Next generation of Tories take their places; the student and the candidate pair up to take the brass ring.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON  October 12, 2011  You find people like Chris Cottingham around every election campaign.  They are usually male but some females fill the role.  If they are male and Conservative, they always wear suits with white shirts and ties and they are always polite and tend to stay in the background and have that buttoned down look about them.  More often than not they are policy wonks, the minutia of government policy fascinates them and the more arcane the more intriguing.

They are called  “political geeks” and those who are so described see it as a badge of honour.  If the geek is a Liberal they tend to be serious and walk around with a copy of the Economist  where everyone can see it.  If the geek is a New Democrat they will be in sandals and riding a bicycle possibly sporting wispy facial hair.

During the Burlington provincial election the Tory campaign geek was Christopher James  Cottingham, a first year McMaster student who played a surprisingly important, even critical role in the win that Jane McKenna experienced.

Chris, close cropped hair and pretty straight forward and earnest look about him can and does loosen up when you get him to relax.  His sense of humour is in there somewhere and he has a really pleasant smile.  He will tell you: “I was born at Jo Brant because my Mother was a nurse there” and you sense the strong family unit that he grew within.

Chris Cottingham has to decide which election sign he will take home and put up on his bedroom wall.

Cottingham, the product of a small city that is really a town, is from a significantly different social and economic demographic than McKenna.  Both suffer from the cultural limitations of a community known more for its geography than its industry.  In many ways Burlington still has the mindset of a bedroom community that is now doing better fiscally than the Hamilton it once sent its workers to on a daily basis.

Chris has a vision, an objective – something he wants to do with his life.  He is waiting for Mike Wallace to retire and then he will run for the Burlington federal seat and in time become Prime Minister of Canada.  Chris doesn`t smirk when he makes that statement – it`s just what he is going to do with his life – so there you go.

It doesn`t take long to get Chris to talk about policy, where his interest tends to be about national defence and immigration.  At this point Cottingham talks the Conservative party line but as he grows academically, he will be introduced to ideas from other thinkers and will develop more balance and a broader viewpoint.  That is not so suggest there is anything wrong with what Conservatives did for this country; the CBC is a Conservative government initiative and it was a Conservative that pulled disparate provinces together to form the country in the first place.  Ontario has certainly seen some great Conservatives run the province.  To see young Mr. Cottingham shape himself in the mould of George Drew, John Robarts or William Davis would not only makes his parents proud but leave us with a better province than we have today.

Cottingham hasn’t travelled outside North America. He will in time expand his horizons and spend a summer in Europe and a couple of summers elsewhere in Canada.  It’s a big world out there and it changes every week and Cottingham has a lot more to learn. He attended Robert Bateman high school,  plays hockey and expects that at some point he will find a life partner who he will share his thoughts, ambitions and goals  in life. It would help if she had a membership in a Progressive Conservative or Conservative Association somewhere in the country..

Cottingham can handle French but doesn’t see himself as fully bilingual  – yet but, with elections aside for now, he will begin to take evening classes and get his French to the point where he can be described as fully bilingual.

Getting the election intothe trunk of his car was a problem. would the hockey stick have to go? Big sign - big election win as well. Cottingham played a major role in the election campaign.

He worked on Tim Hudak`s leadership campaign and was immensely impressed when Hudak called him personally and was thanked for his help.  Hudak said “call me anytime” and now that Jane McKenna, the winner of the Burlington seat in the provincial election is getting ready to be sworn in, Hudak may get many calls from Cottingham.   Young Chris has worked with Mike Wallace and fully expects to work in Jane McKenna’s constituency office when it is opened up in the next couple of weeks.

He sees Mike Wallace, the federal member for Burlington, as a mentor and one of the people responsible for moulding his political thought and view point.  Better Mike than some of the others that call themselves Conservatives. If Cottingham is going to get anywhere near the Prime Minister’s office he is going to have to move up the political food chain a number of notches to get the nutrition he will need.  Right now he has a very matter of fact, quiet ambition that he nurses while he learns.  The 2011 Ontario provincial election was the first in which Christopher James Cottingham cast a ballot.

