Bonnie Crombie, the presumed front-runner in the race for leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party, is facing an effort from some of her rivals to portray her as too far to the political right and too friendly with big developers – essentially a gentler version of the province’s Progressive Conservative Premier, Doug Ford.
Ms. Crombie, the mayor of Mississauga, west of Toronto, has raised more money than all the other candidates in the Liberal leadership race combined, amassing a total that exceeds $900,000, according to Elections Ontario. Some of that cash has come from large donors in the real estate and development industries.
That has made her a target. Her rivals have said these connections would be a liability as the party seeks to capitalize on the failings of Mr. Ford, whose links to big landowners, and especially his now-reversed plan to allow them to develop parts of the province’s environmentally protected Greenbelt, have badly bruised his government in recent months.
Ms. Crombie has faced pointed questions on the issue from two leadership candidates: Yasir Naqvi, an Ottawa MP who served as Ontario attorney-general under former premier Kathleen Wynne; and Nate Erskine-Smith, a Toronto MP with a reputation as a maverick backbencher in Ottawa. Mr. Naqvi has called Ms. Crombie “Doug Ford lite” for accepting large donations from developers who have also backed Mr. Ford’s Progressive Conservatives.
The pair have also pointed to Ms. Crombie’s comments over the summer that she would entertain removing land from the Greenbelt if proper consultations were done, and that she thought the party should appeal to the “centre right.” She has since rescinded both statements.
Mr. Naqvi and Mr. Erskine-Smith have also accepted donations from developers. And Ms. Crombie has countered that the province’s Liberal Party, which has been struggling to rebuild after being booted out of government in 2018, desperately needs a leader that can raise cash.
Ontario’s Liberals, trounced in the past two general elections and left with just nine seats, will announce the results of their leadership race on Dec. 2. The winner will face Mr. Ford and Official Opposition NDP Leader Marit Stiles in the 2026 provincial election.
The only other remaining candidate in the leadership race is Liberal MPP Ted Hsu. Rookie Toronto MPP Adil Shamji dropped out and endorsed Ms. Crombie on Thursday.
One particular group of donations to Ms. Crombie’s campaign is already providing her critics with additional ammunition.
According to Elections Ontario records, Ms. Crombie received more than $30,000 collectively from 10 people whose names match those of executives at Vaughan-based development company HBNG Holborn Group. Each gave the maximum $3,350 in late June to mid-July.
Several had also previously given large amounts to Progressive Conservative candidates, or to Mr. Ford’s 2018 leadership campaign.
Corporate donations are not allowed in Ontario, but company executives often donate en masse, and so do members of wealthy families.
HBNG Holborn Group recently had business before Mississauga’s city council. On Aug. 1, Ms. Crombie voted in favour of a settlement on a proposal by the developer for a multitower high-rise complex in the heart of Mississauga, where a YMCA centre is now located, right across from city hall.
The project, which had been set to go to the province’s land tribunal, involves converting a road to a pedestrian walkway. The city had initially balked at this, but the deal was ultimately okayed by city planners and unanimously approved by council. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
Mississauga’s code of ethics does not consider political donations gifts that would put a politician in a conflict of interest. But Ms. Crombie’s leadership rivals are still calling the vote inappropriate.
Mr. Erskine-Smith said in an interview that while he doesn’t know all the details, Ms. Crombie should have recused herself to avoid any suggestion of an apparent conflict.
“Doug Ford’s weakness is integrity. And it should be our greatest strength. And we are not going to beat Doug Ford if we are vulnerable to similar accusations and if there’s the appearance of impropriety,” he said.
Mr. Naqvi was not available for an interview. In a statement, his campaign director, Milton Chan, said it is “unethical” and “should be unlawful” for politicians to accept large donations from people who stand to benefit from decisions they make or directly influence.
Ms. Crombie declined an interview request. Taylor Deasley, a spokesperson for her campaign, said in an e-mail that the mayor has “strictly adhered” to all city and Elections Ontario rules and has “no knowledge of the thousands of individual donors” who have given money to her leadership campaign.
“If anyone is donating to my campaign or to the Ontario Liberal Party in the hopes of another Doug Ford cash-for-access government, they are in for a rude awakening,” Ms. Crombie said in a statement.
Both Mr. Erskine-Smith and Mr. Naqvi have said they would use the power of the premier’s office to strengthen election-finance rules. Mr. Naqvi has said he would bring back a provision, repealed by Mr. Ford, that required donors to attest that they were giving their own money, not their employers’, to discourage the circumvention of the ban on corporate donations.
Mr. Erskine-Smith acknowledges having received leadership campaign contributions from at least two people in the development industry: $3,350 from Mitchell Cohen, president and chief executive officer of Daniels Corp., and another $3,350 from Mr. Cohen’s son Jacob.
Mr. Erskine-Smith has said he went to high school with the younger Mr. Cohen, and has called him a long-time friend.
Cuckoo Kochar, founder and president of Phoenix Homes, an Ottawa-area developer, hosted a fundraiser for Mr. Naqvi in June, according to an invitation obtained by The Globe and Mail. Mr. Kochar, a prolific donor to both Liberal and Progressive Conservative causes, gave Mr. Naqvi’s campaign $1,000, the Elections Ontario database says.
Mr. Chan, Mr. Naqvi’s campaign director, said in a statement that the difference is that Mr. Naqvi was not in a position to directly influence decisions affecting any developers.
“The ethical problem arises when politicians accept large donations from individuals when they can directly influence decisions that would bring huge financial windfall to their donors’ businesses,” Mr. Chan said.