York-Simcoe is a huge 905 riding starting just north of Newmarket, running up to Innisfil (just south of Barrie) and extending from Highway 27 in the west to the Durham border in the east. It includes Keswick, Innisfil, Bradford, Holland Landing, Sutton and Georgina. Though still quite rural, it is home to many Toronto commuters.
Running for re-election there is a friend of mine, Peter Van Loan, the last elected president of the federal PC Party, and the chief organizer of the Yes! campaign to ratify the Reform/PC merger in 2003. Van Loan is a respected planning lawyer with Fraser Milner Casgrain and his family farm is in the riding, in Georgina.
So clearly Van Loan's not the carpetbagger. Who is, you ask? Come on down, Gordon Ashworth! Though The Ottawa Citizen reported in December that Ashworth is among the top Chrétien people sitting out the national campaign, he is listed on York-Simcoe Liberal candidate Kate Wilson's website as her campaign co-chair (go to the "Contact Kate" page).
Gordon Ashworth was a key figure in the David Peterson Liberal government (1985-1990), as Peterson's executive director. He was the yin to principal secretary Hershell Ezrin's yang (or vice versa), and ran the political and administrative aspects of the Premier's Office, including appointments.
Ashworth became a household name thanks to the Patti Starr affair that contributed to the defeat of the Peterson government in 1990. In 1989 it emerged that Starr, while president of the National Council of Jewish Women of Canada and chair of Ontario Place (a provincial government appointment) had authorized over $80,000 in political donations from the NCJW to various Liberal and Conservative politicians at all three levels of government. Starr had become a family friend of the Ashworths.
Ashworth resigned when it was revealed that he had accepted a free refrigerator and paint job from a company connected to Tridel, a developer that had built a housing project for the NCJW. In a statement, Ashworth said he had no idea that the items were given gratis, suggesting that it was all his wife's fault: "These renovations were overseen by my wife Dianne who has always taken on the responsibility of the management of our household and related expenses" (from Not Without Cause, a book on the Peterson years by Georgette Gagnon and Dan Rath).
And people say the Conservatives are the "Leave it to Beaver" party.
A year later Starr was charged with 11 criminal offences, including fraud and uttering forged documents, and 34 violations of the Election Finances Act. Ashworth was never charged. To this day, many conservatives still have a "Patti Starr did not buy me this fridge" magnet on their Kenmore or Hotpoint.
But it takes more than a resignation and a few bad press clippings to keep people who can get things done out of politics. Ashworth went back to federal politics, emerging in the early 90s as a federal organizer for Jean Chrétien. He vetted staff for the new government, and continued to be a key adviser and campaign organizer throughout the Chrétien era.
In 2000, he collected $19,152 from the Yukon government to advise the new Liberal regime. The contract was for 12 days. He scored again in 2001 with a four-day contract garnering $7,800, the purpose of which was to tell the government how it was doing. (Now why would you hire the guy who set up your government to objectively assess how it's doing?)
More recently, Ashworth was in the news as one of the organizers of the tribute to Jean Chrétien at the Liberals' 2003 leadership convention, and was ordered to reduce the projected $750,000 cost of the extravaganza (I guess it's not cheap to get Paul Anka to re-write the words of "My Way" - again).
He reportedly played a role in brokering the deal that saw Sheila Copps make a dignified exit (stop laughing) from the Liberal leadership race, and was Tony Ianno's campaign manager in Trinity-Spadina in 2004. He worked on Barbara Hall's 1997 and 2003 mayoral campaigns.
The return of the Liberals to Queen's Park also saw a return of Ashworth, in a way. He reportedly helped on the 2003 campaign. Then in 2004, Ashworth's firm, Afrm2 (no, that's not a typo), was given an untendered $31,000 contract to advise on communications around Windsor border security. This despite allegations from some of McGuinty's people at the time of McGuinty's review in 1999 that Ashworth was working behind the scenes against him. Time heals all wounds, I guess.
But back to the frozen fields of York-Simcoe. What would prompt Ashworth to lend his expertise to Kate Wilson? It's a long drive to Bradford from Ashworth's house in pricey Lawrence Park, where a $1-million house can qualify as a fixer-upper (er, I guess Mrs. Ashworth would know). In York-Simcoe, $1 million will buy you a farm operation.
Having lost by over 4,000 votes last time, Wilson is unlikely to prevail. But there must be something in this for Ashworth. Now what, oh what, could that be?