He studies political science at McMaster, was three term papers behind at the close of the election but is the kind of industrious student who can do the all nighters and grind out the papers.  He doesn’t plan to do a Master’s level degree and has no interest at this point in going on to law school – that’s refreshing.

During the provincial election he was in touch with Jane McKenna every day, usually several times each day.  She knew she was nowhere near up to speed on the issues and she relied heavily on Chris to explain an issue to her and why it was relevant.  The young Tory didn’t manage to cover all the ground.  There was the one occasion when McKenna referred favourably to Mike Harris and his tax policies and was promptly booed by an audience pulled together by the Canadian Federation of University Women event – not normally a noisy crowd.

Jane, a 45 year old mother of five, has a sense of humour and a perkiness to her that people close to her see and appreciate.  The public didn`t see that aspect of McKenna because her managers chose to run a peek-a-boo campaign and not get out in front of the larger community because she wasn`t confident enough to stand up for herself.  That statement isn`t meant as criticism.

McKenna was almost drafted into the nomination and had 36 days to run her campaign.  She had precious little experience and didn`t for a second think that she would be sitting as the member for Burlington in the provincial election when her candidate, Rene Papin, withdrew as the Tory candidate 45 days earlier.

McKenna has huge energy and is described by her friends as a very “in your face” person.  She takes on challenges that are formidable to most people very easily.  But she had a lot to learn and found young Chris Cottingham in the room and able to help her.  There was an odd chemistry between the two of them.  Chris, – serious, earnest with a very polite sense of humour and Jane with a bit of an edge, a sensibility that is a part of a mother of five.  McKenna found herself in the midst of the opportunity where she just might manage to grab the brass ring.  In her wildest dreams – she never saw herself as being a member of the provincial legislature.  She did put a lot of time and effort into developing a campaign for Rene Papin who at one point was seeking the nomination but withdrew when he says the Party advised him he didn’t fit the profile they wanted.

A tired candidate talking to supporters at the end of a long day - when she pulled in 2000+ more votes than the other guy.

McKenna has street smarts. There might be enough intellectual curiosity to get her beyond the current close to complete lack of experience in provincial politics.  She does have chutzpah and is not afraid to ask questions.  The high school education and the lack of enough history and sociology to fully understand the dynamics that make a society work is painfully evident – but with good advisors around her –she could do it – and Cottingham at this point in his career is clearly going to be one of those advisors.

McKenna once said that her Dad told her: “If you can only afford one suit – make it a good suit” and that she did.  There were actually several suits but the point is that we have as our MPP a woman who was heavily influenced by her Dad, who left her with a set of values and a strong sense of who she is.  We will now get to see more of what those core values are and how she uses them to perform as an MPP for a community that hasn’t seen much in the way of benefits from the provincial government since the Cam Jackson days.

Joyce Savoline, the retiring MPP didn’t deliver all that much that was visible but she kept out of trouble, which is more than can be said for both Jackson and his predecessor George Kerr.  Savoline also brought a very acute understanding of the Regional level of government where she made substantial changes.

McKenna didn’t bring much in the way of experience to the team he was part of  He worked alongside Mark Preston and Mark Fedak.  There were some very smart strategists involved in the campaign and they had some political players who had been around for a long time as far away as a telephone call.  They quickly grasped what they were working with in McKenna and what they were up against.  It was vital that they get their core vote out to the polls and to do that they needed to trot McKenna out to every group that had at least three Tory voters in it.  They knew too that they were up against a Liberal candidate who was perceived to be strong and an organization that had its act together.  But the hope for the Tories – and it turned out to be a valid one – was that the New Democrats would increase their share of the vote and take it up from the 5% and the 11% they had recorded in the two 2007 elections.  Walter Mulkewich, chair of the NDP finance committee, said that the NDP was now where it once was in terms of the local popular vote.  When the NDP got to that level they gave the riding to the Tories.

McKenna brought not much more than a high school education and solid experience as an advertising sales representative to the campaign.  She was never active in the community – raising five children will do that to you.

Our Burlington, along with others, made much of the McKenna peek-a-boo campaign but at least she was always in the riding, unlike a number of the federal NDP members who never went near their ridings in Quebec but managed to get elected.

