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Doug Downey squeaks by Lehman to win a 'real nail-biter'

'I may have been defeated tonight, but I definitely don’t feel done,' says Jeff Lehman, who stepped down as mayor of Barrie to run provincially

The race was tight from beginning to end, but as the polls closed to bring the Ontario election to an end, Progressive Conservative incumbent Doug Downey was narrowly re-elected MPP for Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte (BSOM) Thursday night.

Downey, an Orillia lawyer and former Orillia city councillor, took to the podium at around midnight when votes from all but two polling stations had been counted.

At one point, when the margin over Liberal candidate Jeff Lehman surpassed 500 votes, Downey did not declare victory, saying "we're just being cautious."

But when Downey, who served as Attorney General in Doug Ford's government, stepped up to the podium in front of a jubilant crowd of friends and supporters, he was able to let some humour out.

"I made two speeches and don't need one now. Anybody want one?" Downey joked.

Around 70 people were on hand at the Vespra Hills Golf Club for Downey’s election night gathering and remained fairly quiet for most of the night as he and Lehman were in a dead heat for much of the evening.

For about 30 minutes, Lehman — who took a leave of absence as mayor of Barrie to run provincially — held a two-vote lead.

"Boy, that was a real nail-biter," said Downey. "I'm just so proud and so touched by the amount of people who put themselves out there to support me and support our party."

Downey spoke highly of Lehman, crediting his opponent with a great campaign.

"Congratulations on a well-fought race. It was never personal," he said. "It was always about the issues and ideas and that's the way it should be. Jeff is a formidable person to run against and congratulations to him and the other candidates."

The BSOM riding was created in 2015 and was first contested in the 2018 general election. In that vote, Downey received 20,445 of the votes. His win then was 7,554 votes ahead of the second-place NDP candidate and 14,235 more than the then Liberal representative. 

On this night, though, it was much closer. Downey's margin of victory over Lehman was 609 votes, according to the unofficial results from Elections Ontario. Downey had 16.114 votes to Lehman's 15,505. 

Lehman was philosophical last night.

“We ran a campaign that came within a per cent of unseating a cabinet minister (attorney general) in an election where obviously the Liberal party was defeated pretty handily, so I believe people responded to what we were about,” Lehman said. “We came ever so close, but what this tells me is there’s still room for the kind of politics that we try and practise.

“I may have been defeated tonight, but I definitely don’t feel done.”

Early in this election campaign, Lehman said the major issue of our time is whether Ontario was going to have a populist government or a pragmatic government that’s focused on getting things done, as COVID exposed the weaknesses of populist government. 

The Tories won a second straight majority government Thursday night.

Lehman, 46, announced earlier this year he was stepping out of the Barrie mayor’s chair for greener political pastures at Queen’s Park.

After almost 12 years heading city council, and one term as the downtown councillor, Lehman set his sights on being Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte MPP.

Lehman said he’s not changed his position on a fourth term as Barrie mayor.

“I think I’ve still got a contribution to make. I’m not sure what that looks like tonight,” he said. “I said I was all in, I was all in on this race. I said I wasn’t running for Barrie mayor, I’m not running for mayor.

“I’m sure there’s a few people who think I should, but you know I made that decision before I ran provincially. There will be other ways for me to make a contribution and I don’t think I’m done in politics yet. But no, I don’t go back on my word.”

Lehman couldn’t say enough about his campaign team and praised them at Symposium Cafe, located on Cundles Road East, where supporters gathered Thursday night to watch the election results roll in.

“To come that close with such a devastating result for the Liberal party across the province is an incredible win for everyone in this room,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking, but at the same time that’s a campaign to really be proud of.

“It doesn’t feel good, it never feels good, especially when you put your heart into it as we did here.”

-- With files from Bob Bruton