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Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne, centre, doesn’t carry as much of the McGuinty baggage that might have been expected. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)
Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne, centre, doesn’t carry as much of the McGuinty baggage that might have been expected. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Candidates in Ottawa West-Nepean riding share a fraught political past Add to ...

He calls it “the world’s longest job interview.”

And for work he might not even get.

Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne may have called this 36-day provincial election campaign, but Randall Denley – the Progressive Conservative candidate in Ottawa West-Nepean – will have been knocking on doors and handing out pamphlets for 630 days by the time June 12 gets here.

In the last election, the then municipal and provincial affairs columnist for the Ottawa Citizen came up just a bit short – 1,009 votes – against heavyweight Liberal incumbent Bob Chiarelli, a former Ottawa mayor and current energy minister in the Wynne government.

Mr. Denley, 63, went back to work briefly writing editorials, but soon decided to take early retirement and devote himself full-time to preparing for the inevitable fall of the Liberal minority government. He won the nomination on Sept. 20, 2012, and began campaigning the next day – never for a moment imagining he would be waiting 630 days for that second chance.

“It’s gone on for a very long time,” he says.

It is also a profoundly different election this time around. Dalton McGuinty was premier back then, and the full story of the gas-plant scandal was far from known. Mr. Denley’s leader, Tim Hudak, was wooden, unsure and convinced that all his party had to do was wait while the people put the boots to a tired government – something polite Canadians appear to relish – and the office would fall to him.

“The attitude,” Mr. Denley says, “was, ‘Look, don’t rile anybody and we’ll get in. They hate McGuinty – it’ll be all right.’ The lesson Tim learned from that is that you have to stand for something. It’s not good enough just to be against the other guy.”

Today, although Mr. Hudak can be considered naive and simplistic by some and strong and brutally honest by others, there is no denying his newfound confidence, wherever it might take him. And Dalton McGuinty is long gone, replaced by a new leader who seems, somehow, not to carry quite the baggage along that might have been expected.

Ottawa West-Nepean may well be the most interesting riding in Eastern Ontario. It has more seniors, Mr. Denley claims, than any riding in the province, and seniors are as concerned about soaring energy costs under the Liberals as they are about sustained services under the cuts promised by the Tories.

Add to this the fascinating mix of the three protagonists in this unfolding drama. On the right you have the crusading columnist whose face appeared in the town’s leading newspaper for 20 years. In the middle, somewhere, is Mr. Chiarelli, 72, the former mayor and regional chair who has seen both great success and suffered defeat in Ottawa-area elections in the past. And on the left, rather unexpectedly, is a high-profile former councillor, Alex Cullen, 63, who in the past lost to Mr. Chiarelli while chasing a provincial nomination, then succeeded Mr. Chiarelli at Queen’s Park when Mr. Chiarelli became regional chair, and then – quick pause for breath – became NDP after he fell out with the Liberals over the Calgary Declaration regarding future changes to the constitution.

Mr. Cullen originally sought the NDP nomination in Ottawa Centre, but lost out to school trustee Jennifer McKenzie. He then successfully fought for the right to run in Ottawa West-Nepean, a more conservative ward that is the federal seat of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

It is not so many years ago that Mr. Chiarelli and Mr. Cullen were sniping at each other at Ottawa council meetings, and Mr. Denley was sniping at both of them in his columns.

“If someone had told me back then that all three of us would end up running against each other in a provincial election,” Mr. Denley says, “I would have said ‘impossible.’”

Riding debates could get testy. And Mr. Denley expects they will: “If they want to throw stones at each other I’m happy to watch the spectacle – just as I did as a journalist. A lot of politics is just noise, we know that. None of that stuff matters to real people.”

Ottawa West-Nepean is a riding where, uniquely, the three candidates have as much clout with voters as their three leaders will have. Mr. Chiarelli has the cloak of office but is also minister of a portfolio that enrages seniors. Mr. Denley has 630 days of listening to people at their doors but also has a leader the electorate is only beginning to take the measure of. Mr. Cullen has a reputation as an energetic ward worker but is trying to make inroads in a riding where the NDP has rarely factored.

Mr. Denley played a key role in helping write the various policy papers the Conservatives put out since the last election and says he is “totally in sync” with his leader on the party’s attention-getting platform – create one million jobs, cut 100,000 public-service jobs, no new taxes, balance the budget.

“If you’re going to do something controversial,” Mr. Denley says, “put it to people in an election. That’s what an election is for.”

And this one, in this riding, is anyone’s guess.

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