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Kitchener Centre residents soon head to polls in provincial byelection

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Residents of Kitchener Centre are set to vote Thursday in a provincial byelection, and the candidates for the legislature's three opposition parties agree the main issue is affordability -- and that the Tories aren't putting up much of a fight.

The southwestern Ontario riding was previously held by the NDP and has been vacant since the summer, when Laura Mae Lindo resigned.

The Progressive Conservatives have mentioned the NDP's byelection candidate, Debbie Chapman, at least three times in the legislature, derisively referring to her as "the Queen of NIMBY" -- or Not In My Backyard -- as they tout their own record on housing.

She takes it as a sign they believe she will win.

"I think they're very concerned about my campaign," Chapman, a local city councillor, said in an interview. "I've been called worse."

Chapman has a lengthy defence of her record on housing and said people in the riding are in desperate need of affordable housing, in particular. She noted that the Tories' question period bluster is not being mirrored in an all-out effort in Kitchener Centre.

For one, the PC candidate doesn't even live in the riding.

"It appeared that they were struggling to find a candidate," Chapman said. "They didn't come up with anyone so they've brought somebody in from outside ... I haven't seen their candidate. He hasn't appeared at any events or at any of the debates that we've had thus far."

Progressive Conservative candidate Rob Elliott is a former PC party vice-president and regional organizer who does not live in Kitchener. He lives in Keswick, north of Toronto. The party did not make him available for an interview.

Simon Kiss, an associate digital media and journalism professor specializing in political communication at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the Progressive Conservatives haven't seemed that interested in the seat, which may be a mistake now that it appears there's a two-way race between the NDP and the Greens.

"There's a good possibility of a vote split, that a couple thousand votes could migrate from the NDP to the Greens, and that could have put the PCs over the top if they had taken the time to find a local candidate," Kiss said.

The Tory candidate in the riding in 2022 was only about 5,000 votes behind the NDP.

It's the NDP's seat to lose, but the Greens could make that difficult, Kiss said.

The Green candidate Aislinn Clancy is a current city councillor -- like Chapman -- and Mike Morrice won the riding federally for the Greens in 2021.

"To have those kinds of support and resources in a byelection, where the influence of party leaders is much lower, and the influence of local candidates can be bigger -- it's clear the Greens are making a concerted effort to try to win the seat," Kiss said.

Clancy was nominated as the Green candidate in early May -- Lindo had signalled her intent to resign well before the summer -- and she said since then she and her campaign team have knocked on almost every door twice.

"We started really early, and so we have built such a massive ground game and air game that people see, and that's made a big difference," she said.

Affordability is the top concern Clancy said she hears about at the doors, particularly the cost of groceries and rent.

Liberal candidate Kelly Steiss said she hears the same two worries about affordability.

"Early on in the campaign before the writ was dropped, my parting line was always 'Well, you know what, once they call the election, I'll be back and with the date and the location of where to vote,"' she said.

"This one woman responded by saying, 'Well Kelly, you know what, I don't know if I will be here, because I don't know if I can continue to afford my rent.' Those comments just hit me so hard."

Steiss' byelection campaign comes at a tricky time for the party, right before it selects a new leader. Liberal party members cast their ballots this past weekend and a new leader will be chosen on Saturday when the votes are counted.

"I believe it's no coincidence that Doug Ford called the election in Kitchener Centre two days before we declare our new leader," she said.

"The response that I'm getting at the doors is incredible. I was the candidate in the general election and so I can contrast that very clearly, and it's really, really positive."

Chapman, meanwhile, has had to contend with internal NDP issues during her campaign, though she said they have not had much effect. The NDP's Kitchener Centre riding association posted a letter on social media calling on party leader Marit Stiles to resign for kicking rookie legislator Sarah Jama out of caucus.

The representative for Hamilton Centre was booted from the NDP caucus after a series of events that began with a statement on the Israel-Hamas war that failed to mention or condemn the attack on Israeli civilians, though the ouster ultimately came after a series of moves from Jama that either publicly defied Stiles or caught her unaware.

The Kitchener Centre riding association letter was drafted by two people in a move Chapman called "disappointing," but she said there are still three members of the riding executive who are "solid" and support her campaign.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2023.

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