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She's been a Bay Street businesswoman and scion of conservative royalty, but she has never held elected office – and the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, whom she wants to lead, are in unprecedented disarray. Can she win them over and win the province? Elizabeth Renzetti asks her


oronto-Dominion Centre is a cluster of black towers that loom over Toronto's downtown, and the 42 nd floor of the north tower is exactly where you'd expect the masters of the universe to make their nests. The mistresses of the universe, too.

This is the office of the private investment counselling firm BloombergSen, and everything from the view south over Lake Ontario to the hushed conference rooms to the funky modern art on the wall whispers, "your money is safe with us." This is where Caroline Mulroney used to work, as vice-president of client services and business development. Technically, she's on leave from her job as she seeks an even bigger nest egg to control: If she wins the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario this month, and then wins the general election and becomes premier in June, she will be in charge of the largest provincial economy in Canada. All without ever having held elected office.

As Ms. Mulroney walks into one of the glass-walled meeting rooms, I ask her if she misses this place. "I miss the people," she says. "It was a great place to work." She indicates the sweeping vista out the window, taking in the ice-frosted edges of the lake. "It was a beautiful place to work."

The lake will mark the southern border of her authority, if she is elected to the PC leadership and then the premiership. Ninety kilometres north is Lake Simcoe, which marks the northern border of the provincial riding she's contesting, York-Simcoe. The riding is a pretty safe bet; the leadership much less so, the premier's office further away still.

Originally, her team had suggested we meet at a Tim Hortons. While I relished the idea of trying to hear her answers over the calls for vanilla dips and iced capps, I also appreciated the frankness of meeting in the BloombergSen office. Ms. Mulroney, 43, is a lawyer and business executive, the wife of another financial-services executive, daughter of our 18th prime minister, product of the finest Ivy League schools, owner of two posh houses. To pretend otherwise would be the worst kind of political hooey.

The question is whether she can bridge the province's divides – whether this business-ace-hockey-mom-with-a-famous-last-name can unite the more than nine million voters in Ontario (slightly more than half of whom voted in the last provincial election) to defeat a Liberal Party that has been in power for 14 years. Even before that, she will need to win over the membership of her own party, which currently has its hair on fire (more on that in a moment).

After Ms. Mulroney fetches herself and a guest a glass of water, she settles at the table to answer a central question: Why does she want to be premier of this province? "I want to get Ontario back on track," she says. "As someone who lives here and votes here and pays taxes here, I want a government that does right by the people of Ontario. That's why I put my name forward to be a candidate, and that's why, given all the upheaval we've had, I put my name forward to be a leadership candidate. I want to defeat Kathleen Wynne, I want a government that gets out of people's way and makes decisions in the best interests of the people of Ontario."

The first debate: Mulroney and Elliott on allegations against Patrick Brown

A PC primer

Caroline Mulroney is running against Christine Elliott, Doug Ford and Tanya Granic Allen for the PC leadership. Here's a primer on the candidates and the tumultuous weeks leading up the leadership vote.

As a speaker, she is articulate, calm, thoughtful, poised. She has more of her mother Mila's reserve and less of her father Brian's famous bonhomie. If she has a tendency toward well-thumbed coins of political currency – the hard-working families of Ontario, putting money back in people's pockets – then who can blame her? Nuance and complexity are hardly rewarded on today's campaign trail. At the first Ontario PC leadership debate in February. you could see her struggling with the yin and yang of this new reality: Say something profound and well-thought-out, or say something politically palatable?

Political palatability was the winner, all around that debate table. So the four PC leadership candidates – Christine Elliott, Doug Ford and Tanya Granic Allen are the others – agreed to scrap the pledge for a carbon tax, which is included in the PC policy platform, the People's Guarantee. Now, all Ms. Mulroney will say about a carbon tax, which she initially supported and which will be mandated federally if it isn't done at the provincial level, is that it "adds more taxes to already overburdened Ontarians." She adds: "As a nominated candidate, I've been knocking on doors with the People's Guarantee, but the carbon tax never sat well with me. When I announced my leadership, I was clear that I came out in opposition to it."

