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Two byelections loom for Ontario; Milton race high stakes for Ford and Crombie

Voters in two Ontario ridings head to the polls in a pair of byelections Thursday, but most eyes will be on a Greater Toronto Area town, where the tight race comes with high stakes for both the premier and the new Liberal leader.

The southwestern Ontario riding of Lambton-Kent-Middlesex was held since 2011 by Monte McNaughton, who served in Opposition for the Progressive Conservatives and was made a cabinet minister in Premier Doug Ford’s government, and it is widely expected to remain in Tory hands.

But it appears to be a different story in Milton, the riding to the west of Mississauga, which has been vacant since Parm Gill resigned in February to join the federal Conservatives. It has been held by both the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals in the recent past and polls and observers suggest those two parties are neck and neck.

“I think it’s going to be a very, very close byelection,” said Andrew Brander, a vice-president with Crestview Strategy who managed Conservative Lisa Raitt’s three successful election campaigns for the riding federally.

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“It’s actually a significant test of both leaders.”

Ford has paid Milton a lot of attention during the byelection and in the lead up to it, with announcements on GO Transit service and Highway 413, and has had many cabinet ministers and other caucus members canvassing there.

While a Tory loss in Milton would not affect Ford’s majority, the party already lost a seat in a byelection last year that had been held by another cabinet minister and doesn’t want a repeat. As well, Brander said, having Gill leave his cabinet post to seek a federal Opposition nomination is already a blow to the government.

“To then subsequently lose that byelection would be very embarrassing for a sitting premier,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Bonnie Crombie ‘seriously’ considering byelection run as Ford government throws money at Milton'

Bonnie Crombie ‘seriously’ considering byelection run as Ford government throws money at Milton

For the Liberals, the byelection marks the first real test for Bonnie Crombie, who was crowned leader in December. The former Mississauga mayor considered then decided against running for the Milton seat herself, with the party instead selecting Galen Naidoo-Harris.

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Naidoo-Harris, the son of Indira Naidoo-Harris, who represented the area for the Liberals under Kathleen Wynne, has worked in the federal constituency office for Milton’s Liberal MP.

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He said he doesn’t believe an onslaught of negative political advertising by the Tories against Crombie has broken through in the riding, and believes residents will see through Ford’s recent announcements.

“It’s nice to see them finally taking some interest in my community, but I would have liked to have it happen a lot earlier,” Naidoo-Harris said.

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“And I think they still have a long way to go to recognize what folks in Milton are pushing for.”

One local issue that Naidoo-Harris and other opposition parties are using to highlight problems with Ford’s government is the fight against a proposed quarry. Ford promised four years ago to cancel it but hasn’t followed through, though he says he will sit down with the community after an environmental assessment is complete.

George Minakakis, chair of Action Milton, a group that has been fighting the quarry, said he believes the issue could sway voters.

“The way I look at it and way they do as well, is you’ve got promises out there for affordability and more housing, and what residents are basically saying … is how can you deliver on those two big major initiatives if you can’t solve something as small as this?” he said.

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Meanwhile, the Progressive Conservative candidate actually has Liberal roots. Zee Hamid, a three-term Milton councillor who the Tories did not make available for an interview, donated to the Liberals as recently as 2022 and unsuccessfully sought a federal Liberal nomination in 2015.

Edie Strachan is the NDP candidate and Kyle Hutton is running for the Greens.

In Lambton-Kent-Middlesex – considered a Progressive Conservative stronghold – McNaughton, a rising star in Ford’s cabinet, held the riding from 2011 until he resigned last October to take a job in the private sector.

But Liberal candidate Cathy Burghardt-Jesson said she’s seen a few cracks in the PC armour.

“There’s frustration with Premier Ford from those soft-C conservatives, the ones who do not want to be associated with questionable ethics and the RCMP’s investigation of the Greenbelt land swap,” she said.

Burghardt-Jesson hopes her municipal political experience will lead to a breakthrough.

The mayor of Lucan Biddulph for the past decade said the main concerns she’s hearing while knocking on doors are the “big three”: affordability, health care and education.

Also looming large are concerns about land. Agriculture is the prime economic driver in all three counties that make up the riding, Burghardt-Jesson said.

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“Land use planning and loss of agricultural land is another hot topic button,” she said.

A controversial proposed expansion to a landfill in Dresden also has residents in the riding talking, she said.

Burghardt-Jesson said her pitch is simple.

“This is a great time to make a change because you’re not changing the government,” she said. “It allows people to maybe think about their representation a little differently. They can put somebody in that they know and trust.”

A recent poll, however, shows the PCs lead comfortably.

The PC candidate, Steve Pinsonneault, a Chatham-Kent councillor since 2006, did not return requests for an interview.

He has run a quiet campaign thus far, avoiding an all-candidates meeting last week.

“I’m running with the Ontario PC Party in order to continue building the Wallaceburg hospital, create good-paying local jobs and fight to make life more affordable for the people of our community,” he wrote in a statement earlier this year.

Kathryn Shailer is running for the NDP while Andraena Tilgner is the Green candidate.

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