Discover more from Paul Wells
Bob and Ned and Justin and Pierre
Ned Kuruc wants to win a Hamilton riding for the Conservatives. The former Liberal MP is helping him.
When eating at Scout Café & Restaurant, across King Street from the historic site of the 1813 Battle of Stoney Creek, try the meat. In fact, good luck avoiding it. Featured dishes at the sprawling multi-level
Croatian [Update: Serbian! It’s Serbian! Sorry sorry sorry — pw] community hangout include Cevapi (meatballs), Ustipci (different meatballs), Karadjorjeva (rolled-up schnitzel stuffed with cheese, then breaded and deep-fried just to be on the safe side), beef, pork, beef, chicken and beef.
“The only problem,” Bob Bratina said as we settled in, “is that three weeks later you’re hungry again.”
Bratina, who’ll turn 80 in the New Year, was a radio morning host and announcer for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats until he ran for Hamilton mayor and won in 2010. In 2015 he rode Justin Trudeau’s red wave to become the Liberal MP for Hamilton East — Stoney Creek. He beat a New Democrat to take the seat. Fights in this riding have usually been disputed between New Democrats and Liberals.
Bratina decided not to run for a third term in 2021. He gave up the MP pension that would have become available if he’d been an MP for just one more year, because he disagreed with Catherine McKenna about whether Hamilton needed an LRT. I mean, sure, if an LRT fell from the heavens onto Hamilton, he’d take it, but not if the city needs to foot an operations and maintenance bill of $30 or $50 million a year. Which it will. So that was the end of Bob Bratina in Ottawa.
I went to Hamilton because a late-summer rise in support for Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives is leading the polling aggregators to make some surprising projections. Philippe J. Fournier at the 338Canada site puts the Conservative lead in Hamilton East — Stoney Creek (that’s a lot of typing; local campaign workers call it HESC) at five points. Fournier says the riding is “leaning CPC gain.” Which would be something. Riding boundaries and names bounce around, but as far as I can tell, the last time this part of Hamilton had a Conservative MP, John Diefenbaker was the prime minister.
I wrote to Bratina asking him what’s up. He offered to introduce me to the likely Conservative candidate, Ned Kuruc. It wasn’t until I was sitting across from them that I thought to ask Bratina whether he’s actually planning to vote for Kuruc.
“Oh yeah,” Bratina said. “I’m gonna help him.”
So here’s the guy who was HESC’s Liberal MP until two years ago, and the guy who’d like to be its Conservative MP in two years, planning to work together.
Your support makes this newsletter possible. Subscriptions cost $5 a month or $50 a year, and ensure I can do more work like this.
Projections aren’t predictions. A five-point lead is well within the margin of error for national polls. Kuruc, who was the Conservative candidate in the riding in 2021, isn’t even confirmed as the candidate for next time, though he supported Poilievre for the leadership and has had him to the riding three times since 2022. So take all of this as ghosts of things that may be, not of things that must be. But Kuruc likes his chances, and so does Bratina. Things have been happening in Hamilton, as across the country.
I haven’t been shy about criticizing Poilievre on his policy stances and on general attitude, and I suspect I’ll keep doing that. But my opinion isn’t the only interesting part of a story, and I haven’t written much about the plain political fact that the Liberals have had a rough summer and a lot of people are looking at alternatives. This restaurant across from the battlefield park seemed like a good place to catch up to that story.
Kuruc was the Conservative candidate here in 2021. Why didn’t he win?
“I know the day that it happened,” he said. “It was the day that Erin flip-flopped on gun control. Perceived flip-flop, or however you want to call it.” That would be Sept. 5, 2021, when Erin O’Toole said he’d keep Liberal firearms restrictions regardless of what his own Conservative platform said.
“And then there was one article…” Kuruc continued.
Recall that in 2021 the Trudeau Liberals wanted to tighten COVID-19 vaccination requirements, a move O’Toole resisted. But on Sept. 4, a day before his announcement on firearms restrictions, he said he supported a vaccine passport system for people who’d been vaccinated and wanted to travel abroad. Now, that would have been a system for people who were already vaccinated. It wouldn’t add new pressure on them to get vaccinated. But in the highly polarized late-COVID environment, just the headline — “O’Toole promises to implement national proof of COVID-19 vaccination system” — left a lot of Conservative supporters unwilling to stick around for details.
“I ended up getting 500 emails of, ‘You’re done, you’re done, we’re not voting for you, we’re voting PPC (People’s Party of Canada, Maxime Bernier’s party),’” Kuruc said. “And easily 550 calls. People just abandoned my campaign. I had two volunteers leave to go to the PPC.”
In the end, the combined votes for Kuruc and the PPC candidate still didn’t add up to the vote for Chad Collins, the Liberal. “Chad Collins is a mountain of a politician,” Kuruc shrugged. “I’m not saying I would have won. But that was the end, that day.” That weekend, anyway.
