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The maverick making a jump
Plus: fresh faces in town, leadership launch (III), who's who on Naqvi's crew, Ke v. Global, Bonnie's launch, crosstown boondoggle, DMs shuffle, FordFest is back and more
FordFest is back but not in Ford Nation. The race for Liberal leader is growing. But first — meet the maverick in the Grit leadership race and why you shouldn't expect a changed approach from this free-spirited politician at Queen's Park.
It's 1pm. Nathaniel Erskine-Smith walks in.
"How's it going?" the smiling Grit leadership candidate asks the store owner, ordering a mint tea, his go-to at the local coffee shop.
Don't call him a stranger. Erskine-Smith is a regular customer at the Morning Parade Coffee Bar in the Beaches neighbourhood — his stomping ground east of downtown Toronto. "You're my second office," he quips.
We're seated at the back corner of the shop — a table of two. He just finished a campaign event nearby. Approaching us with his hot drink in his hand on the breezy Wednesday afternoon, he's ready to do his first interview of the day.
"I'm Nate, nice to meet you," he says.
Born in the Beaches to two educators, Erskine-Smith credits his parents for his political career and his "deep roots" in the community. "I wouldn't be doing this but for them," he says of his mother, Sara, an elementary teacher, and father, Lawrence, a high school teacher.
At a young age, he got his first experience in provincial politics on the picket line during the Mike Harris era. "They obviously instilled in me certain values that I carry with me, and my own advocacy and sense of serving my community, regardless of how difficult decisions might be in Ottawa," he explains.
Before stepping foot into politics, Erskine-Smith attended Queen's University, completing a law degree. He got his political feet wet running — though unsuccessfully — as a candidate for councillor in Kingston, before studying political philosophy and constitutional law at Oxford University, where he was the pitcher for the university's baseball team.
Erskine-Smith left the world of commercial litigation, where he worked for a local law firm in Toronto, to serve as the Beaches' rep in the House of Commons for almost seven years, carrying the Grit banner during the Liberal wave.
The backbencher quickly gained reputation in Ottawa as a maverick Grit — an independent and often contrarian face on the Hill. He broke ranks with the Trudeau government on assisted dying and a motion condemning ISIS' genocide, to name a few.
"I got involved in federal politics ten years ago because the Liberal Party was in third place and we had a very frustrating, central Conservative government. That's where I could make the biggest difference ten years ago," he says.
Now, he's seeking the Grit leadership because "all the parallels exist" at the provincial level — planning to bring his unconventional approach to Queen's Park. "It's not complicated," the first Liberal to officially enter the fray says of his bid, citing the likeness of the political atmosphere at the Pink Palace to that preceding his federal bid.
"I woke up in June after the provincial election. I started to think that we could make a really big difference here in helping to rebuild the Ontario Liberal Party," he says. He spent the summer ringing Grits — heeding advice from them on launching a leadership bid, in what would be "a huge, daunting challenge" ahead.
But he's no political newcomer. "I can point to seven and a half years experience of helping shape the government's agenda, doing politics differently and building a really strong political organization," he laid out.
There were other, personal considerations. "Can I manage this with wanting to be a good dad and a good husband?" he recalls asking himself.
"Can you?" we ask.
"I think so. So far I have," he replies.
It's a question Erskine-Smith asked of former captains David Peterson, Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne. "I spoke with them over the summer when I was properly exploring the idea about how to balance my respective obligations," the father of Mack and Crawford explains.
It was a few weeks ago up north that Erskine-Smith realized he's all in on his jump to the Pink Palace. "I was answering questions, talking to local Liberals in Timmins and Kapuskasing and engaging people and I thought, I'm not exploring this anymore, I'm committed to doing this," he recalls.
"There's a really strong desire for serious generational renewal, grassroots renewal and to build the party in a serious way," he adds.
