The familiar war colours still grace her signs—white block letters and crimson ribbons, on a background of Tory blue. But the word “Independent” lies spray-stencilled beneath Helena Guergis’s name, while blots of paint covering the Conservative party logo summon to mind a bandage on an open wound. “It’s Conservative against conservative around here,” says Guergis, summing up one of the most bitter constituency battles of the federal election. Not only is she fighting for her political life, says the former junior cabinet minister, she’s doing so against the full might of the Tory electoral machine.
No surprise. Since the uproar surrounding the arrest and lobbying activities of her husband, Rahim Jaffer, Guergis has been one of Stephen Harper’s biggest headaches, demanding that the Prime Minister reveal his reasons for punting her from caucus while insisting she remains a big-C Conservative—in spirit if not on paper. Harper’s office cited unspecified allegations of misconduct on Guergis’s part when it expelled her in April 2010, but a subsequent review by RCMP found no evidence of wrongdoing. Still, the Conservatives refused to re-admit her to the party fold, and last month her old constituency association held a nomination meeting to replace her.
Judging by the campaign muscle they’ve sent the new candidate, a pediatric surgeon named Kellie Leitch, the party brain trust would dearly love to see Guergis gone. At least six Tory heavyweights have swung through the farm country of Simcoe-Grey in recent days, including Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Minister of State for Seniors Julian Fantino. Tory icon Hugh Segal has also dropped by for photo ops. So has Pamela Wallin, the Conservative senator and former broadcaster.
On the strategy side, Leitch has been drawing on the wisdom of friends like Jeff Bangs, a veteran campaigner for the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, along with former Ontario premier Bill Davis.
That’s a lot of firepower to throw at one party-less candidate. But Guergis remained defiant this week during an interview at her home in Angus, Ont. “Harper does not want to lose to me,” she told Maclean’s. “It would be embarrassing for him. It would be a strong message that, yes, we like Conservatives in Simcoe-Grey, but we’re not impressed with Harper’s own behaviour. I’m not surprised to see him putting an extra effort in.”
Getting election-ready wasn’t easy, Guergis admits. She’d spent most of last year rebutting tales of her tantrum at the Charlottetown Airport, along with reports she got abnormally favourable terms on a mortgage on her Ottawa home (“False,” she says of the latter). As if that weren’t enough, she gave birth four months ago to her son Zavier and began juggling her duties as an MP with motherhood.
Now, with the campaign under way, Jaffer has slipped into Mr. Mom mode, greeting a visitor to their house wearing sweatpants, with a mild case of bed-head and the infant in his arms. Guergis has her campaign chops back. For days, she’s been attacking Leitch’s shallow roots in the constituency, while promising to vote with the Tories in the Commons if she is elected. Leitch counters that she’s lived five years in Creemore, Ont., and dismisses Guergis’s attempts to portray herself as a de facto Tory. “The voters aren’t fooled,” she told Maclean’s. “They know there’s one Conservative candidate, they’re supportive of the Conservative party. I think they’ll base their vote on that.”
The danger, of course, is that some won’t. Guergis’s expulsion drove a deep wedge into the party’s local riding association; a similar reaction among right-of-centre voters could result in a victory for Liberal challenger Alex Smardenka, the NDP’s Katy Austin or Green candidate Jace Metheral.
Guergis acknowledges this risk, but portrays her candidacy as a necessary response to a Prime Minister she says puts his electoral fortunes before all political considerations. “I haven’t done anything to deserve this disastrous treatment,” she says, the colour rising in her cheeks. “I’ve worked incredibly hard and I’m standing up—not just for democracy, which all Canadians value, but also for myself.”