TORONTO – The story of his great-grandparents losing their family farm taught him the “live within your means” lesson at a young age, says Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, who as premier would slash thousands of jobs to eliminate Ontario’s $12.5-billion deficit.
“My grandpa Dillon, my mom’s dad, always passed on to his kids and my mom passed on to me, that if you get into debt, you get into trouble,” Hudak said in a recent interview.
“The image they always talked about was seeing the furniture on the lawn for sale, and all the neighbours walking through and how embarrassing that was, so that’s what really gets me focused on spending within your means.”
Hudak, 46, grew up in the Niagara border town of Fort Erie with his younger sister Tricia, the grandchildren of immigrants from the former Czechoslovakia. His father, Pat, was a Catholic school principal. Friends say he had a typical middle-class upbringing, was athletic and a good student who stayed out of trouble.
Politics was in Hudak’s family blood: his mother, Anne Marie, a physical-education and special-needs teacher, was also a three-time councillor, and her father, Thomas Dillon, was a union leader in Sarnia’s petrochemical industry and a strong CCF and NDP supporter.
Relaxing during the election means grabbing time at home with wife Deb Hutton, who was a senior adviser to Mike Harris during his years as Ontario premier, and daughters Miller, 6, and Maitland, born just a month before the campaign began.
But Miller’s often in bed when he gets home and still sleeping before he heads out for another day of campaigning, so Sunday afternoons have become “strictly daddy-daughter time,” he said.
“It’s good just sit down and chat with her because it brings you back down to earth, no talk about politics, no talk about budgets, just talk about what she wants to do,” said Hudak. “They inspire me because what I want to do is make sure I hand off a better Ontario to my daughters just like my parents did for me.”
The political bug bit while Hudak was studying economics in Washington state in the late 1980s, the era of Conservative giants like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. He volunteered with the local Tory association, and at age 27, won a seat at Queen’s Park in the 1995 Conservative sweep that ended Ontario’s only NDP government.
Harris, Hudak’s political mentor, promoted him to cabinet in 1999, with stints in northern development and mining as well as tourism and culture, putting him at the table alongside future federal stars John Baird, Tony Clement and Jim Flaherty.
The two women he’s running against, Premier Kathleen Wynne and New Democrat Andrea Horwath, consistently score higher in surveys asking which of the three is the most popular political leader, something that’s not lost on Hudak.
“I may not be the best actor on the stage and I may not be getting an Oscar,” he said, “but if you want a leader focused on a turnaround plan for the province, who is serious about the issues and gets us back on track, that’s me and that’s my team.”
Hudak quickly came under fire in the 2014 campaign for vowing to cut 100,000 public sector jobs to help balance the books by 2016 — a year earlier than his political opponents — a key part of his plan to help create one million new private sector jobs over eight years.
His plan has come under fire from opponents and a number of economists, who have questioned the math behind his jobs promise. Unions have also targeted the Tory leader in unprecedented ad campaigns, calling on members to vote for anyone but Hudak.
But through it all, Hudak has stayed on message.
“I want to be the jobs premier,” he said. “I think people are looking for a vision of how to get people working again, how we actually provide more jobs.”
Hudak feels better about his performance in the campaign for Thursday’s election than he did in 2011, when the Tories blew a big lead in public opinion polls, allowing the Liberals to form a third consecutive government, although reduced to a minority.
“When you believe in something, when you know in your gut that it’s the right thing to do, you’ve thought long and hard about it, it comes easy,” he said. “I’m having the time of my life in politics … I look forward to every day.”
There’s no doubt Hudak earned the most attention, although not all of it positive, with his jobs plan, and he was widely considered to be the winner of the only leaders’ debate of the campaign, but his tough medicine message didn’t win over everyone.
It’s only fair to be straight with people about the need to rein in the cost and size of government instead of making expensive campaign promises that can’t be kept, he said.
“My whole plan is to get people working through lower taxes, more affordable hydro, less debt and a big focus on the skilled trades,” said Hudak. “I’m not going to try to get votes by promising things we can’t afford.”
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