Sunday, September 19, 2004

NOTES FROM A WILD CONVENTION


WELL, EXCUUUUUSE ME

I know you political junkheads at home are hopping mad because you haven't had a blog from the Ontario PC Leadership Convention- specifically, from me. I plead not guilty. I wasn't responsible for what happened at the convention on Saturday. The screwups kept me at the convention and away from my computer all darned day and all night. So if you want to blame anyone, blame the party executive.

There was another reason I wasn't at the computer--- WE WON! So like heck am I going to blog when I could be out celebrating with the John Tory campaign team. I have my priorities straight.

I started the day phoning up voters from the John Tory campaign office in midtown Toronto. I then made my way to the convention hall at the Crowne Plaza Don Valley to watch the speeches.

ERNIE EVES' TRIBUTE

The party paid tribute to their fallen leader, Ernie Eves, in a presentation jokingly described by some party members as Ernie's "good riddance" party. I know that sounds mean spirited, but this party has been in power for 50 of the last 61 years and many people are still bitter about what happened in October 2003. I personally feel Ernie's been treated shabbily in the past year. Since the election defeat he seemed to go into hiding, as if the party wanted nothing to do with him. He really deserves better than that.

Having said that, the party did give Ernie a very good tribute in his honor at the convention for his years of public service. About time. But it was nothing like the tribute for Mike Harris two years ago. Mike went out hailed as a conquering hero. With Ernie, you just got the feeling that people were trying to cheer him up. You really felt sorry for the guy. And you felt even sorrier for Ontario that such a great public servant has to depart the scene so soon.

BILL DAVIS

Another guy who's been sort of villified during this leadership contest has been Bill Davis, the former Premier. The "Davis" tradition in the party has been heckled, trashed, ripped to shreds---- by PC party members no less. He really didn't deserve that treatment, either.

But Brampton Billy was in fine form at the convention. Supposedly he was trying to pay tribute to Eves, but he gave a great oratory, rarely looking at his prepared remarks, making one joke after another, and as he remarked, trying to "fill time" until the announcement of the first ballot. (As it turned out, Davis probably should have spoken longer- several hours longer, at least.)

His best lines came when he took aim at the media, all of whom were assembled at the back of the room. He took the mickey out of Steve Paikin's comment on TVO that Bill Davis was in a WHEELCHAIR at the convention. Davis was quite flabbergasted about that comment, because, well, he wasn't in a wheelchair at all. Another target was CTV's Mike Duffy who was ribbed for never going to church on Sundays all these years. When that crack was made there was a shot of Duffy on the big screen, standing in the media section. That got some big howls.

HARPER WARNS THE PARTY: STICK TOGETHER

Federal Conservative leader Stephen Harper's speech was a solid reminder of why provincial Conservatives have to stick together and not fall into the kind of state that befell the federal scene for a decade.

Harper talked about the split in the Conservative movement, with the federal PCs and the Reform/Canadian Alliance allowing the Liberals to win in a walk in every election for a decade.

With the perceived polarization of the party between the Red Tories and the CSR loyalists, Harper's speech served as a dire warning to the losing side that they had better not quit the party in disgust at the end of the day if they truly wanted to see the Liberals thrown out.

VOTING RETURNS

The returns started coming in shortly after Stephen Harper's speech ended. When the first results started to appear, the air literally went out of the convention hall. Supporters were gasping at the screen and unhappy with the initial results. With 43 of 103 ridings reporting, John Tory had a lead over Jim Flaherty- but it was nowhere near enough to claim a first ballot win. As returns were updated, and as the John Tory bedrock ridings Toronto Centre, St. Paul's and Don Valley West reported in, it became clear to those of us in the hall that it was probably going to be a long night.

Most of the conventioneers thought they were going to be out of there by 7PM at the latest. In fact John Tory's campaign were scheduled to go to the Labatt House on Queen's Quay around that time for whatever party they had planned (it's always called a "victory party", even when you get completely smoked). But there were delays in reporting the results and, maddeningly, no one seemed to have a clue what was going on with the delays. I even met up with Paul Sutherland (Klees campaign manager) and he didn't have any information about the delays. The party was all hush-hush. All he knew was that my guy was doing well.

We would hear rumors that results were going to be announced in 20 minutes. Then 20 minutes would go by and there'd be another rumor. The wildest rumor I heard was that some female Frank Klees supporter told someone that there was some sort of tie between Klees and Tory and that Klees was going to win.

Meanwhile frustrated conventioneers headed outside to smoke cigarettes, or straight to the gift shop for dinner: potato chips, ice cream and soda pop.

THE SIX O'CLOCK NEWS

The convention hall was small and overcrowded for the convention attendees and very crowded for the media, who only had enough room to do their live hits and didn't have any fancy skyboxes set up like they did at the last convention in 2002. About all you could say for the setup was that the convention hall did look good on TV.

The six PM news cycle came and went. Global News had their ace reporter Nick Dixon in the convention hall and they hooked up Tim Hudak and Elizabeth Witmer to talk to Graham Richardson on Focus Ontario at 6:30 PM. (Richardson dropped by the convention hall later in the evening). Citytv had Adam Vaughan doing live hits from the hall. The reporters were clearly frustrated at the lack of news and the slow pace of the results. The delay in announcing the first ballot totals was becoming the story of the convention. Some TV people remembered what happened in 1996 when the Liberals were stuck in Maple Leaf Gardens until five in the morning to select Dalton McGuinty- on the fifth ballot.

