Chris Alexander: The Conservatives' golden boy falls

Chris Alexander’s very bad day: A golden boy falls, but for how long?

Right now he represents Conservative failures. One day he may run the party.

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Chris Alexander, Conservative candidate for Ajax-Pickering, right, gives his wife Hedvig a kiss at a post- election gathering at his home in Ajax, Ont., on Monday, Oct. 19, 2015. Alexander lost his seat. (Peter Redman/CP)

Chris Alexander at a post- election gathering at his home in Ajax, Ont. (Peter Redman/CP)

Inside the Annandale Golf and Curling Club in Ajax, Ont., Monday night, the lighting was dismal and the air was cold; the curling ice is just off the dining room, where Chris Alexander was delivering his speech after losing his riding to longtime Liberal heavyweight Mark Holland. There had been almost as many locals throwing rocks here an hour or two before the polls closed as there were now, listening to Alexander’s comments. “We need to give thanks for the blessings that continue to be bestowed upon Canada so abundantly: for our democracy, for our freedom, for the rule of law. We’re celebrating them all with this election,” said Alexander from a podium flanked by white and blue balloons. Then, addressing his campaign team, Alexander concluded “Let’s all relax, take a deep breath, you’ve earned it. It’s been a tough, long run.”

That was an understatement, coming from the embattled minister of citizenship and immigration. The event was a much different one from the affair held in Toronto less than six months ago, when Alexander was guest of honour at a swanky fundraiser to celebrate “a rising star in the Conservative party.” That soiree, which was hosted by an investment titan in the tony Bridal Path area, was well attended by business and political players and raised significant dollars for his re-election campaign and the party. It also affirmed Alexander’s place within political circles as a potential successor to Stephen Harper.

Alexander gained instant stardom when he was parachuted into this key riding just east of Toronto in 2011. His resumé made him sound like a political strategist’s dream: a young, esteemed diplomat who had worked in the Russian embassy in the early 1990s before becoming Canada’s first ambassador to Afghanistan, and then a UN representative. He was internationally lauded, having been named a “young global leader” by the World Economic Forum, and one of Canada’s “top 40 under 40” by the Globe and Mail; he was even voted “best rookie” by his fellow MPs in the Maclean’s Parliamentarian of the Year poll in 2011.

For a while, Alexander, who took on his Immigration portfolio in 2013, represented the Conservative party’s bright future. Now, at least for the moment, he represents its failures. His entire election campaign was marred by controversy after controversy: from the mishandling of the Syrian refugee crisis and the cuts made to refugee health care, to the vow to create a “tip line” for suspected instances of “barbaric cultural practices,” the campaign to prevent women from wearing a niqab during citizenship swearing-in ceremonies, and revoking the Canadian citizenship of terrorists, Alexander became the face of the Conservative party’s most divisive platforms.

Why would Alexander pursue this path? Some say he was too focused on accommodating Harper’s vision. “He wouldn’t be the first politician who tried to play the game just the way the coach wanted it played, no matter how poorly or well the coach was calling it,” says Tim Powers, vice-chairman of Summa Strategies, an Ottawa consulting firm.

Put another way, Alexander became the punching bag for the Conservatives, by his own choosing. “He decided to take up the role as a more forceful partisan, and I don’t know if that fits his character,” says Powers. “When you see a guy whose career has been built on diplomacy and a persuasive life in a pugilistic position, it can be a conflicting image.”

When Alexander first joined federal politics, many people anticipated a “moderate Ontario Tory,” and instead he “morphed into a Harper Tory in terms of aggression and the full-force assault of selling the message,” continues Powers. “It’s almost as if he had an out-of-body experience as a politician.”

In fact, even during the post-election scrum, Alexander stuck to the party line, telling reporters that the Conservatives have been “good and generous at resettling refugees … We have been ahead of the curve every step of the way.” On the niqab issue, Alexander insisted, “The rule that faces be uncovered is not yet fixed in law. We think it should be.” Right after the scrum, Alexander was rushed out of the Annandale.

There may be more than these polarizing issues at play, too. Some observers believe Alexander’s fall was an inevitable consequence of the “Liberal sweep” happening across the country. His opponent, Holland, has been a veritable force in Ajax, having held the riding for the three terms before the 2011 election—and he only narrowly lost to Alexander then.

This loss is all the more disappointing for the Conservatives because it reverses some of the inroads made by Jason Kenney and others in recent years to attract the votes of new Canadians. Some of the fiercest criticisms against Alexander and the Conservatives were of fear-mongering and of a concerted effort to pit Canadians against each other. In this way, Alexander’s loss comes as no surprise.

If Alexander is to resume a career in politics and, indeed, make a run at the Conservative leadership one day, he will first need to win back a lot of trust. But writing Alexander’s political prospects off, say insiders, would ignore his talents—and the “nine lives” nature of politics. “Here’s a guy who has served in Afghanistan, one of the hardest corners of the Earth, and accorded himself well. He [has] enormous potential,” says Powers. “He might get a time out. But I wouldn’t count him out.”

A little after midnight, the crowd at the Annandale was thinning, most of the media had moved onto Mark Holland’s event or headed home, and only the most devoted supporters remained. The TV behind the bar was blaring Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s acceptance speech—perhaps someone had forgotten to press mute after Harper delivered his comments. Suddenly, a burst of applause and cheers broke. Alexander had returned to the curling club for another round of handshakes and hugs. It turned out he wasn’t quite done.