

That controversy aside, in a leadership bid, Leitch will be able to draw on her tight ties to the late finance minister Jim Flaherty, her political mentor. Leitch owned a condo in the same Ottawa building as Flaherty, and when he suffered a heart attack shortly after retiring as finance minister in 2014, she went to his aid, attempting CPR before an ambulance arrived. The day after Flaherty died, as partisan squabbling in the House of Commons gave way to stunned and unified grief, it was Leitch, with swollen eyes and a quavering voice, who led the tributes to “my champion.” She recounted how he had drawn her into politics, first by inviting her to consult on the Children’s Fitness Tax Credit (one of the Conservative measures now targeted by the Liberal government for elimination) and later, through sheer force of will and relentless phone calls, convincing her to run as an MP.

Related: Jim Flaherty: ‘A death in the family’

In 2010, Leitch was seen as a star candidate, and after she won her riding, she was named parliamentary secretary to the minister of human resources and skills development and to the minister of labour, later promoted to minister of labour and minister for the status of women. In the Conservative leadership race, Leitch is certainly not the biggest star, but she has a well-connected team shepherding her down the very—very—long campaign road ahead.

Evan Solomon and Tim Powers on the Conservative leadership race

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