What she doesn't say, leaving it delicately to be inferred, is that the People's Guarantee was developed in the era of Patrick Brown, the former party leader who is responsible for the current chaos in its ranks. Mr. Brown stepped down as leader of the party in late January, after allegations of sexual impropriety were levelled against him, which launched the current leadership race. Shockingly, Mr. Brown later re-entered the leadership race, even after interim leader Vic Fedeli had raised doubts about the number of new memberships and spoke of "rot" within the party. On the day I sat down with Caroline Mulroney, she called for Mr. Brown to quit the race; four days later he did.

With this northern telenovela finally over, at least for the moment, it seemed that the party could concentrate on issues until the results of the leadership vote are announced on March 10 (online voting begins March 2). Given how quickly her leadership campaign was launched, Ms. Mulroney's policies are vaguely outlined and won't be fully costed until her policy platform is released. Those issues include reform of hydro pricing; cutting taxes on the middle class by nearly 25 per cent; investment in mental-health spending and job training. She recently outlined a plan to help Ontario's families through better adoption procedures, training for daycare workers and improved palliative care.

The larger question is, would anyone care about her policy platform – would she indeed be a viable candidate for leadership of the Ontario PCs – if her last name was Maloney and not Mulroney? And this is where the contradictions, or let's say the tensions, in her campaign become so interesting.

She is a political neophyte who is already a fundraising powerhouse: Her campaign has raised more than $700,000 from about 2,000 donors, according to a campaign memo obtained by the Toronto Star. "Part of being a good leader means being able to fund-raise," she says. "We raised more money than the Liberal Party did in any quarter of last year. That also speaks to the fact that people are excited about my candidacy, but people really want change and there's a lot of momentum for that."

There is a deep-pocketed network supporting Ms. Mulroney's candidacy. As one Tory strategist observed, Brian Mulroney has been "beating the bushes and twisting arms" for his daughter. At the same time, what heft does the famous surname carry? How many Ontario voters remember the prime minister who left office in 1993 after winning two majorities, and sinking to an approval rating of 12 per cent toward the end of his reign?

The famous surname "is a double-edged sword," says Peter Van Loan, the Conservative member of Parliament for York-Simcoe who has supported Ms. Mulroney's local candidacy since she announced it in August. "It opens the doors so that people are willing to give her a fair hearing. Anybody who's been a politician for any amount of time inherits both fans and detractors, so she inherits both. But at the end of the day, people will look at her intrinsic qualities and see that those are what make her so impressive." He lists those qualities: "How bright she is, how caring, how relatable."

In her campaign branding, the candidate is simply "Caroline." Asked why her message concentrates on her first name, Ms. Mulroney gives a half-shrug and says: "Because it's my campaign. My dad left office when I was 19 years old, so I've spent 25 years out of Ottawa. Although I did grow up in a political family, it's been a long time since we've been around politics in general."

Dec. 5, 1986: The Mulroney family gathers for a picture for the prime minister’s Christmas card. Caroline, then 12, is at the back; with her, from left, are brothers Benedict and Mark, 10 and 7, father Brian, 15-month-old brother Nicolas and mother Mila. ANDY CLARK/PMO

Sept. 16, 2000: Caroline Mulroney’s father escorts her to church for her wedding to Andrew Lapham. PAUL CHIASSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Yet, it's impossible to discount that she grew up as the Canadian version of royalty. How many other kids received a signed copy of a Richard Nixon book from Nixon himself? How many daughters have had their fathers wish them "happy birthday" on national TV after dad became leader of a national political party? How many other young women had Michael Bublé sing at their wedding, while Ted Rogers and Pierre Karl Péladeau talked business in the back? (Ms. Mulroney's Montreal wedding to Andrew Lapham, internet entrepreneur turned finance executive, and son of U.S. author and editor Lewis Lapham, drew a starry crowd to Saint-Léon-de-Westmount Church in 2000, and was written up in The New York Times.)