Around 7PM another major development took place. We were tuning into CP24 in the bar upstairs when they all of a sudden reported that Mel Lastman, former Toronto mayor, was in serious condition after suffering a heart attack. Doctors pronounced him out of danger, but word spread quickly among the many municipal politicians and their aides at the convention. When one group of people asked Adam Vaughan about the latest rumor about when the results would be announced, he told them "Mel Lastman's suffered a heart attack." And they all gasped as Vaughan rushed out to do a standup.

THE CONVENTION GOES ON AND ON AND ON

As the clock struck 8PM conventioneers grew increasingly frustrated with what was happening and were anxious to have a decision. Several had gone without dinner and many were frustrated at the lack of hot dog stands or pizza joints in the vicinity of the hall. We heard on the floor that the Flaherty suite still had a bunch of sandwiches, but that Steve Gilchrist was guarding them like a hawk.

Around this hour the various candidates started returning to the convention hall and placards were handed out once again for the supporters to wave, and there was the growing sense that some sort of decision was coming. The party president finally went up to the stage to announce "the first ballot results will be announced at 9:10 PM!" Thank God, most of these people were saying.

FIRST COUNT RESULTS

The first ballot confirmed what a lot of people on the floor already knew by now: John Tory got 45% of the vote on the first ballot, Jim Flaherty got around 33% and Frank Klees around 22%. Then the cheers turned to groans when Blair McCreadie announced that returning officers were now being ordered to reallocate Klees' votes and do a second count. Many were hoping that the second count had already been done and we could all go home now. Now it appeared we were stuck in this stinking hot hotel all night. I wasted my time reminiscing with some people about the 2002 convention in downtown Toronto when I was supporting Tony Clement- about how we bussed in all these people off the street and so on, and how we were all in line to vote when we heard that Clement had kicked the bucket and withdrawn from the race. (Clement did attend the 2004 convention- I saw him on the opening night going into a restaurant.)

The shortcomings of this convention site really became evident around this time. The Tory and Flaherty camps were grumbling because they were having trouble finding food to eat. The hotel bars were inexplicably closing up and the restaurant closed early at 9:45! Some people were reduced to ordering pizza for themselves. Meanwhile, many of the Klees supporters were getting up and going straight home; their man had been eliminated and they had seen enough. I saw a couple from my home riding of Don Valley East who were disgustedly heading out to the parking lot.

Plans for the post-convention victory parties were also going up in smoke. Klees' people were supposed to go to Joe Maggiano's-- where those of us from Don Valley East went for Dave Johnson's and Paul Sutherland's defeat parties. I don't know whether that even took place. (For those of you interested, Joe Maggiano's is a great restaurant with terrific Italian food. Make sure you make a point of going down there sometime. Just don't go there expecting to celebrate a victory.)

John Tory's people had only booked the Labatt House to 10PM so their plans totally went up in smoke. The joke about Jim Flaherty's campaign was that they weren't going to have a party because everyone had to go to church the next day. The reality was they weren't going to have a party, period. Some Flaherty people were hoping they were going to get the entire Klees second-choice vote but everyone knew that was total spin.

After the first ballot the Tory camp felt almost certain about victory- we had heard that many of our scrutineers were reporting that Klees' second choice votes had gone to Tory, and that several ballots didn't even list a second preference. I knew several Klees people had listed Tory as number two, so we all figured Tory would go over the top without any difficulty.

But waiting for the final results took forever. At 11PM the newscasts were leading with the story of the chaos at the convention and the delay in announcing the results. "We may have a result by the end of this newscast but I'm not holding my breath," one of the reporters said. The party was taking a beating in the electronic media for whatever the screwup was that delayed the results. We had heard rumors about a computer problem, about returning officers going home and being called in to come back, all sorts of stuff.

VIC-TORY

Shortly after 11PM the announcement came that a result was coming shortly, and with that came a cry of relief from the convention hall. Thank G it's over, they were saying.

All of us in the Tory camp were feeling pretty confident about things for several hours and felt we had things pretty much in control based on the first ballot numbers. But the moment I knew Tory finally had it in the bag was when Tory organizer Wayne Snow came into the hall, with a big smile on his face, hugging everyone in sight, congratulating everyone and telling them "we won!" Word spread quickly and supporters were rushing to take pictures and shake the candidate's hand, and it continued long after the formal victory was announced at the podium.

The Jim Flaherty supporters were just sad. They all knew they had lost. Earlier they had chanted slogans like "CSR!" and "Win With Conviction!" Now, when his final vote total was announced the section stood and cheered "We Love Jim! We Love Jim!"

Tory finally got around to having a proper victory party with his campaign team, at a watering hole downtown, and I stayed there with friends past 2 in the morning. People were lighting up cigars and celebrating long into the night. Many of these people hadn't been part of a winning campaign for a long, long time. Many went from losing in the provincial election in 2003 to losing Tory's mayor's race, to losing with Tony or Belinda in the federal leadership race, and then topping it all off they lost in the federal election with their local candidate. Now, they'd all finally done something right and won a leadership race. No wonder people were enjoying this.

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Best thing about the win for me is that I no longer have to watch the friggin' NEWS! I was doing media monitoring for Tory all campaign and was watching nothing but fires, murders and car accidents every night for two months straight. Thank God that's over. Now I can go back to watching the Simpsons or whatever I usually watch at that hour (just kidding).

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

Excellent roundup... I was too busy sweating like a dog in that convention hall, and coughing up a lung due to the vicious cold I had all weekend... wasn't going to miss this convention, though. Did we meet? Anyhow, great blog, and great to see someone was paying attention at this convention.