Most of Jane Philpott’s Liberal riding association leadership quits

by Amara McLaughlin · CBC News

‘We had a star candidate in Jane,’ says board secretary

Most board members of the federal Liberal riding association for Markham-Stouffville — represented by Jane Philpott — have stepped down in solidarity with the well-liked former cabinet minister, with the board’s secretary saying she no longer has “the heart” to back a new candidate.

In an exclusive interview with CBC News, an emotional Leea Nutson said 10 of the board’s 16 members tendered their resignations following a meeting Monday night.

With a fall federal election campaign bearing down, Nutson said that two board members will be staying on in the interim to assist the campaign of the next Liberal candidate. Three others will continue serving the riding association, while one member’s intentions are unknown.

Nutson said that the resignations were not meant as “a protest” against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The volunteers simply “don’t have the energy” to support another candidate, she said.

“I have no longer got the heart to run or work on another campaign,” Nutson said from her home in Markham, north of Toronto, on Tuesday.

“We had a star candidate in Jane.”

Turfed from caucus

Philpott — widely considered to be one of the most competent and respected ministers in the Trudeau government — stepped down from cabinet on March 4, saying she had lost “confidence” in the Liberals’ handling of the SNC-Lavalin file.

The SNC-Lavalin affair has engulfed the Liberal government in the weeks since former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould claimed she’d been placed under inappropriate pressure by senior people in the government to allow SNC-Lavalin a special sentencing arrangement that would allow the Quebec-based engineering firm to avoid a trial on bribery charges.

At the time, she remained in the Liberal caucus and said she intended to run in the fall election under the Liberal Party banner.

Nearly a month later, Trudeau booted her from caucus, saying that trust had been irreparably broken.

Philpott was expelled along with Jody Wilson-Raybould.

The move came after Wilson-Raybould released a 17-minute audio recording of a Dec. 19 conversation between herself and Michael Wernick, clerk of the Privy Council. Wernick wasn’t told he was being recorded.

Several Liberal MPs lashed out at the covert recording, calling it unethical and dishonourable. Trudeau called it “unconscionable.”

Both former senior ministers have defended the decision. Wilson-Raybould said the prime minister’s focus on the secret recording is a “red herring,” while Philpott said the focus should be on its contents.

‘Collateral damage’

According to Nutson, her departure from the Markham-Stouffville Liberal association isn’t about the SNC-Lavalin controversy.

“It’s strictly about Jane Philpott,” she said, adding she still plans to support Trudeau in the October federal election.

Philpott was first elected as the MP for Markham-Stouffville in 2015. The rookie MP was appointed to the health portfolio in Trudeau’s first cabinet.

Nutson has supported Philpott from day one. She organized the candidate’s phone bank during the 2015 election campaign.

“The heart has gone out of it. I feel like we are collateral damage in this whole affair,” said Nutson.

“I cannot in good conscious work for another candidate.”

Those leaving the federal Liberal riding association board are among its most senior members. Many worked on Philpott’s campaign in 2015 and those of previous party candidates.

The board is the backbone of the Liberal party in the Markham-Stouffville riding. The volunteers are key players for a candidate seeking a foothold in the community because they organize campaign rallies, phone banks and door-to-door canvassing.

“The board members that are left are very worthy individuals,” said Nutson, adding they’re going to have to work fast to find replacements for more than half of the association’s leaders.

With files from CBC’s Talia Ricci, Katie Simpson, and Kathleen Harris

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