For his blistering attacks on the government, Mark Holland has earned the status of most-hated Liberal MP among Stephen Harper's Conservatives.
His Ajax-Pickering riding, just east of Toronto, is right at the top of the unofficial list of seats Conservatives have in their sights as they aim for a majority government. Given all of the jumped-up rhetoric of late, an election campaign may be just around the corner.
"I'll tell you, I'll wear out a pair of soles off my shoes going into Holland's riding and happily do it," said a Conservative MP, who asked not be named. "Nobody needs to ask us to go into Ajax-Pickering. There is a line-up of people wanting to go to Ajax-Pickering."
Mr. Holland's riding is considered a "riding of interest" – Tory-speak for a constituency the Conservatives are targeting, although they have dropped the word "target" because of its obvious negative connotations.
Party officials say their interest stems not from any animus toward Mr. Holland. Instead, they feel they made inroads in his riding in the 2008 campaign and think it's winnable this time.
But there's more to it; this feels personal.
"Yeah, they hate me, I know," the 36-year-old politician said. "The fact that they attack me every day in the House of Commons and describe me as their number one public enemy, I wear it as a badge of honour."
First elected in 2004, Mr. Holland is the Liberal public safety critic, overseeing one of the hottest files, which has included saving the long-gun registry, investigating spending on the fake lake, gazebos and security at the G8 and G20 summits, and questioning the $2-billion bill for so-called U.S. style mega-prisons.
And he was among a group of Liberal MPs who enraged some Tories with their digs at former OPP commissioner Julian Fantino, now a Conservative MP, during some raucous Question Period sessions last year.
His direct, accusatory and at times over-the-top style of questioning in the House gets under the skin of Conservatives.
"Slowly, I've been chipping away at some of the things that are important pillars to them," he said. "So, I think if they don't get rid of me, I think they are afraid of the precedent it would set – the idea that there is somebody who is willing to stand up against their ideas and not be afraid of their bullying."
Sometimes, however, that fearlessness turns into recklessness. Last October, he publicly apologized to the former chief of staff to Government House leader John Baird over "certain statements" he had made regarding the senior staffer and the Ontario Provincial Police.
"Look, they come at me every way they can," Mr. Holland said. "They have tried every single combination they can to get rid of me because I'm not afraid to stand up to them."
But Peterborough Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro said Mr. Holland is "fooling himself if he believes that hurling insults at law enforcement officers or being forced to issue public apologies in the face of lawsuits is in any way representative of the people of Ajax-Pickering."
In the House of Commons, Conservative MPs jab and poke at him in their answers to questions or in statements before Question Period. He jokes he's become the source of so much derision that Bloc Québécois colleagues have asked, "Why are they so obsessed with you?"
As for his riding, it has a constant stream of visiting cabinet ministers. In addition, the Tories have put a star candidate, Chris Alexander, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, against him in the next election.
With two senior Harper ministers in nearby ridings – Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda – the party believes with some hard work the blue current just may extend to Ajax-Pickering.
"One thing that has really hurt Holland … is that he is the face of the soft-on-crime policies of the Liberal Party," said a Conservative Party source who asked not to be identified. "Voters in Ajax-Pickering are not happy with his conduct. We're hearing that loud and clear from the community and it will be a big issue in the campaign."
In their zeal to take him down, however, there is a cautionary tale for Tories: "The danger, of course, is that by demonizing Holland, you might actually inflate his status," a Conservative strategist said. "A tight-rope to be walked…"
None of this is lost on Mr. Holland.
"I think people really want to see independent voices that are critical of the government be maintained," he said. "So the more they say that I'm their number one enemy, the more I think people say, 'Okay, this is somebody we need to keep here.'"