Eric Davis bounded up a stone walkway to shake hands with a potential voter and make his by-election pitch. The last long weekend of the summer was approaching. In a northern Kitchener neighbourhood bordering Waterloo, Daniel Day was one of the few people at home on a hot, sunny weekday afternoon, stripping old white paint from his bungalow’s wooden window frames.
Mr. Davis, the provincial Liberal candidate in Thursday’s by-election in this Southern Ontario riding, a Progressive Conservative stronghold for more than two decades, had found a receptive ear in Mr. Day – and a perceptive eye, too.
“I’m seeing way too many NDP signs around the neighbourhood, but not many Liberal signs,” Mr. Day noted as he ordered a red Liberal sign for his front lawn.
Ontario’s technology hub, home to two universities, a college and BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion, has long been the nearly exclusive election battleground of the Conservatives and the Liberals. Not so in this campaign.
Capitalizing on strife between the governing Liberals and the province’s teachers and other public-sector unions, the NDP and its candidate, Catherine Fife, former president of the Ontario School Boards Association, have turned the Kitchener-Waterloo by-election into a tight three-way contest.
The most recent public opinion polling by Forum Research had Tory contender Tracey Weiler, a business consultant, a Wilfrid Laurier University instructor and a former manager at RIM, in the lead with 34 per cent support, while the Liberals and the NDP were tied for second, each garnering 30 per cent.
With polls showing the Liberals ahead in the Vaughan by-election, also slated for Sept. 6 after veteran Grit MPP Greg Sorbara announced his retirement in August, Kitchener-Waterloo matters more than ever.
The dynamics of power in the Ontario Legislature could be determined here. If the Liberals win Vaughan and Kitchener-Waterloo, Premier Dalton McGuinty will regain the majority government his party lost in last October’s provincial election. A majority, even a slim one, would give the Liberals greater rein to push forward their political agenda.
“It’s up for grabs,” veteran political observer Peter Woolstencroft, who teaches at the University of Waterloo, said of the local race. “I think the big question is what will public-sector voters do? Will they be motivated to stay with the Liberals … or will they move to the NDP?”
If Mr. Davis is feeling the weight of Liberal majority hopes on his shoulders, he’s not showing it or talking about it. A bespectacled lawyer, community volunteer and second-time candidate, Mr. Davis purposely avoided saying the word “majority” in an interview or on doorsteps. He insisted he’s not thinking about the bigger party picture.
“I’m focused on the local race,” Mr. Davis said as he walked from house to house in a pair of scuffed-up black shoes. “When I go door to door, I just keep telling people, ‘Look, this race is all about values.’ And [I’m] asking people what they value.”
At a recent candidates’ debate organized by the local Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Davis and the Liberal record bore the brunt of the attacks.
Ms. Weiler of the Conservatives criticized the government’s fiscal management and its $15-billion projected deficit. Ms. Fife, who ran for the NDP in the 2007 election, accused the Liberals of “manufacturing a crisis in education.”
Just one day earlier, thousands of teachers had packed Queen’s Park to protest against controversial legislation that would freeze their wages, cut benefits and ban strikes or lockouts for at least two years.
“This by-election is historic,” Ms. Fife said in an interview. “I think the voters feel a responsibility to determine what kind of government we’re going to have in the province of Ontario.”
The Kitchener-Waterloo by-election was triggered when long-time Conservative MPP Elizabeth Witmer resigned in April to become chairwoman of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, a provincial government appointment. She was a Red Tory and a popular MPP, representing the riding for 22 years.
Ms. Weiler faces a much tougher battle. She has been door knocking almost daily for more than two months. She believes her campaign has set a local Conservative lawn-sign record, 1,400 and counting. She said she’s not feeling any extra pressure to maintain the Tory winning streak in Kitchener-Waterloo.
Getting supporters to the polls on voting day will be key for all parties. By-elections tend to have lower turnout. Campaigning for this one has occurred during summer vacations and as parents focus on preparing their children for school.
“We’re not taking anything for granted. We are working hard to keep this riding,” Ms. Weiler said. “We have the opportunity here to send the government a message that it is time for change.”
By-elections often serve as a referendum on the government. With the position of premier already decided, many voters aren’t as steadfast in their political loyalties, especially if they’re frustrated with the government and want to send a message.
That’s what Nick Czudyjowycz is contemplating. Typically a Liberal supporter, Mr. Czudyjowycz, 60, left Wednesday night’s candidates debate uncertain of how he would vote.
He supports the Liberals’ tough stand with teachers, but is frustrated over spending scandals at eHealth and Ornge, the province’s air ambulance service. Mr. Czudyjowycz is also weighing whether he wants the Liberals – in power since 2003 – to get a majority government, saying he doesn’t like how the federal Conservatives have handled their majority government in Ottawa.
“Harper has been ramming legislation down without discussion,” said Mr. Czudyjowycz, owner of a small lighting company. “That, in a sense, would happen here if the Liberals gain a majority.”