Patrick Brown wants redemption, and needs Brampton to deliver it
Photo by Joel Wittnebel

Patrick Brown wants redemption, and needs Brampton to deliver it

Phineas Finn was the genteel hero of Anthony Trollope's eponymous novel about political life in Britain in the 1860s. Finn's was an inner battle between conviction and compromise. And the vagaries of power; how quickly it was snatched from him. At times a rollicking read that carries us inside the lacy boudoirs of the Victorian Era, it's also a parable that transports easily to the politics of our day.

The arc of Patrick Brown's political career, possibly at its mid-point, has begun a turbulently sharp descent. Does his move to become the next mayor of Brampton represent a political sinecure for a man desperate for nothing more than a little relevance; or could it be the launch pad for another reach to the stars?

There is an undeniable energy about him that inspires a question: Could he be the Phineas Finn of modern-day Canadian politics, a young lawyer who shows early political promise, suffers a salacious fall from grace, and then gains redemption?

The Pointer caught up with him in the earliest days of this election cycle, on his path to political redemption. He was eager to talk about his plans for mayor and respond to some of the vitriol levelled against him.

It's an early Friday afternoon on a hot day in the first week of August, and he arrives for an interview at La Cakery, a small, family-owned business in a non-descript family mall just a few feet from the Queen-McLaughlin Road intersection. It's a happy place, with four employees busy making a wide assortment of cakes and treats. Brown has a small team of supporters in tow and takes a seat by the window. He is casually dressed, and at 40, still looks youthful, despite a full day of door knocking in oppressive heat. He rejects food or drink and dives straight into his candidacy and the controversies swirling around him.

Few politicians survive the allegation of sexual impropriety, unless their name is Trump.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in life, but Brown appears to have three or four or maybe more. In January, he says he suffered a near fatal disassembling. It looked at the time as if he was drained of all colour. If you cut him back then, he might have bled white. The late Dalton Camp, another Red Tory, like Brown, mused that his party was as tough on its leaders as its leaders were tough on the party. But Brown is now past that, he says, and too busy to give it a whole lot of thought. He has to organize a campaign, knock on thousands of doors, and size up his opponents in an overcrowded race: Jeffrey, the one-term mayor and former Liberal cabinet minister at Queen's Park, Bal Gosal, the former cabinet minister in the Stephen Harper regime (and a former colleague), John Sprovieri, the retiring Ward 9 & 10 Regional councillor and arch Jeffrey critic, Wesley Jackson, a lawyer, Mansoor Ameersulthan, a former united steel workers' union representative, and Vinod Kumar Mahesan.

Brown wasn't expecting a stirring aria to welcome his entry into the race, but the wail of critical disapproval was loud. Jeffrey said he shouldn't use the office of Brampton mayor "to rehabilitate his political career." Why doesn't he run in Barrie, she asked? A columnist at a local paper said he appears to have little interest in the people of Brampton and is nothing but an "outside political opportunist." A top organizer with a leading community-based media engagement group, was blunt, and mocking. "He is a political whore," he said.

But most politicians are opportunists. It matters little if you live in a city for five minutes or five decades, if you qualify to run and scare up more votes, you win.

Brown, who worked for Magna International while juggling his early political life, could probably make more as a lawyer than he could as mayor of Brampton.

He calls Jeffrey's words about him "mudslinging." He rejects her advice that he run in Barrie, and counters that her leadership in Brampton has created a "dysfunctional" mess. Brown says he's a disciple of the Hazel McCallion philosophy of city building: secure a strong financial footing, offer citizens a better quality of life, get a buy-in from all members of council, then sell, sell, sell the city to businesses around the world. He wants to fill up Brampton's half-empty employment lands with Fortune 500 firms, which will immediately improve its alarmingly unstable tax base. He hopes to brush clean Brampton's reputation as one of the most unlivable cities in the GTA. But, most importantly, he wants to end the personal bickerfest that infests city hall debate (and has for decades, like some ongoing small-town drama between former high school rivals). He thinks a team-first approach will result in "more jobs and more investments."

Brown says Queen's Park, with Liberal politicians such as Jeffrey asleep at the wheel, has trampled on Brampton's surging healthcare needs. He wants the money now going to smaller communities such as Oakville and London to flow here, with a booming population that is growing at twice the rate of the national average, according to the last census. How he squares his plans with a Doug Ford-led legislature that is cutting costs, he doesn't say. He also says Ford's move to deny him and others a chance to run for regional chair, was a black mark "on the democratic process." Yes, he's pleased that Ryerson decided to bring a satellite campus to Brampton, but why shouldn't Canada's ninth largest city have its own university? "Why does this city celebrate consolation prizes?" he asks.

The bravado is backed up by his resume.

