Patrick Brown made a career of sailing into stormy political seas, fighting the tides and landing career victories against long odds. But the 39-year-old politician many believed was on his way to becoming the next Ontario premier has now encountered a political storm he could not weather.
Just six months shy of a provincial election, Brown was forced to step aside as leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative party amid allegations of sexual misconduct.
Brown has denied the accusations from two women and vowed to defend himself against them, but announced he was resigning the party leadership after consulting with friends and family. The allegations against him were reported by CTV News and have not been verified by The Canadian Press.
Brown’s reversal of fortune struck a number of observers as unusually rapid, even in light of the serious allegations.
For some, the moment was even historic.
“It’s unprecedented,” said University of Windsor political science professor Cheryl Collier, adding the swift response was likely fuelled in part by a growing emphasis on addressing sexual misconduct claims voiced by women. “Especially this close (to an election) … this kind of quick turnaround is just unprecedented.”
Henry Jacek, political science professor at McMaster University, noted that people, including Brown’s own staff, were surprisingly fast to abandon him within moments of a hastily called news conference late Wednesday in which he asserted his innocence and made no mention of relinquishing the party leadership. Four hours later, however, Brown stepped down.
“We don’t normally see things happen that quickly in politics where, boom, you go from being almost on top of the world, you’re likely to win the next election, and hours later you’re out of a job,” Jacek said in a telephone interview.
Up until now, Brown has enjoyed a long run of political victories at the municipal, federal and provincial level. His interest in politics, however, predates his time in public office.
While studying political science in his hometown of Toronto, Brown was serving in the Progressive Conservative Youth Federation where he worked two terms as president.
He formally entered politics in 2000 when he was elected to city council in Barrie, Ont., a feat he accomplished while completing a law degree at the University of Windsor.
He won re-election three years later, but made the jump to federal politics in 2006 as Stephen Harper swept into power. Brown was re-elected in the federal riding of Barrie twice more, but remained a backbencher in Harper’s Conservative government.
His lack of profile was one of many factors that positioned him as a long-shot candidate when he announced his intention to replace Tim Hudak as leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives following the party’s defeat in the 2014 provincial election.
He had no seat in the Ontario legislature, was supported by only five members of the PC caucus, and had virtually no provincial presence until he launched his leadership bid by attacking the Tory establishment he blames for four consecutive election losses.
Brown trumpeted his outsider status as part of his leadership bid, arguing he wasn’t involved in any of the party’s past “policy disasters” such as pledging to cut public sector jobs, and contending he could give the party a fresh start.
Opponents, however, warned of the socially conservative leanings he had revealed during his time in federal politics, likening his views to those held by members of the United States’ far-right-leaning Tea Party movement. During his time in Ottawa, Brown voted in favour of reopening both the abortion and same-sex marriage debates, a move he said he was making on behalf of his constituents.
In the end, however, he powered past his more seasoned provincial rivals, ultimately defeating runner-up and long- time provincial legislator Christine Elliott and assuming the party leadership in May 2015.
Brown didn’t shed his social conservative leanings immediately upon jumping to provincial politics. Social conservatives claim they helped him win the party leadership in 2015, after he told them — in private — he would repeal the Liberals’ sex-education curriculum.
But when his staff sent around a letter saying as much during a 2016 byelection, he disavowed it, changed his stance and told social conservatives their activism wasn’t welcome in his party.
“I mean it when I say everyone is welcome in this party no matter who you love, where you’re born, what the colour of your skin is, what faith you have, what language you speak,” Brown told the Canadian Press at the time. “If you want to be in the party on the basis you want to exclude another group, that’s not on for me.”
Brown risked alienating another faction of the PC base by pushing to replace Ontario’s current cap-and-trade system with a carbon tax that he said could be made revenue neutral with the help of additional tax relief elsewhere. It was an unpopular policy within the base, but Brown remained unapologetic.
“I believe climate change is man made and it’s serious and it’s a threat we need to respond to,” he said. “I don’t think it’s inconsistent with conservatism to care about the environment.”
Recently, Brown began encountering troubles from outside his party as well.
Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne filed a defamation suit against him last year after he told reporters that she was standing trial at a court proceeding in which she was offering testimony.
Those tensions had not spilled over to the polls, however. Buoyed by historically low approval ratings for Wynne, Brown was riding high ahead of Thursday’s resignation and seemed poised for further success.
The allegations, however, have not only put an end to his quest to become the next Ontario premier, but cast his party’s prospects in doubt as they scramble to plot their way forward.
Jacek, for one, suspects Brown’s personal run of political luck has ended for good.
“I don’t know how he comes back,” he said. “Maybe he goes over and works in the third world and does some Mother Theresa type job or something…It will take very dramatic things for him to do, and it will take time.”
Michelle McQuigge , The Canadian Press