It's an essential rebuild that begins by going "back to basics" and encouraging participation, the Grit leadership hopeful says, after the party's dismal showing in the last two elections. "The answer is participation, that's a big part of it. I think we need to make sure that we have strong community representation — the promise that Justin Trudeau came up with ten years ago was doing politics differently by empowering communities through empowering parliamentarians," he explains. "It was one of the main reasons motivating me to leave law for politics, to make a difference through that kind of politics."
That renewal will begin with the leadership race, which is shaping up to be a doozy with a slate of high profile names kick starting their bids. "It will be a race not only about hard work and grassroots renewal, it will also be about setting a direction for our party and our province. What kind of Ontario Liberal Party do we want?" he says.
Too left for his taste? "We don't need another center right government," he says, taking aim at Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, who made headlines for saying the party governs "from right of centre." "There is a belief across the province among Liberals that we need to move back to the center," he admits. But to Erskine-Smith, that shift to the right doesn't mean governing from the center right. "Generally, people mean that we need a really strong economic agenda, we can't see that round to Conservatives. We need a sense of fiscal sustainability," he said.
"We have to articulate, defend and deliver a really strong message and a really strong plan to be the party that is going to build housing, build infrastructure and deliver climate action."
There are mistakes to learn from the party's last bid for power, including running as an "anti Ford party" — or so he calls it. "I don't think we stood on two feet, articulating a really strong economic agenda or articulating what it means to be a Liberal," he reflects.
"You've got a situation where the Ford government earned support from trade unions. We should be earning support of the trade unions," he adds, referencing the Tories' blue collar support in the last election. "I think it's really important that we look at it on an issue by issue basis and say, 'where's the evidence and how do we deliver for people in the best possible way?'"
Some responsibility lays at the feet of former captain Steven Del Duca, Erskine-Smith says, who didn't bring "a charisma that is essential in that role." "I think, just by virtue of him being connected to the past, and it's unfair, there was always going to be a challenge," he explains.
Not being connected to that past is an asset for the provincial newcomer, he argued. "I think being able to come in as someone who is new to the party, and able to bring new people into the party with them," he spells out.
However, like Del Duca, if Erskine-Smith's bid for captain is successful, he'd be a leader without a seat. It's not a concern for the Grit leadership contender, who says that without official party status, it'd be more important for the leader to "be on the road and building the party in every corner of the province."
Erskine-Smith considered throwing his name to carry the Liberal banner in the upcoming Scarborough—Guildwood byelection but ultimately decided against it. "The timing is such that it's going to happen right in the middle of the leadership election," he explains.
A name recognition battle? Erskine-Smith brushes it off. "I think name recognition helps, but unless your last name is Trudeau, I think it's anyone's game," he says. "I think it's fair to say nobody is really known. If you were to ask people in Timmins, in Sault Ste. Marie, in Sarnia—Lambton, would they know who Yasir is? Are they even going to know who Bonnie is? I don't think so."
While he contemplates giving up his federal seat, a decision that will come over the summer, Erskine-Smith isn't planning to run in his federal turf provincially come the next provincial election. "It won't be here," he declares. "Mary Margaret [McMahon] is a great MPP and she's going to continue to be a great advocate." McMahon's already thrown her support behind her federal partner, the first caucus member to do so. "Nate exudes honesty and integrity with a no-nonsense approach to issues both big and small," she declared.
On his part, Erskine-Smith says he'll miss his colleagues on the Hill.
"Independence?" we ask.
"It's interesting," he says.
"I thought a lot about how one goes from maverick to leader," he concedes.
But don't expect a changed approach from the free-spirited politician. "I left law for politics in part because of that promise to do politics differently," he said, questioning whether aspiring candidates would "give up their pay, their privacy, their family if they don't keep their own voice on behalf of their community."
"I think we aren't going to encourage the kind of talent we want in politics unless we make a deep commitment to saying that you get to keep your voice."
Leadership launch (III)
We told you first: Yasir Naqvi has entered the race for Liberal captain — becoming the third candidate to make it official.
