Patrick Brown's bid to reclaim the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party gained new speed on Wednesday, with the party executive giving him the green light to enter the race he triggered three weeks ago with an abrupt resignation amid allegations of sexual misconduct.
The decision comes after several chaotic weeks for the party, starting with a rushed media conference in late January at which an emotional Mr. Brown denied allegations of sexual misconduct involving two younger women. He resigned hours later under pressure from his caucus members.
Since then, Mr. Brown has faced allegations that he engaged in financial impropriety, inflated party membership numbers and didn't act on ballot tampering in a number of local nomination races.
After the decision, Mr. Brown said on social media his campaign will focus on defending the People's Guarantee, the centrist PC platform drafted under his leadership, which includes a carbon tax opposed by the other candidates in the race.
"I won't let you down. This is about a movement to get Ontario back on track. I want to finish the job that we started," Mr. Brown wrote in a statement posted to Twitter.
The 39-year-old former leader will now be one of five candidates vying to take over Ontario's Official Opposition during a snap leadership contest that has rocked the party, exposing deep divisions in its caucus and membership just three months before a general election.
On Wednesday, a party nomination committee responsible for vetting leadership candidates announced that Mr. Brown and three others had been given the green light to run. They include Tanya Granic Allen, an activist who opposes Ontario's new sex-education curriculum; former Tory MPP Christine Elliott; and former Toronto councillor Doug Ford.
Political newcomer Caroline Mulroney had previously been approved to run by the party.
On Tuesday, interim leader Vic Fedeli told reporters he had warned the party's president the previous week that he did not have confidence in Mr. Brown to stand as the party's candidate in a Barrie-area riding. The comment was made after Mr. Brown was expelled from the party caucus. He now sits as an independent in the legislature.
Mr. Fedeli's office said on Wednesday that he was remaining "neutral throughout the leadership race" and would not comment on the party's move to green-light Mr. Brown. Other members of caucus reached on Wednesday declined to comment.
The candidates were vetted and approved after a nearly five-hour meeting at Toronto's Albany Club, according to a senior party official. Two officials, who asked not to be identified because they were discussing a confidential meeting, said that the votes to approve the candidates were unanimous.
The new leader will be elected on March 10 by party members, with voting expected to start on March 2 – only eight days after Mr. Brown and three others passed the final hurdle to run.
Richard Ciano, a former PC president, applauded the committee's decision, especially in light of the compressed timetable the party is working under. "It's now where it should be, it's up to the members to choose who the next leader of the party should be," he said.
Ms. Elliott, who has made two previous attempts to win the party's leadership, called on party members to support her bid. "Now is the time for our party to move forward. I remain the only candidate in this race with the ability to unite our members, and the experience to win the next election," she said Wednesday in a statement.
Mr. Ford, who had criticized Mr. Brown's decision to step into the leadership competition, said he wasn't concerned that the controversy surrounding Mr. Brown will drown out the other candidates and their ideas.
"I'm zeroed in and zoned in on Kathleen Wynne," Mr. Ford said in an interview Wednesday. "I'm zoned in on becoming the premier of this province and changing it and making sure we start respecting the taxpayer."
Under Mr. Brown, the party had seemed ready to sweep Premier Kathleen Wynne and her Liberals from power. After nearly 15 years in opposition, the PCs enjoyed near-record fundraising and had seen the party's membership rolls swell under Mr. Brown's leadership. However, Mr. Fedeli announced after Mr. Brown's abrupt resignation on Jan. 25, following a CTV News report of allegations of sexual misconduct against Mr. Brown, that "rot" had grown in the party under the former leader.
On Tuesday, in a complaint to Ontario's Integrity Commissioner, PC MPP Randy Hillier said that "disconcerting patterns" related to Mr. Brown's finances required explanation, including whether he has failed to disclose gifts, travel and other sources of income.
He cited, among other issues, a Globe and Mail report that documented a proposed $375,000 transaction between Mr. Brown and a future PC candidate. Mr. Brown has denied that any such deal occurred.
The Canadian Press