McKenna got elected because she convinced the Tory base that she was worth betting on and because her campaign team knew how to make the best of her strengths and hide her weaknesses.  That  plus the fact that the New Democrats increased their vote and the Liberals just weren’t able to convince enough the New Democrats to vote with them and the Tories got their vote out.

The Tory`s did have a base working for them but it was in pretty poor shape.  Joyce Savoline didn`t grow the association and the current leadership was asleep at the switch and couldn`t make up their minds on a candidate and eventually had to have Toronto make the decision for them.

Politics is all about power.  With it you can shape the community to your vision; without it all you can do is howl foul on the opposition benches.

McKenna is now on those opposition benches which is probably a good place for her to start.  That will give her time to learn the ropes and get an understanding of what provincial politics is really all about.  She is one of twelve new Progressive Conservative members of the Legislature; she will get to know the other eleven people very well, very quickly for they all have a very steep learning curve to go through.

McKenna turned out to have quite a team.  The Liberals weren’t prepared for the strategic smarts that Mark Preston and Mark Fedak brought to the table   Their candidate had to soak up all kinds of information and that for McKenna was a challenge.  The briefing book they gave her to work from during the Chamber of Commerce all candidate events had too many pages and she got caught a number of times reading word for word from the Progressive Conservative Change Book.  McKenna it turned out was in the same boat as the other two candidates – they too had large briefing binders in front of them.  This was an arena she had never been in before.  And, to her great fortune Chris was there with the answers the knowledge and the time to coach her and  provide much of the confidence she needed.

There was an interesting, charming totally innocent chemistry between the two – Cottingham,  the young man who had a lot of the answers and knew most of the questions as well, wanting very much to be part of the political process; McKenna, the novice, totally out of her normal comfort zone and needing all the help she could get but not knowing quite where to turn.  There were people who were counting on her and to some degree she was out of her element with them but she had to deliver.

Cottingham was someone she decided she could and would trust.  And together they got her though a short intense political campaign where McKenna’s ability to scope out a situation quickly and at the same time read people and understand almost instantly how to approach them worked for her.  She was brash and at the same time very direct about the things she didn’t know.

With the campaign won, the pressure if off – but the learning curve is going be steep.  Cottingham will be on hand to answer many of the questions and at the same time learn more than he ever thought he would get to learn and be in on the play right from the beginning.  He will play a prominent part in the setting up of the constituency office and that is probably where his summer job is going to be as well.

He might also be a prime force in the rebuilding of the organization that was allowed to get very thin and almost lost touch with its base and certainly didn’t have very much in the way of developing a stable of high quality candidates.  One got the distinct impression that the riding association was told what to do by the people at Progressive Conservative headquarters in Toronto  – not something any self-respecting political organization should choose to do.

Burlington Tories pride themselves on getting the election signs off the lawns and into storage.

McKenna has yet to develop a political culture of her own and while there are many in the association who will want to help her – most of them will have agendas of their own.  McKenna will want to create her own agenda and learn to teach the establishment types that she really is her own woman.  With Cottingham as close as he seems to be – she could pull this off.

What will the ‘good old boys’ do if McKenna turns into a stellar MPP and shows that she is really her own woman?   She’s young enough to do it, but she is going to have to move quickly.  Her Dad would be very, very proud of her.

Chris Cottingham was not the leader of the campaign team.  Mark Preston, a Tory stalwart who knew where all the skeletons were and where the support was as well, along with Mark Fedak were the core of the campaign team.  They were supported by a large team of volunteers who put together a campaign team in a very short period of time and then took down the operation in less than 36 hours and had most of their lawn signs in pickup trucks and into storage.  Cottingham explains that “getting signs off the lawns quickly is a Burlington PC tradition”.

But all is not peaceful among the natives. A Facebook entry, where you can say whatever you like, had the following from Jaclyn who wrote: “McKenna couldn’t even answer emails from constituents during her campaign – so she’s just as useless as good old Joyce. McKenna’s performance at the Chamber of Commerce breakfast was about as exciting as wallpaper paste and she did little better than the Liberal. All in all, no matter who we elected, we were doomed. They’re in it for themselves, and they’re lying if they say otherwise. No wonder voter turnout was as pathetic as it was.”



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