Erin O'Toole's 'one weakness' in leadership race: name recognition
Conservative MP Erin O'Toole launches his campaign for the party's leadership in Bowmanville, Ont., Friday, Oct. 14, 2016.
OTTAWA -- Of all the Harper cabinet ministers who were said to ponder a run for the Conservative leadership, the biggest names didn't end up making a bid. Those that have are less well known. Perhaps the least well-known former cabinet minister is Erin O'Toole, despite impressing many politicos after jumping into the Veterans Affairs file to put out the inferno Julian Fantino left behind.
O'Toole's quiet competence helped him cool the raging tempers Fantino incited with his mishandling, including getting caught on camera arguing with veterans with whom he'd cancelled a meeting, and walking away from the wife of an injured veteran who was trying to speak to him following a House committee meeting.
The MP for Durham, a riding on the outskirts of the Greater Toronto Area, was first elected in a 2012 byelection to replace another faltering Harper minister, Bev Oda. He's held the riding, which includes his hometown of Bowmanville, ever since.
With a father who served in the Ontario legislature, it may not have been a surprise for O'Toole to run for office. His career choices -- military service, Bay Street law -- until then certainly gave him the kind of well-rounded resume politicians can capitalize on.
And yet you've likely never heard of him.
"We always knew that name-recognition wise, that was really my one weakness. I've only been in politics four years," O'Toole, 44, said in an interview with CTV News, pointing out that time has been scandal-free.
"You guys don't cover, 'hey this guy is turning around Veterans' Affairs'," he said. "My challenge was that. The only one with less political experience, Kevin O'Leary, certainly didn't need any name-recognition assistance."
ERIN O'TOOLE AT A GLANCE
- Age: 44
- Birthplace: Montreal, Quebec
- Relationship status: Married to Rebecca; has two children, Mollie and Jack
- Previous career: Lawyer, military officer
- Education: Royal Military College, Dalhousie law school
- Book on his nightstand: Tribe: On homecoming and belonging (by Sebastian Junger)
To counter that, O'Toole says he's visited more places and talked to more party members than any other candidate. Much of that visiting has happened on the East Coast, where he says the party must rebuild in order to win in 2019 (it currently holds no seats in Atlantic Canada).
It's also a region where O'Toole has lived, serving in Halifax and studying law at Dalhousie University.
Prior to law school, he spent 10 years in the military. O'Toole enrolled at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., at age 17 and became a helicopter air navigator in the Air Force.
He remained in the reserves for another two years during law school, but left the Canadian Forces upon his return to Ontario.
After law school, O'Toole and his wife Rebecca moved to Toronto, where he spent five years as a lawyer with Procter and Gamble Canada.
"I like to say I bring the perspective of a kid from Bowmanville... but I understand military service and uniformed service," he said.
"And then my economic experience I think is formative for this. So when I see the real impact of a regulation, or of a payroll tax, [it's because] I was part of management teams that looked at these issues."
O'Toole's 74-page platform is a blend of both, promising tax cuts and balanced budgets as well as a bigger role for the military. It takes touchstones from the Harper era, like asserting Canadian sovereignty in the North and fighting to reform the UN, and adds property and gun-owner rights, as well as a pledge to let successful apprentices, college and university grads earn $100,000 tax-free in their first three years out of school.
O'Toole is one of the leadership candidates emphasizing a focus on the positive, arguing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doesn't own optimism. He -- like a number of other candidates - is also far more open to interviews than former prime minister Stephen Harper was.
While he isn't distancing himself from Harper's policies, he has had to distance himself from a former Harper insider – his close friend, Jenni Byrne. Byrne ran the 2011 and 2015 Conservative election campaigns, and bore the brunt of the criticism over the party's recent loss, including some of the blame for an often nasty campaign. O'Toole's friendship with Byrne is something his competitors have quietly raised as a drawback to his potential leadership.
O'Toole says Byrne isn't involved in his campaign, and isn't likely to return to the Hill should he win the leadership.
"She's a friend," O'Toole said. "I’m known on the Hill for having respect, I think, on all sides of the House of Commons because I don't buy into treating people poorly. She left politics because it was the time for her to leave politics and she needed to get away from it. I think that was a smart move. "
"I'm trying to run a campaign based on my approach, not how we've done things in the past, " he said.
The Ontario MP says while he feels he shares Harper's ability to grasp complex issues and drive toward a solution, "the big difference between us is I want to communicate even with people that may be opposed to us."
"I want people to know why I think some of these conservative ideas are good for the country... for whatever reason, the [former] prime minister didn't like to do a lot of media," O'Toole said.
"I think we have to, to get back into the confidence of that group of Canadians that might have voted for us in  but left us in ."
Candidate at a glance
- MP since November, 2012; veterans affairs minister from January, 2015 until November, 2015; parliamentary secretary for international trade from September, 2013 to January, 2015
- Slogan is 'Proven. Ready.'
- Known for starting to rebuild the Conservative government's relationship with veterans
- Former Air Force navigator
CTVNews.ca is profiling candidates for the Conservative Party leadership. For more on who’s running, see our list.