Jun 28, 2009 04:30 AM
Lounging with his wife on a restaurant patio, Tim Hudak is tucking into a quesadilla. Clad in jeans and a cotton zip-neck top, he looks relaxed and laughs easily at a bystander's wisecrack. It's 6 p.m., and the previous day's five o'clock shadow is begging for a razor.
Ninety minutes later – cleanly shaven, suit crisp, game face on – the former high school jock from Fort Erie takes the stage at a Progressive Conservative leadership debate in London on his way to winning the party's top job yesterday.
Meet the two sides of Hudak, 41, who today begins laying the groundwork to defeat Premier Dalton McGuinty's Liberals in 2011.
But first, the self-described "border boy" who campaigned under the slogan "Right for Ontario" must introduce himself to a broader audience as the boss of a party itching for direction after seven years of ideological contortions and infighting under predecessors Ernie Eves and John Tory, both moderates.
"He's a bright guy – he's somebody that needs to be taken seriously," says his Notre Dame College School and University of Western Ontario friend Bob Lopinski, a former senior aide to McGuinty who keeps in touch with Hudak.
"His challenge is to prove that he's up to the job."
Little known outside Conservative circles and his home turf as MPP for Niagara West-Glanbrook, Hudak is the son of two teachers, has a master's degree in economics, held three cabinet portfolios under former premiers Eves and Mike Harris, and is the father of a 20-month-old daughter, Miller.
He is married to Deb Hutton, a former senior aide to Eves and Harris and now a stay-at-home mom. Miller was born six weeks premature days before the Oct. 10, 2007 election, and spent her first three weeks at Women's College Hospital. The bright-faced, alert little girl has had trouble catching up and is receiving special care – something the political power couple has kept to themselves.
The family divides its time between a small, mid-town Toronto house, which Hutton bought before they were married in 2002, and a former raspberry farm on the Welland River in Hudak's riding. Their board-and-batten A-frame house, complete with a marauding basement chipmunk that eludes the two family cats, is painted blue.
Domesticity aside, Hudak can seem image-conscious and carefully scripted. His public persona is all politics, all the time. To the right of Eves and Tory, he stands up for "conservative principles," insisting that's the way back to power.
His attacks on the government in the Legislature's daily question period or in scrums often give the impression they were rehearsed in the bathroom mirror at home.
"He's always `on,'" says veteran New Democrat MPP Peter Kormos (Welland), a Hudak fan despite their ideological differences. Kormos notes his Niagara confrere will have to open up so voters can get to know him better, both on a policy and personal basis.
Who is Tim Hudak?
Friends and family describe him as a "regular guy." He drives a black, four-door Chevy Avalanche pickup, loves mountain biking on the Niagara Escarpment and cooking – particularly with his two food smokers, one electric and one a "bullet" charcoal model. Carolina-style pulled pork is a specialty, but his trim physique suggests there's enough exercise to burn off the calories.
Kicking back, he might be drinking a beer, a Scotch or a glass of Niagara wine. His TV is on either CNN or sports, particularly football, a passion he's followed in a Queen's Park NFL pool. Hudak was a regular Buffalo Bills season ticket holder until 2007, a busy year with the election and Miller's birth. He typically goes to bed in time to read for a half hour – he prefers political biographies – before drifting off.
So far, Hudak, a fourth-term MPP who likes to drop Ronald Reagan's name, has been portrayed to Conservatives as an heir to the Harris legacy.
"The Mike Harris connection is good for winning the leadership, but one he will have to leave behind afterwards to define himself," advises a Hudak acquaintance who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Hudak, who was first elected at the age of 27 in the 1995 Harris sweep, has a blunt answer for critics who suggest he's the second coming of Mike Harris with little real-life experience outside politics.
"We come from very different backgrounds and different generations," he tells the Star during a lengthy interview in his fourth-floor office overlooking the front lawn of the Legislature.
"I believe people will judge me on the ideas I bring forward and the kind of leadership I present," Hudak adds, noting that before politics he was part of the management team that travelled across Canada helping transition old Woolco stores into Wal-Marts.
"These 41 years certainly feel like real life to me."
His policies include a controversial plan to scrap the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, replacing it with a courts-based system of settling complaints, and income splitting to ease the tax burden on families like his own, in which only one parent works outside the home.
Hudak is also fond of phrases such as "middle-class values" and welfare being "a hand up, not a handout," both of which are familiar to voters who recall the Harris regime, which saw welfare rates chopped 20 per cent and taxes cut sharply.