As a young adult he served two-terms as president of the Progressive Conservative Youth Federation. At age 22, while completing his law degree from the University of Windsor, after studying political science at the University of Toronto, he balanced professional school with his new responsibilities as a Barrie city councillor. Near the end of his second term, he quick-stepped his way to three federal election victories, representing the area as the local Member of Parliament. Barrie politicians across the aisles and residents who continually supported the hyper-energetic leader, widely believed - evidenced by a growing file of local accomplishments, particularly in economic development - that he was doing wonders for the booming area. In 2015, before winning a byelection to become a local MPP, he turned this growing pocket of power into a brazen bid to become leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party. At age 36, the boyish Brown scored a stunning (and relatively easy) win over Christine Elliott by employing a new-style of political powerlifting. He signed-up 40,000-plus new members, including a sizeable contingent from Brampton's politically opportunistic South Asian community. His winning formula was somewhat untried within his party, but deadly effective: he reached deep into the cultural mosaic of the province, especially the Greater Toronto Area. That's code for picking off many relatively new-Canadian supporters. As MP, Brown headed the Conservative Party's GTA caucus, and the Canada-India Parliamentary Association. During his leadership run, he met hundreds of Brampton citizens, forging close contacts with some of the most influential, and so began his sign-up blitz " tapping into a voter base that includes 70 per cent who identify as a visible minority.

Brown began his PC leadership bid as a no-namer with 2 per cent of the vote (his figures) and ended with 62 per cent, crushing Elliott by double digits. After the win, he became the premier-in-waiting. But from the beginning, there were questions about his stewardship skills, his connectability and his street cred as a Big C conservative. Brown did not support fundamental changes to the Liberal sex-education curriculum and he's the only Ontario PC leader to march in Toronto's Pride Parade.

Trustworthiness, as questionable nominations in numerous ridings quickly dogged his reputation, even became a point of suspicion within his own party. In a CBC news story that appeared eight months before the 2018 vote, reporter Meagan Fitzpatrick quoted Carlos Naldinho, founder of I'm Out, an online group for conservatives: "We want to replace Kathleen Wynne, but he's just as bad, probably worse."

Potential nominees, many of whom had for months led local grass-roots campaigns, were stymied by an authoritarian heavy-hand from the central party headquarters.

Ridings such as Mississauga-Erin Mills, Milton, Durham, Burlington, and eight others, were riddled with confusion over voting rolls and charges of foul play. In King-Vaughan, the debate over how the nomination was handled became so contentious, police were called in. Even that paled compared to what happened in Hamilton-West, Ancaster-Dundas. Hamilton police authorized a criminal probe, which is still active, investigating allegations of vote rigging and ballot-stuffing. Emails from Brown to a couple of senior party officials were leaked, suggesting he had directed the Hamilton nomination outcome he wanted. 

Many party members bristled at his centrist leanings on budget issues, too. He was in favour of a revenue neutral carbon tax. This seemed at odds with the party's business base. While visiting Brampton Civic hospital as leader, he was quick to point out the deplorable conditions, as patients were left in the hallways. He called for the Wynne government to ante up on its financial commitments to health care - another awkward shift left? Or an example of his centrist social-conservatism in the crowded middle. He was also irked when Wynne cut off funding for "life-changing" Intensive Behavioural Intervention (IBI) therapy for older children with autism. Brown called the move "heartless."

His critics saw visions of disastrous meltdowns past (see Hudak, Tim, prematurely promising to hatchet the civil service; Tory, John, pandering with tax dollars for religious schools).

Could it possibly happen again?

Heading into the '18 vote, you could almost smell the rotting Liberal carcass being dragged across the province as Wynne and her scandal-ravaged party staggered toward an early June vote.

But the expected Brown wave crashed hard against the proverbial rocks. Before you could say palace revolt, he became a human pinata, beaten to a pulp for his alleged personal and political transgressions.

In January of this year, two young women accused Brown of sexual misconduct during his time as MP. The allegations were particularly damaging, capturing international attention at the height of the #MeToo movement. Brown was forced to resign, and in faux moral outrage (as he suggests), the party tossed him on the scrapheap while immediately re-positioning itself to take back the power it had been denied since 2003. Party leaders, sensing a blessing-in-disguise, pivoted further right as the Grits and the NDP duked it out for the centre and left. Brown's squishy, Red Tory leanings (he was a devotee of Brampton's Billy' Davis, the long-time socially conscious premier of the province from 1971 to 1985, who reformed much of Ontario's education system) didn't jibe with a new, harsher, social conservative orthodoxy, with its own Trump-style authoritarian leanings. The Tories couldn't risk another unknown entity like Tim Hudak or John Tory. The result: Brown was out, and a far-right firebrand with the famous familial name, Doug Ford - you get what you see - was in. He won a powerful majority in the June vote.

That seemed to slam shut the lid on Patrick Brown's political life.

But it didn't. Instead of waving a white flag or moving to the Gold Coast of Australia to open a crab shack on the beach, he set out to clear his name and resurrect his career.

He took (and passed) a lie detector test that focused on his time as MP. He sued CTV News for $8 million in damages for "falsely and maliciously" broadcasting a story that ensured the end of his tenure as PC leader. He called the sex allegations against him "false". But nothing could soften his fall from grace. He said he was "emotionally devastated."