While Ms. Mulroney's father was prime minister, she lived in the public eye along with her three brothers, but was shielded from it by loving and protective parents. As Sally Armstrong wrote in her biography of Mila Mulroney, their mother believed that "keeping the children busy … is the best way to build bright, interesting adults." Caroline did well at her lycée, danced, played piano – a classic oldest child's dogged march to success. There was no TV for the children during the week, although Caroline could tape Murphy Brown to watch on weekends. When she wanted to buy a ballet poster, her mother told her she could clean the kitchen at 24 Sussex to earn the money (the staff were asked to stand aside so she could get to the ovens).

Political dynasties create all kinds of fascinating questions, not least of which is: How far from the tree is any apple allowed to fall? Justin Trudeau is a Liberal, like his father Pierre; Caroline Mulroney a Conservative, like her father Brian. If she'd grown up in a different household, would she hold different political beliefs? When I ask her that question, she shakes her head, smile firmly in place.

"My political views are my own. I'm very proud of my father's legacy, and what he has done in Canada. But I decided to join the PC Party of Ontario because I wanted to be part of the team that got rid of the Liberals."

Caroline Mulroney on being referred to as a former PM’s daughter

Even in university, she says, she never had an embarrassing radical phase. Ms. Mulroney's impressive adult career began at Harvard, where she organized "pizza and politics" events and graduated cum laude. She obtained her law degree from New York University. (One detail that will interest Canadian political junkies: During the Oliphant inquiry into Brian Mulroney's payments from German-Canadian businessman Karlheinz Schreiber, it was revealed that the money was partly used to pay the Mulroney children's university fees.)

After moving to Toronto to raise her family, Caroline Mulroney went to work for Wellington Financial and in 2014 was named to the board of the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, overseeing the building of a new international bridge, by Lisa Raitt, then federal transport minister (Ms. Raitt is now part of Ms. Mulroney's leadership bid). She launched the Shoebox Project, a charity providing gifts and necessities to women in shelters, along with her three sisters-in-law.

Feb. 5, 2018: Caroline Mulroney embraces her husband, Andrew Lapham, as her daughters Thea and Miranda and son Lewis look on at an event in Toronto.

Ms. Mulroney's husband is chair of the private equity firm Blackstone Canada. It's a nice life by any standard, but it introduces tensions of its own, or, in the parlance of modern political life, it means they are part of the dreaded elite. The family owns two houses, one in Toronto's tony Forest Hill neighbourhood, purchased in 2006 for almost $1.8-million. The other house, bought in July, 2017, for $2.7-million, is in Jackson's Point, an affluent community on the shores of Lake Simcoe in the riding where Ms. Mulroney is a candidate.

It was from the house in Jackson's Point that Caroline Mulroney announced her bid for the leadership of the Ontario PC Party, in a video message. In the video, she is in the midst of throwing a Super Bowl party, with her husband and four adorable, happy kids surrounding her. It is part of a carefully crafted message, of course – the Super Bowl party, the kids she drives to their hockey games in her minivan. Those kids go to a private school in Toronto, however, raising yet another tension: How can someone who wants to oversee the largest public-school system in the country understand the concerns of ordinary parents when her own kids are in private school?

Ms. Mulroney has a well-rehearsed answer to that question, perhaps anticipating that it will arise in a town hall somewhere: "My husband and I make the choices that we want for our family just like parents do across this province. … Parents should get to make the choices they want for their families. As premier I intend on having the best public-school system in the country. I absolutely can speak to that and will fight for that. The way to do that is to work with families, work with teachers, work with people around the province, make sure their concerns are being addressed and that we have the right policies in place."

Here is one further contradiction: She enters politics as a neophyte, and thus has the benefit of a clean slate, and holds the currently much-in-vogue outsider card: She has never held elected office, but she's also never chased an intoxicated staffer around a bar, either.