Naqvi had been considering a bid since December, forming a committee to seek advice on the move in December while recruiting veteran Grit strategists to advise him. Read on for more on who's who on his crew.
The Grit leadership wannabe launched his bid with a breakfast with supporters in Ottawa before heading to Belleville for ice cream — a Naqvi favourite.
In the backyard of leadership foe Bonnie Crombie, Naqvi headlined an evening launch event at a banquet hall for GTAers. "I have a lot of support in Mississauga, as you can see. I've got a tremendous amount of people helping me in the GTA. They wanted me to come and spend time with our supporters," he told us.
A big Bhangra entry: Naqvi arrived at the banquet to Bhangra drumming — introduced by former cabinet minister John Wilkinson. "I truly believe his extraordinary life journey gives voice to the values of who we truly are as Ontario Liberals," Wilkinson said.
For his part, Naqvi didn't pull back punches. Energizing a chatty, raucous crowd, Naqvi spoke about his return to provincial politics, taking jabs at Premier Doug Ford and his government. "Challenging the status quo is in my DNA," he said.
Cue a caucus endorser: Backing Naqvi is Lucille Collard — becoming the second caucus member to publicly throw support behind a candidate.
Collard was on hand at Naqvi's morning Ottawa launch and said he's "consistently demonstrated a deep understanding of the challenges faced by the people he represents because he listens." "She also signed the Schreiner letter," one insider on another campaign quipped.
Don't expect him to quit his federal job. "I will continue to serve my constituents as their Member of Parliament," he said.
Who's who on Naqvi's crew: Milton Chan is Naqvi's campaign manager. "He's very good at nominations, very skillful," a source said. Chan is the Liberals' chief legal counsel — responsible for advising the party on legal matters.
It's raised eyebrows amongst buzzing Grits on his new gig and a possible conflict of interest. "He has advised the party of his public support for Yasir Naqvi and will recuse himself from advising the party on matters relating to the leadership contests," a spokesperson told us.
Also on Yasir's camp:
Veteran operatives Omar Yar Khan and Beckie Codd-Downey are advising the campaign.
Jackie Choquette — who was Naqvi's chief of staff at Queen's Park — is playing an active role on his team.
Heading up communications is Navigator's Colin MacDonald. He's working alongside Ashley Csanady and Susie Heath.
Speaking of the Grit leadership: Liberals are buzzing about when Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie will make her bid for captain official. "I need a few more weeks," the heavyweight Liberal told us, while several sources in and around Crombie's camp say they're expecting an official campaign kickoff to come soon. "Her launch should be massive," one insider texted. More here.
MPP Vincent Ke has filed a libel lawsuit against Global News after a report on allegations that he was part of a Beijing election interference network. Ke "served the defendant yesterday and this morning, the counsel of the defendant confirmed the service," a spokesperson told us this morning, adding that he's suing for 5 million dollars, in addition to 500,000 dollars in "aggravated and punitive damages." "I have faith in our courts and look forward to the truth coming out," Ke said.
Ke's lawyers say "the defendants have aggravated the damages caused" by:
Publishing defamatory words "maliciously, recklessly and in bad faith."
Publishing "without taking reasonable steps to verify the reliability of the confidential sources."
Publishing the story on the internet and social media platforms.
Publishing the story "to discredit Mr. Ke, ruing his political career and endanger his personal safety.”
"Attempting to publish further defamatory statements" about Ke in "retaliation" to the libel notice.
Targeting Ke "because of his racial and immigration background."
A return to the Tory caucus? "I continue to explore every option that will definitively clear my name," Ke added.
Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney is under fire over the Tories' delivery of the Eglinton LRT — but Premier Ford says he has "total confidence" in her. Mulroney told the House yesterday that the government "takes full responsibility for the entire transportation network," with Ford saying "I have total confidence that the minister is responsible for building the largest transit project in North America." Background here.
Stellantis is now considering a new offer with new cash from Ottawa and Queen's Park to stop the company from pulling out of building an EV battery plant in Windsor. The Toronto Star has the story.
