Potential candidates already facing off

With the race to succeed Premier Mike Harris winding up next month, political pundits already are speculating when the next general election will be called.
But it seems potential candidates in Kenora-Rainy River riding already are gearing up for an intense campaign.
Fort Frances Mayor Glenn Witherspoon, new president of the local P.C. provincial riding association, has hinted he may seek the Tory nomination here.
“I have things I have to take care of before I can make that commitment,” he said Monday after describing himself as a proposed candidate.
But news of Witherspoon possibly throwing his hat into the ring surprised NDP leader and local MPP Howard Hampton.
“I guess when I first heard that Glenn might be running, I wondered would he’d be running as a Liberal or as a Conservative,” Hampton said Friday.
“Glenn, in the past, has always been Liberal so that was my first reaction,” he added.
“I have been a supporter of the Mike Harris government in Ontario for the last 10 years,” retorted Witherspoon after hearing Hampton’s comments.
“I believe in the policies of the party, I have for the last 10 to 12 years, and I’ll do my very best to make sure we’ll have a candidate representing that party in Queen’s Park,” he vowed.
Earlier this month, Witherspoon was named earlier chair of the “Smart Growth” panel for the Northwestern zone—a group to address ways to boost the area’s economy.
Considering there is a 25-year wood supply gap facing the forest industry, and that most of the wood that remains available to harvest is near local reserves, Hampton said he was shocked the panel didn’t include any First Nations reps.
“It’s a very bad signal to send in that context to say to those First Nations we don’t think you’re worthy of having a representative on this committee, which I’m told is supposed to be making some of those decisions,” Hampton said.
Witherspoon agreed with Hampton that First Nations representatives are needed for the panel to succeed.
That’s why he was quick to point out Michael McGuire, president of the Ontario Métis Aboriginal Association, already has signed on and that Stan Beardy, grand chief of the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation also has been asked to join.
Witherspoon, along with many of the five P.C. leadership candidates, has been saying that in order for concerns of this area to be heard, the local MPP should be a member of the government.
“In order to get true representation in the north, you need to elect somebody either on the side of the government or in the Cabinet,” he argued.
“When decisions to be made . . . [it is] the people that are filling those seats are the ones who are getting the lion’s share.”
But Hampton disagreed that only those in the majority party can represent their constituents.
“I guess people have to ask themselves will they be better served by the Conservative strategy to sell off and de-regulate our electricity system as they did in California,” he said.
“People have to ask if they are better served by a Conservative member who would promote more tax cuts for corporations and more tax cuts for the well off at the same time as they have cut funding for our schools, they’ve cut funding for many parts of our health care system.
“I think those are the kinds of questions people have to ask in this public debate, and I’m looking forward to that kind of public discussion and public debate because I think it’s healthy for our community,” Hampton added.
Hampton said he already has committed to running here in the next election, whenever it is called, and is looking forward to the challenges he’ll face in his home riding.
Local Liberals also are eagerly looking forward to an election—and wrestling back the riding from Hampton (which he won in 1999 after the Rainy River and Kenora ridings had been merged into one).
“I think we’ll do very well. We’ve had a sitting member here for a number of years,” said Roger Valley of Dryden, president of the local Ontario Liberal riding association.
“We’re organized, we are actively recruiting, and in the next couple of weeks, we’ll be able to announce candidates,” Valley said.
Nor is Valley too concerned that two highly-regarded candidates from Fort Frances could be running in the next election.
“The Kenora [portion of the riding] is the larger of the two,” he noted.
As for his party’s chances of forming a government next time around, Valley said local Liberals are excited.
“Harris has won two elections and he’s gone. Now with a new [P.C.] leader, we see this as an opportunity to take back seats not only in Northern Ontario but across the province,” he said.
Meanwhile, Hampton remains confident his NDP party will take the lead in an upcoming election.
“We’re quite ready and we’ve put forward what we think are the kinds of ideas that we think the majority of people in Ontario,” he said.
Witherspoon also said he’s looking forward to the next election, and is equally as confident the Tories will take this and most of the other ridings.
“I feel very strongly that they’ve done the right things and if the opportunity arises down the road so that I can make an actual commitment, then it would be a hell of a race and I look forward to it,” he said.