But those lines have not been doing Hudak any favours outside the Conservative fold, and he will have to find his own script, says Kormos.
"He will have to identify with issues, because so far he's adopted a lot of that Harris jargon, and I don't think that has any street value any more. He's going to think about what his passions are and what he wants to do ... as a political leader."
Asked if he's worried rival parties will use Harris's very public endorsement of him against the Conservatives in the campaign two years from now, Hudak leans forward and says a firm "no."
"If Dalton McGuinty is still leader of the Liberal party in 2011, which is open to question, he'll have his hands full defending his dismal economic record, trying to sidestep the time bomb of the new sales tax that will take a massive bite out of the pockets of middle-class families and seniors," he adds.
"We'll be putting forward our own Conservative alternative based on those middle-class values that resonate with taxpayers." Many of those, he says, will be developed by the party's grassroots members at policy conventions leading up to the election in two years.
Liberals are salivating at Hudak's links with Harris and his decision to adapt a plank from rival leadership candidate MPP Randy Hillier, a libertarian and rural-rights advocate who proposed scrapping the Ontario Human Rights Commission altogether, and told his supporters to throw their second-ballot support to Hudak. Just mentioning Hillier's name makes some moderate Conservative MPPs roll their eyes.
"We'll be pointing all those things out," says a senior Liberal operative, speaking on background.
"He's pretty calculating politically that he needed that human rights overture to the Hillier people to win. It certainly represents a shift right for the party, and he will owe Hillier something."
But it can be said that those who see Harris and Hudak as two peas in a pod don't know either very well – although Harris is a family friend whose stepdaughters babysit young Miller.
Where the former premier was chippy, playing wedge politics against welfare recipients, teachers and unions, for example, Hudak is more chipper, looking to get along. Some attribute that to the encouraging, community-minded family environment in which he grew up.
Hudak's father, Pat, was a high school principal who still referees football games, and his mother, Anne Marie, was a town councillor in Fort Erie. Neither was involved in party politics but instilled in their son a desire to "give back" to the community that he fulfilled at first as a soccer and basketball coach and later in politics.
"To a large extent you are what you came from," says Hudak, who gives the impression of a man who likes to have things in life nailed down, a holdover from his school days and parents with chalk dust under their nails.
"I remember at night where you'd put your project to bed to hand in to your own teacher the next day and I'd wake up in the morning to find that both my parents had gone through with their red marker and made all kinds of suggestions that needed to be done before the school bell rang."
He takes a back-to-basics approach to education, pushing for more phonics training in the early grades to help children improve their literacy skills, and financial literacy lessons.
Liberals suggest there is a below-the-radar agenda to push funding for private schools, given the large number of religious schools in Hudak's riding, but he says that Tory's disastrous 2007 plan to extend taxpayer financing to faith-based schools remains a non-starter.
With two years to an election, Queen's Park observers say Hudak now has to show he has the depth needed to convince voters he's worthy of the premier's office in 2011. He'll turn 44 on Nov. 1 of that year, just a couple of weeks after the vote.
"He's more about the sound bite than the policy bite," says the acquaintance. "But you often run into that when you're an ambitious politician."
Kormos says he senses Hudak is ready to grow into his new role, which likely involves a commitment of six to 10 years in a brighter spotlight than he's been used to in opposition since the stunning Conservative defeat in 2003.
"Tim has been very impressive since his first day here, he cleverly did a lot of watching and listening, he didn't come thinking that he knew it all," adds Kormos, noting Hudak didn't get into the Harris cabinet until 1999.
"I think he has a whole lot more growth potential. His wife's no slouch, either. Debbie Hutton is one smart, tough political operative. She knows what it's about, she knows what she has to do and she appears to be eager to do it."
But right now, Hutton and her daughter, Miller, are looking forward to seeing the new leader around the house a little more.
"She's daddy's girl – she even looks like daddy," says Hutton. "Life with mommy comes to a stop the minute dad comes in. Her hands clap and she laughs and she runs to the front door."
Only time will tell just what Tim Hudak is able to do and does he actually have a position on issues. One issue every man in Ontario is waiting for is what is his position on Equal Parenting. Will Tim Hudak support a legal presumption of Equal Parenting. So far, he has not put pen to paper on that issue. Another issue he has remained silent on is reform of Ontario's Family Laws that at present are an official policy of Male Gender Apartheid. Check out Peter Roscoe's research on gender apartheid in family law at the www.OttawaMensCentre.com/roscoe link.