The yet-to-be-scheduled byelection in York Centre is shaping up to be a high profile contest with prominent Conservative and Liberal figures testing the waters for seeking their party’s nomination in the GTA riding.

In interviews with The Hill Times, Conservative sources mentioned the names of former senior Conservative Hill staffer and media pundit Melissa Lantsman; former York Centre federal Conservative candidate Rachel Willson; and rookie PC York Centre MPP Roman Baber as among those who are considering a run in the byelection. Other well known Conservatives are also expected to seek the party’s nomination in this riding.

Ontario MPP Baber, former senior staffer Lantsman, and former candidate Willson said to be …

Former senior Conservative ministerial Hill staffer Melissa Lantsman, pictured with former finance minister Joe Oliver. Ms. Lantsman is said to be considering a run for the Conservative nomination in York Centre. The Hill Times file photograph

Former Stephen Harper-era finance minister Joe Oliver, who represented the neighbouring riding of Eglinton-Lawrence, said that York Centre is a winnable riding for the Conservatives in the next byelection. In order to win the riding, he said, the Conservatives need to field a top quality candidate, and he described Ms. Lantsman, his former director of communication when he was the finance minister, as someone who could steal the riding from the Liberals.

Mr. Oliver said he did not know if Ms. Lantsman would run. Another Conservative source told The Hill Times that the former Hill staffer is considering throwing her hat in the ring. By deadline last week, Ms. Lantsman did not respond to interview requests from The Hill Times.

“One name I think who would be terrific is Melissa Lantsman,” said Mr. Oliver. “I’m just mentioning her name, I don’t know whether she would run or not, but I would hope she would, should consider it because she’s a great communicator. She’s on television a lot. She’s on CBC on regular basis. She was my director of communications. She’s a successful professional. She represents a modern voice.”

Ms. Lantsman is currently working for Enterprise, a government relations company as vice-president of national public affairs. Prior to joining the company, she served in senior roles at the provincial and federal level in the Stephen Harper government and in the 2018 Ontario PC campaign that brought Doug Ford to power.

After the 2019 federal election, she co-wrote an article along with another former senior Conservative staffer, Jamie Ellerton, chastising her party for failing to evolve on LGBTQ rights issues.

Ontario MPP Baber, former senior staffer Lantsman, and former candidate Willson said to be …

Outgoing York Centre Liberal MP Michael Levitt announced his resignation plans in early August. His resignation becomes official on Sept. 1. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The riding has opened up after the resignation of two-term Liberal MP Michael Levitt, who announced early last month that he was stepping down to serve as the president and CEO of Canadian Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish Human Rights organization. His resignation will be effective September 1.

York Centre was created in the early 1900s. The Conservatives won the riding three times before 1962, and only once after, in 2011. In all other elections, the Liberals have carried the riding.

In 2011, Conservative Mark Adler won the riding, but he lost to Mr. Levitt in 2015. The 2011 election was the worst election for the Liberals in their party’s history, and they were reduced to third party status. The NDP succeeded the Grits as the official opposition party after 2011 but reverted back to being the third party in the House after 2015. Currently, the NDP is the fourth largest party in the House, after the Liberals, Conservatives, and Bloc Québécois.

In 2015, Mr. Levitt bested Mr. Adler by a margin of only 2.9 per cent of the vote. Mr. Levitt won 46.8 per cent of the vote while Mr. Adler got 43.9 per cent. The third place NDP candidate Hal Berman garnered 7.3 per cent, and the fourth place Green candidate Constantine Kritsonis received 1.8 per cent of the vote. Mr. Adler did not seek re-election in 2019. Rachel Willson, a director at a national non-profit working to increase youth involvement in Canadian politics, ran as the Conservative candidate in the last election.

In 2019, Mr. Levitt was re-elected by a margin of 13.5 per cent of the vote. He won 50.2 per cent of the vote, Ms. Willson won 36.7 per cent, NDP candidate Andrea Vasquez Jimenez won 9.8 per cent, and Green candidate Rebecca Wood won 3.2 per cent.

As of last week, no party had fixed a nomination date for the riding.

Toronto Centre also recently opened up after the resignation of former finance minister Bill Morneau in mid-August. It is not clear when the byelection will be called for that riding either. If byelections are called before the next general election, it is likely that byelections for both York Centre and Toronto Centre will take place at the same time, given that both ridings became vacant at almost the same time.

According to Elections Canada, Prime Minister (Papineau, Que.) has six months after a riding officially becomes vacant to call a byelection.

Whoever becomes the MP for York Centre and Toronto Centre may have to win three campaigns within the span of a few months; a nomination contest, a byelection, and the next general federal election. There has been considerable speculation about the possibility of a snap fall election after Mr. Trudeau brings his Throne Speech to the House in September; it is also possible that the next general election is still months away. A general election can be triggered at almost any time in a minority Parliament. The average life of minority governments is about 18 months; the last federal election was held about 10 months ago.

Ms. Willson responded to questions from The Hill Times in writing, saying she expected the Conservative race in York Centre to be a “hotly contested one.” She said she would announce her future plans about running for the nomination in a few weeks.

“The nomination date has not yet been announced by the Conservative Party, and I have not publicly announced my decision regarding a subsequent run,” said Ms. Willson. “I am deeply humbled by the support I have found amongst Conservative Members across the riding and will be making an announcement in the coming weeks.”

She described York Centre as “far from safe” for the Liberals.

“Throughout nearly two years of door knocking to meet voters across York Centre, I spoke with thousands of committed Conservative voters. Perhaps more promising however, are the countless voters I met who strongly dislike and his Liberal government.”

Ms. Willson said the last federal election result was mainly a reflection of Mr. Levitt’s popularity in the riding, and now that he’s not running, the next election, will be a “prime” opportunity for the Conservatives to pick up this GTA riding.

“I believe that with the right candidate, we are likely to take it,” she wrote.

Liberal politicians attacked Ms. Willson in the 2019 election campaign over her public opposition to abortion. Liberal MP and minister Carolyn Bennett (Toronto-St. Paul’s, Ont.) tweeted a video of Ms. Willson promising to try to advance anti-abortion legislation.

Mr. Baber declined to comment when reached by The Hill Times last week on whether he’s considering running at the federal level. Mr. Baber is the chair of the House Justice Committee in the Ontario Legislature.

On the Liberal side, veteran Liberal political insider Bobby Walman and Gary Gladstone told The Hill Times they are seriously considering entering the nomination contest for their party.

Mr. Walman is the former president and chief fundraiser of the Ontario Liberal Fund, and Gladstone is a former Liberal candidate in 2019 in the riding of Thornhill, Ont. Other high-profile Liberals are also expected to enter the contest.

The Hill Times

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