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Downey vs. Lehman should make for an 'interesting' campaign

'I think what we have seen across the country is that the electorate is more unpredictable,' says political analyst Michael Johns

Editor's note: As a matter of transparency, political analyst Michael Johns worked on Jeff Lehman’s 2006 municipal campaign in Ward 2 and his first mayoral campaign in 2010, while also handing out literature in his first re-election campaign four years later.

Two things are certain about the upcoming provincial election locally: It's going to be a lot more interesting and absolutely nothing is for certain.

Thursday's news that three-term Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman has decided to enter the provincial election race in Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte (BSOM) for the Liberal Party signalled the start of a campaign that will culminate on Election Day, June 2.

Local political expert Dr. Michael Johns about how things are shaping up for the BSOM riding as well as Barrie-Innisfil to the south.

Johns, a lecturer at Georgian College and a visiting professor at York University, said from a political point of view, the dynamics have changed in the BSOM race in particular, which is held by Progressive Conservative (PC) incumbent Doug Downey. 

“You have someone who has an enormous amount of name recognition as the attorney general in Doug Downey. Anyone who was running against him and it was their first campaign, they would be at a huge disadvantage,” Johns said.

“By running someone with name recognition  the mayor of Barrie  you’re now dealing with someone with a track record, with name recognition," he said.

"It may not mean as much in Oro or Springwater, but it does in the north part of Barrie," he added. 

Johns said the BSOM race quickly turned into a competitive one.

The Barrie area has been predominantly conservative for many years, with MPPs from Newmarket to Muskoka all being members of the PC Party. While it may seem like a tall hill for a Liberal to climb, Johns says it certainly isn’t impossible.

“The city of Barrie, traditionally and more recently, is more conservative. However, this is a city that had (Liberal) Aileen Carroll as both an MPP (2007-2011) and MP (1997-2004), Bruce Owen (Liberal) won MPP (1987-1990) and there was even Paul Wessenger from the NDP who won (1990-1995),” Johns said. “So yes, this area is heavily conservative, but it isn’t like it is rural Alberta where conservative is the only party getting in or like it is for Toronto-Centre where it's only the Liberals winning.”

Downey and fellow Progressive Conservative MPP Andrea Khanjin, who represents Barrie-Innisfil, have both confirmed their intentions to seek re-election. 

The NDP, meanwhile, has confirmed its candidates as newcomer Beverley Patchell in BSOM and Pekka Reinio will run again in Barrie-Innisfil.

The Green Party of Ontario's press secretary says Bonnie North has been nominated for Barrie-Innisfil, while the nomination process is ongoing in BSOM.

An email to the Liberal Party of Ontario to determine the status of a Barrie-Innisfil candidate was not answered as of publication. 

Johns says there are a lot of variables heading into the provincial election.

“I think what we have seen across the country is that the electorate is more unpredictable," he said. "After the federal election, places you thought one party would do well, they didn’t. I don’t know if we really know, coming out of COVID, how people are feeling.

"Also, with what is happening in Ukraine and other places, there is a lot of anxiety in the electorate," Johns added. "Candidates at both the provincial level and municipal level who are able to harness that anxiety and provide confidence or stoke it and use it to their advantage are taking the two avenues you can go. That will be what has an impact this year, I believe.”

So, how might that unpredictability play out? 

“To answer your question honestly, I don’t have a clue,” he said of how the electorate could react. “We need to get a lot closer to Election Day to have a sense of what is happening. COVID and world events at that time could play a big part in this election."

Provincially, Johns believes the Green Party is a lot more stable than it was during the federal election (they failed to field candidates in both Barrie ridings), but wonders if there's a trickle-down effect.

“It went so bad federally, people who voted Green might put that aside this time and look elsewhere," he said. "The leader of the Ontario Green Party, Mike Schreiner, has a lot of work ahead of him, but if the election becomes all about looking at a wide variety of issues, the Greens could make headway there by working hard on all of them.

“If it becomes a complete referendum on people’s perceptions of (Premier) Doug Ford’s handling of COVID, then everything else gets lost in the discussion," Johns added. 

Depending on whether the election is issues-based or not, Johns says name recognition may matter a lot.

“If it's a giant change election, it won’t matter who the local candidates are. If it is issues-based, it will matter. Looking at Barrie-Innisfil, which of the two ridings is more skewed conservative, someone like Pekka for the NDP is important. He has been there before, he has knocked on the doors and most people know him because of it. In an issues-based election, that matters.”

While parties still work on filling in their candidates across Ontario, Johns says one thing is certain. 

“It is going to be interesting, that's for sure," he said.


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Shawn Gibson

About the Author: Shawn Gibson

Shawn Gibson is a staff writer based in Barrie
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