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Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak is pictured at his office at Queen's Park on Wednesday. (Chris Young for The Globe and Mail)
Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak is pictured at his office at Queen's Park on Wednesday. (Chris Young for The Globe and Mail)

Ontario Tory Leader Tim Hudak a man of contradictions Add to ...

He’s bland. He’s smart. And he stubbornly clings to the same script he's been reading now for months: increased spending for health care. More money for education. A harmonized sales tax. And all-day kindergarten for the province.

No, this is not Dalton McGuinty. It's his rival, Tim Hudak, the man who will spend the next month crisscrossing Ontario, pleading for an end to eight years of Liberal rule. And he intends to do it not so much by opposing Mr. McGuinty as by occupying his territory – claiming the middle ground for the Progressive Conservatives and squeezing the Liberals to the marginal left.

“There's no room in the centre, because we are sitting all over their turf,” confided one senior party official, explaining the campaign strategy.

It amounts to a gamble on ennui, a conviction that voters have grown tired of a Premier who has held sway for nearly a decade, and are hungering for a fresh face. But given the similarities between the two platforms, given both parties are trying to carve up the middle ground, voters would be forgiven for asking, just who is this fresh face? Who is Tim Hudak?

Accidental politician

The knock against Mr. Hudak, and it's a common one, is that he's a cipher. His positions on a range of issues suggest pragmatism over ideology, consensus over personal belief. Contradictions abound: His maternal grandfather was a socialist and union leader but Mr. Hudak gravitated to Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution; he gives tough, tightly focused speeches but friends say his true style is non-confrontational.

And if Mr. Hudak is successful in winning the Oct. 6 election, his path to Queen's Park will have been an accidental one. After completing his masters in economics at the University of Washington on a full academic scholarship, he was planning to get his doctorate. But he ended up becoming a long-shot Progressive Conservative candidate in the 1995 election after his childhood friend, Anthony Annunziata, had to bow out over a conflict with his job.

Mr. Hudak defied the odds and was elected MPP for the riding of Niagara South in the 1995 sweep that ushered in the Progressive Conservatives under Mr. Harris. Tom Long, a party strategist and an author of the Common Sense Revolution, the Tory platform document for the 1995 campaign, said he had to go through the book of candidates on election night, searching for Mr. Hudak's photo.

“We didn't anticipate winning his riding,” he said. “It took me a while to figure out who he was.”

Mr. Hudak, now 43, did not remain in the background for long, nabbing the first of his three cabinet posts in 1999. A party insider said he was among a group of young MPPs who were deemed to be true believers, and promptly ensconced under the wing of Mr. Harris.

Mr. Hudak may not have set out to be a politician, but that’s not to say he wasn’t steeped in politics.

He grew up in the small border town of Fort Erie in Southern Ontario, and was weaned on American culture: football, chicken wings and U.S. news. Every summer during university, he worked as a Customs officer. (His biggest achievement? He once caught someone smuggling a stash of cocaine and several handguns into Canada.)

But Mr. Hudak’s political education had much more personal roots.

His mother’s father, a pipe fitter and union president at Polysar in Sarnia, was a staunch supporter of the New Democrats. Growing up, Mr. Hudak remembers the NDP signs on his grandparents’ front lawn when his family spent much of the summer in Sarnia.

His grandfather gave him books with a left-wing perspective, but it didn’t take long for Mr. Hudak to chart a different philosophical course. He graduated from the University of Western Ontario with an honours degree in economics in 1990, just in time to face one of the bleakest job markets in recent memory. Bob Rae was NDP premier at the time. The recession prompted Mr. Hudak to veer right and embrace the Common Sense Revolution espoused by the Conservatives.

“I [was]expecting to take on the world,” Mr. Hudak said in an interview in his office at the provincial legislature, “and I found myself shortly thereafter working at the duty-free shop, stacking beer.”

He never mentions his socialist grandfather in his speeches. But during the interview, he recalled how touched Thomas Dillon was when his grandson gave him a book on socialism for his 90th birthday.

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