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Running for Conservative leadership not about ticking boxes: Leslyn Lewis

OTTAWA — Conservative leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis is the only woman in the race, the only immigrant, the only visible minority.

OTTAWA — Conservative leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis is the only woman in the race, the only immigrant, the only visible minority.

Though she could seize on those qualities to differentiate herself from her three white male opponents, or to hammer home a point about the party being a big blue tent, she isn't.

For her, the campaign is not about ticking boxes.

"My presence alone sends a very strong message," she said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

"I don't think I need to articulate the obvious."

The Canadian Press asked for a follow-up interview this week, to discuss the protests and violence linked to the death of a black man in police custody in the U.S. last week.

But Lewis declined the request, saying she had no more to add to an email she'd sent to supporters on Friday.

In it, she wrote about how she's been unable to watch the video of George Floyd's treatment, as it makes her physically ill.

"The riots, the anger and fear, it's all brutal," she wrote. 

Lewis linked his death to that of a young black woman in Toronto who died after falling from a balcony while police were at her apartment, an incident currently under investigation. She said dealing with hatred, racism and mental health requires speaking about them plainly.

Lewis, who turns 50 this year, moved to Canada from Jamaica as a child.

She's the first black woman to run to lead the Conservative party, creating a controversy last month when a relatively new group called the Association of Black Conservatives endorsed her rival Erin O'Toole.

In a subsequent email to supporters far longer than the her traditional policy pitch, Lewis railed against them, accusing them of being a Liberal-lite organization testing out tactics to bring her down if she wins the leadership.

Among the things she pointed out: a candidate questionnaire from the group that included questions like "What steps have you taken to address the under-representation of the black population in national politics?"

If they were true conservatives, Lewis argued, they'd know identity politics is a dangerous game for the party.

"To focus on what makes us different, whether that's race, gender or religion, rather than what we have in common, has never served to bring people together," she said. 

Some black leaders spoke out against the endorsement, and eventually O'Toole walked away.

"Engaging the black community and other communities in Canada that have largely not traditionally supported our party is going to be key to our path towards electoral victory," he said on social media. 

Winning a leadership race, though, is also about courting traditionally supportive groups within a party. For Lewis, there have been some easy links and others harder to forge.

As a suburban mother of two, she's not personally close to the debate around guns.

But firearms associations are among the best-organized groups in the conservative landscape.

Lewis, who says she sleeps somewhere between four and five hours a night, put her academic training to work. She has three postgraduate degrees and works as a lawyer.

"Because I understand the Constitution, I understand democratic ideals and our parliamentary system, it's an easy transition to then say 'OK, what are the principles that tie into these ideals?' and that's basically how I approach my policy," she said.

Socially conservative groups in Canada — a faction whose political clout is also significant — have had her back from the beginning.

Lewis is part of a huge evangelical church group, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.

In a rare personal glimpse into her life, she sent an email last month reflecting on her decision not to terminate a pregnancy while she was in law school, despite significant pressure to do so.

Questions about her positions on social issues have followed her throughout the campaign, given how spectacularly current leader Andrew Scheer was hammered for his, and whether in turn she could win a general election.

Lewis said her beliefs aren't the problem, but that the propensity of many Conservatives not to clearly articulate their own views makes opponents' claims that they have a "hidden agenda" too plausible for voters.

By making her plans clear — include banning sex-selection abortions and increasing funding for centres that counsel women against terminating pregnancies — she said she hopes she can convince Canadians to accept them and move on.

Lewis pointed to her past legal work advocating on behalf of gay HIV-positive inmates as proof she can — and will — fight for everyone's rights if she's elected.

"That's what Canadians want to see in a leader," she said.

Whether or how that would extend to women's rights to access abortions, or the expansion of LGBTQ rights, she wouldn't say.

Breaking into the club of elected Conservatives has been another challenge for her:  Lewis has never held elected office, and yet is trying to vault straight to the top.

She has secured endorsements from several social-conservative MPs, despite one of their own also running in the race — Ontario MP Derek Sloan.

Even if she loses the leadership race, she said, she intends to run for a seat as an MP in the next election.

"I think that I have a very unique role in the party to play."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 2, 2020.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

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