"Rot in prison:" Premier Ford is calling for the head of the Correctional Service of Canada to be fired over a decision to move serial killer Paul Bernardo to a medium security prison. Ford said Tuesday that Bernardo should "rot in a maximum security prison for the rest of his miserable existence." A review of the transfer decision is currently underway.
AT THE PALACE
— Tomorrow is the last sitting day before the House rises for the summer. MPPs will wrap up debate on Education Minister Stephen Lecce's Bill 98, Better Schools and Student Outcomes Act after passing the Hazel McCallion Act — paving the way for Peel Region's disbandment — yesterday.
Committees are ratcheting up their considerations of ministerial estimates:
At Justice Policy: the Ministry of the Attorney General's estimates are up for review today before Indigenous Affairs and Francophone Affairs expenditures are scrutinized by MPPs.
At Heritage, Infrastructure and Cultural Policy: estimates from Infrastructure and Transportation are being considered. MPPs are regrouping tomorrow for a review of Municipal Affairs and Housing spending predictions. Get the sched here.
— There's a new Sergeant at Queen's Park. The Legislature unanimously appointed Tim McGough to serve as the incoming chief, responsible for "coordinating security" and "overseeing building management."
McGough was recommended by a scouting panel comprised of Speaker Ted Arnott and two MPPs — PC Trevor Jones and NDPer Jennie Stevens. He served with the Medicine Hat Police Service in Alberta, including a gig as acting chief.
— Trevor Day is taking over the reins from outgoing Todd Decker as the Clerk — appointed unanimously by MPPs last week. He's been a Deputy Clerk for five years, with almost three decades of Pink Palace experience.
FordFest is back: Making a comeback after a pandemic hiatus, Premier Doug Ford's annual barbecue is going down at Thompson Memorial Park in Scarborough — byelection land the Tories are hoping to claim — days before Toronto's mayoral vote. RSVP.
PC MPP Daisy Wai is holding a buffet dinner in support of the party's riding association in Richmond Hill. Deets of the "annual report."
"The summer of Ford's discontent:" Fresh Angus Reid polling shows Premier Ford's approval rating is sitting at 33 per cent — down from 45 per cent when the Tories surged to victory last June.
"Ford enjoys the luxury of time even as he endures widespread disapproval," the polling form says, adding that "low approval has become a consistent occurrence for Ford."
ON THE MOVE
DMs have been shuffled around amid speculation of a looming cabinet shuffle at the Pink Palace.
Who's up: Melissa Thomson — former Chief Administrative Officer and assistant DM in the Cabinet Office — is joining LTC and Seniors and Accessibility. Keith Palmer will become DM for Citizenship and Multiculturalism — moving from the Ministry of the Solicitor General. David Wai has jumped to Colleges and Universities with Martha Greenberg taking on Municipal Affairs and Housing and Shelley Tapp becoming DM for Special Projects. Shannon Fuller is the new DM of Policy and Delivery, while serving as Associate Secretary of the Cabinet.
Who's out: Nancy Naylor — a longtime civil servant who held the Education gig for five years — has hung up her public service boots and will be replaced by Kate Manson-Smith.
The Tories have a new Director of Communications: Zachary Zarnett-Klein — who served as Solicitor General Michael Kerzner's spokesperson. He's replacing Christina Wramhed, who's now directing comms for Colleges and Universities Minister Jill Dunlop.
TVO's Kat Eschner — a reporter covering affordability — is the newest member of the Queen's Park Press Gallery.
WHAT WE'RE READING
THE TRILLIUM: "As PC insiders bandy about a looming cabinet shuffle, Ford's office says one is 'not planned'" by Charlie Pinkerton
GLOBAL NEWS: "Exclusive details of ongoing negotiations between elementary teachers, Ontario revealed" by Colin D'Mello and Isaac Callan
CBC NEWS: "Bank of Canada hikes interest rate again — and there may be more to come" by Pete Evans
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