It was only after leaning on family and friends and receiving some "kind words" of support and advice from his political mentor, Davis, now 89, the eminence grise of the PC Party, that he eventually emerged from a self-imposed exile at his Mississauga home. Earlier this year, he dipped a tentative toe into local politics by announcing his run for chair of the Region of Peel. But Ford was now all-powerful and not yet finished with his beat-down of Brown. He blocked his potential political resurgence by eliminating the vote on the regional chair in Peel - as well as Niagara, Muskoka, and York.

Now, surely, Brown was toast? But he wasn't. In a last-minute side-step, he signed up to run against Linda Jeffrey and become the 51st mayor of Brampton. The man who would be premier, or regional chair, now wants to head up Canada's 9th largest city.

In 2014, Jeffrey convinced 49 percent of the 36 percent of Bramptonians who bothered to vote her in as mayor. The lesson: it doesn't take a whole lot to win a municipal race. Which makes Brown a dangerous opponent. His organizing skills are impressive (see, PC leadership race), he has an indefatigable energy level, a 9.9 on a scale of 10, said one of his most ardent supporters - Google his name and you'll notice he wins elections by healthy pluralities.

The charges of political carpetbagging by Jeffrey and other critics gets this instant response: his father was a lawyer in Brampton for 40 years, and his family is split evenly between his mother's side (Barrie), and his father's (Brampton).

The way Brown exited as leader of the provincial PC party, is a stain on his political and personal reputation. He hopes to literally rewrite the record when a tell-all book he is working on is released later this year. It has already found a publisher, he says. It's hard not to at least consider speculation that the fix was in all along to oust him from the PC leadership ahead of the June vote. The charges against him came at a most opportune time for his detractors. One of his best friends and colleagues from the young conservative movement in Ontario, said her friend probably missed the obvious clues, and the much bigger point: when life seems simpatico, danger lurks. Jennifer Innis is Ward 3 and 4 regional councillor for the Town of Caledon, a mother of two, and the product of five generations of farmers in Mono Township. She is conservative to her core, and like Brown, a disciple of Davis. She was attracted to the party because of its once exalted silky smooth management style based on moderation and co-operation.  She says Brown is inclusive, which seems to put him in opposition to Ford's full metal jacket approach of political warfare, including cutting Toronto council seats almost in half before this fall's election. She says that over the years, whether he was an MP, or MPP, when an issue came up that needed study or solving, he would get the job done. "It says a lot about his character," she says. The person she has known since both were young teens in the Ontario PC Youth Association, is compassionate, caring, and always a gentleman. Says Innis: the Patrick Brown portrayed in the media "is not the Patrick I know."

Brampton's Ashraf Raja agrees, and is eager to support his run for mayor. The producer and host of Radio and TV station, Sada Bahar, a Toronto-based production at AM 530, reaches the growing Pakistani community in the GTA. He says he has known Brown since they met in Barrie in 2006. He's had him on his airwaves many times, and calls him "a good person who deserved to be premier." It was a "jealous" faction in the Ontario PC party that let him down " not the other way around. "There are always snakes in the grass," he says.

Brown says he hopes voters will embrace his ideas for the future and promises to energize council meetings and committees. "This city is desperate for new leadership," he says, defiantly.

He wasn't the only voice calling for change at La Cakery. After Brown exited, Tommaso Altrui sat down in his seat. He and his wife Serena are co-owners of the business. They opened the shop six years ago after moving here from Italy. Tommaso knows the challenges faced by politicians because, for six years, he was a councillor in his hometown of Monte Cassino. Although he was paid a mere pittance ($2,000 a year) compared to Brampton councillors (among the highest paid in Canada), he worked non-stop to help people who couldn't help themselves. Poverty and homelessness were everywhere, and he wonders sometimes if he did enough, even though he said he often used his own money to ease some of the suffering.

Altrui is troubled by the lack of progress made by Jeffrey and council. Once a big Jeffrey backer, he now believes Brampton needs a change at the top. He hopes a Brown wave sweeps through the city, although he and his wife and their four children won't be around to see it. They are resettling in London, Ontario this fall, and taking the bones of La Cakery with them. Tommaso ticks off four reasons why they have given up on the city.

Security: La Cakery was broken into three times in just one month.

Finances: His home's taxes rose $700 last year.

Services: Snow removal on their street "was a disaster."

General awfulness: "When I came here, Brampton was so clean, and so nice. Now it is so run down. I don't want my children to grow up here," he says.

Brown's unexpected quest for the mayor's job comes after a year of personal and professional upheaval. He's now the X-factor in the race for mayor of Brampton.

One thing is clear: he is no longer a no-namer.

Still, in this election, he might be battling himself as much as his opponents. Can he convince enough Bramptonians to give him another shot at power?

History and life are often unkind to politicians. If it wasn't for the vagaries of both, Brown, not Ford, might be premier of this province.

It was the inner battle that raged over conviction, compromise, and trying to hold on to his power base that made Trollope's Phineas Finn such a riotous read. The author once said, even the most indifferent hero comes out right at last. Maybe that's why he decided the Finn tale would end happily for its hero.

When October 22nd arrives, Brampton will decide if the next chapter in Brown's political life comes to the same conclusion.

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