I said I was surprised that firearms could be a big issue in a largely urban riding. “We have a lot of responsible gun owners here,” Kuruc said. “We have a lot of hunters. We have a lot of people from the Italian, eastern European, Serbo-Croatian communities.”
“Even if they don’t hunt, they have a tradition,” Bratina chimed in.
“Correct,” Kuruc said. Besides, he added, “you have a lot of people that come from countries that have seen communism, socialism, and seeing the army of their population — you know, that leads to perceived views of what's going to happen. And people get scared. They get jarred.”
To sum up, Kuruc was telling me the Conservatives weren’t seen as conservative enough in 2021, not in this riding. But they’ve got a better chance now with Poilievre.
Poilievre seems to think so. He’s been to the riding three times since he announced his candidacy for the leadership, once at Shoeless Joe’s in March 2022, once at the Grand Olympia a year later, and once right here at Scout in August.
It’s been all Ned Kuruc could do to keep up with all the attention. The first time, Poilievre’s campaign called and asked him to find a hall. Great, Kuruc said, what room do you have on his schedule for two months from now? “Two months?” the voice from the campaign said. “We’re coming on Saturday.” This was on a Monday.
The Liberals are keeping an eye on Hamilton, too. The first cabinet retreat of the year was in the city. It seems to have gone smoothly enough, except for some protesters who were mad about the World Economic Forum, among other things. Four federal ridings have Hamilton in the name. Filomena Tassi is pretty solidly entrenched in the city’s west end, although there too, 338.com now shows her riding as a toss-up.
So, Kuruc had just got done telling me vaccine restrictions and firearms — loosely bundled under the rubric of freedom — were an issue for his riding. How about housing, I asked. “Massive,” he said. He’s been a mortgage broker for several years. (Before that, he managed mixed martial arts fighters in Asia. He never fought himself, though he was once a promising discus thrower. And judging from the length and circumference of his arms, if one of his fighters had ever turned on him he’d have been able to mount a decent defence.)
We were talking about housing. “I’m 43 with three kids and I’m like, ‘OK, I’m never going to retire because I’m going to have to help them buy their houses,’” Kuruc said. He had a client score an entry-level job out of university at a nice salary of $100,000, and that client can’t afford a home in Toronto or even in Hamilton. “It’s like someone punched you in the gut. You’re like, ‘I did what I was supposed to do, and I can’t….?’”
So add housing to the list of issues. Opioids? Here Kuruc startled me. “I don’t have the data on it, but I graduated in ’99” — from Orchard Park Secondary School, 13 minutes drive from Scout — “and I’ve buried six friends.” Here he paused to unwrap a paper napkin from one of our table’s place settings, because his eyes were moist.
So our conversation went on like this for a while, guns, vaccines, homes, drugs. Bratina emphasized that he’s never really been a party man, which is another reason not to read too much into his endorsement. He just likes to go where problems are. “I ran for city council, downtown councillor, and I moved downtown, because it was a shithouse and I wanted to fix it.” He ran as a Liberal because it was 2015, Stephen Harper was on his way out, and in Hamilton, if you’re not careful, a New Democrat might get elected, an outcome Bratina plainly doesn’t relish.
I had to drive onward to Toronto for the night. Kuruc began to sum up the conversation. “I think things are changing. But one of the pivotal points in the change of, maybe, uptick in the polls, and which echoes the national thing too, you know, is that interesting timeline of the [Freedom] Convoy. And having Pierre, Scheer, [Leslyn} Lewis come out and acknowledge it.
“The first people on Parliament [in their trucks at the end of January 2022] were the Serbs from right here. They were the first trucks in it. They broke ranks.” Bratina cackled at this tale. Poilievre and Scheer and Leslyn Lewis supported the truckers, Kuruc said. O’Toole hesitated and lost his job.
“People here in Hamilton East — Stoney Creek, they want conviction. They want somebody that has leadership qualities. They don’t want somebody wishy-washy. So it’s either like, yeah, some things you love and hate, but at least he has a stance on it. At least he’s saying, ‘I don’t like this. I mean, I’m Axe the Tax, I’m not for the CBC, I’m not WEF [World Economic Forum].’
“These are all issues that, maybe two years ago, [somebody would say] ‘Aw, you’re a conspiracy [theorist].’ You know, that was the realm of that discussion. But people want to know his stance and people’s stance on that, And the other — the opposition — doesn’t talk,” Kuruc said, referring to the governing Liberals as “the opposition,” because they’re who’s opposed to his side. “It’s like it doesn’t exist, right? We’re still relegated to the fringe.
“Even if you weren’t part of the Convoy, it’s like everything Conservatives do, it’s like you’re misogynistic or you’re this or you’re that. And people are tired of that. Just that whole woke agenda. People are tired of it.”