"Caroline Mulroney and Christine Elliott don't have much baggage," says Lorne Bozinoff of Forum Research polling group. "They're very likeable and attractive candidates who appeal to the public, and I think that boosted the Conservatives' fortunes." Unlike Doug Ford's tug to the right, Mr. Bozinoff said, the two female candidates' policies push the party to the centre, where Ontario voters tend to be most comfortable.

At the same time, Ms. Mulroney's lack of experience has been held up as the brash entitlement of a carousel rider trying to grab the brass ring on the first go-round. Andrew Cohen, author and Carleton University professor of journalism, covered the Mulroney era and says he welcomes the younger woman's entry into politics, with a caveat: "My reservation about Caroline Mulroney is this presumption that the premiership is an entry-level position.… It's the height of presumption that she would say, 'I'm ready to be premier of Ontario,' with its 13 million people, a complex place of enormous diversity."

The leadership candidates get ready to leave the stage after the Feb. 28 debate, the final one before voting gets under way from March 2-10.

But even if the premier's seat doesn't turn out to be within her grasp, observers believe Ms. Mulroney is in it for the long haul – perhaps a provincial cabinet position, perhaps a leap to Ottawa at some point. She has a tight group of friends, kept throughout her life, who name her positive characteristics: smart, goal-oriented, tenacious and deeply committed to her family. "She has all the qualities of a classic leader," says Mona Wakim Brown, a friend from childhood who also worked alongside Ms. Mulroney as a financial analyst at Bear Stearns in New York. "She is a person of integrity. I can tell you that she's not in it for personal gain. She's in it for public service."

Her friends also point out that her elegant exterior does not reveal just how tough that exterior actually is. The sunny life has had patches of darkness. Consider that in September 1991, when she was 17, the satirical magazine Frank announced this: "Hey, Young Tories! It's Frank's Deflower Caroline Contest." Inside was a coupon that said, "Yes, I did it! I've enclosed my proof of conquest. Rush me valuable prizes." The coupon was supposed to be mailed in an envelope that read, "I had Caroline."

The magazine insisted it was merely satirizing the prime minister's decision to showcase his daughter more in public; that explanation did not sit well with Brian Mulroney, who would later tell the CBC, "I wanted to take a gun and go down there and do serious damage to these people."

His daughter was more circumspect, and said much by saying little. When I ask her about it now, she looks out the window before answering: "I thought it was disgusting but I didn't focus on it. … I thought the whole thing was disgraceful."

She pauses for a moment. "I haven't actually spoken about it, ever. I would like to think it wouldn't happen again. My father took a stand against it and he was criticized, as I recall. I would hope that if something like that happened again that it would be called out for what it is."

Caroline Mulroney: 'I'm a feminist. Yes, of course. There's nothing I can't do, nothing my daughters can't do.' FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

That particular humiliation may never be repeated, but a variety of other unpleasantness waits for women in political life, from sexual harassment to crude taunts on social media. It seems like a good time to ask her a question, one that she answers in an instant, with no hesitation: "Yes, I'm a feminist. Yes, of course. There's nothing I can't do, nothing my daughters can't do." One of those daughters, the youngest, is a natural campaigner who loves knocking on doors with her mother.

It is encouraging to have two female candidates running to lead a party that was riven, in part, by allegations of male sexual misconduct. It's also interesting to note that Ms. Mulroney has recently announced a reform plan of the Ontario PCs to "restore members' confidence in the party machine," which includes establishing "a modern, transparent and fair sexual-harassment policy." It's hard to imagine such a policy having been a priority in a Patrick Brown government.

However, it would be in keeping with the policy of a feminist legislator. Kathleen Wynne, first female premier of Ontario, introduced groundbreaking sexual-harassment policies; perhaps there will be a second female premier of an entirely different political stripe who builds on that legacy.

But first, there are doors to be knocked on, alliances to forge, a ranked leadership ballot to win. Caroline Mulroney gets up, politely shakes hands and prepares to continue down a road that will contain as many battles to fight as bridges to build, and enough of both to scar a veteran, never mind a newcomer.