When the man who could be Ontario’s next premier needs to escape politics, he heads for his favourite restaurant and sports bar.
But Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown never orders a pint of beer or a cocktail.
Brown stops by because he bought Hooligans in downtown Barrie — which claims the biggest TV screen north of Toronto at 6 metres (20 feet) tall — three years ago with a group of friends when he was the city’s Conservative MP.
“I drive our Diet Coke bill up,” he says with a laugh, given that he’s a lifelong teetotaller — a habit that dates to a Grade 9 promise to his mom.
In a life consumed by politics since he was a teen, more than half his 39 years, the single Brown likes that his pals aren’t interested in the rough and tumble game that pays his annual salary of $180,886.
“In this job you’re so busy it’s nice to be able to force yourself to find time to catch up with good friends who will treat you exactly the same way and don’t want to talk about politics.”
“They want to talk about everything else,” adds Brown, who hosts a PC policy convention Saturday at the Toronto Congress Centre in preparation for the June 7 provincial election.
While he’s the party boss setting a more centrist course to better challenge Premier Kathleen Wynne — an effort not without stumbles — the MPP for Simcoe North is a self-described “small and silent partner” at Hooligans, where the motto is Eat. Drink. Cheer.
The little-known side play is an unexpected revelation about Brown, who’s honed a public image as a hockey fanatic and happy political warrior on the clock from 7 a.m. to midnight many days since winning the job in May 2015.
“There hasn’t been enough out there about who he genuinely is,” laments his two-years-younger sister, Stephanie Brown.
The Toronto dentist and mother of three young boys takes credit for her brother’s new hair style and occasionally calls him to make after-school child pickups when she’s in a jam with patients.
“He’s hard-working but there’s more to him than that.”
Friends, relatives and acquaintances say there’s a prankster side to Brown — such as the time he borrowed a pal’s phone to play music in the car and “liked” Princess Bride on his Facebook page.
There’s also the family side and a public service side that stems from many of his own experiences in life, including the overcoming of a childhood stutter with speech therapy, and regular visits to his 103-year-old grandmother, Teresa Brown, in her Toronto nursing home, fuelling his interest in care of the elderly.
Last Saturday, Brown picked up his nephews for a trip to the Barrie Santa Claus parade and a sleepover with a takeout dinner of their favourite ribs, popcorn and macaroni and cheese so Stephanie could go to a work party. Her husband was out of town.
Party activists say more of that Patrick Brown — who was raised in Toronto but adopted the Barrie area, where his parents had a cottage — needs to get out than has been seen in PC advertisements and news coverage.
“I’ll look at what I see in the ads and think, ‘He doesn’t come off how I know him,’ ” says Conservative MPP Ross Romano of Sault Ste. Marie, who started law school with Brown at the University of Windsor in the fateful September of 2001.
Party lawyer Mike Richmond says Brown faces the same challenge in that regard as other leaders, such as his PC predecessor, Tim Hudak, and former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty, who was opposition boss for seven long years before leading the Liberals back to power in 2003.
“Like most politicians he’s easygoing and friendly and then they freeze up in front of a crowd,” adds Richmond, who has known Brown since they met as high school Tories.
“He connects with people easily when he’s in his comfort zone.”
A recent poll by Campaign Research shows Brown and the party need to get the word out, with 50 per cent of respondents unaware of who he is.
Another longtime Conservative agrees, but says Brown comes off in party ads as “monotone, overscripted” and a “professional politician,” which he has been since being elected to Barrie council during his undergrad years at the University of Toronto.
“There’s no conviction. That’s what you need in politics, 100 per cent conviction,” says the Conservative source, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
Campaign chair Walied Soliman, a Bay Street lawyer who has known Brown since their early teens in the Bathurst-Eglinton area, defends the ads.
“We have not for one second tried to make him anything other than he is,” says Soliman. “He adopted an outlook on life that has led him to public service. He has a real passion for making people’s lives better.”
By all accounts, Brown hails from a close-knit family. His mother, Judy, a native of Barrie, and father, Ed, a teacher and a lawyer respectively, put a huge emphasis on education.
“No slacking allowed,” says Stephanie, whose younger sister Fiona Brown also attended law school at the University of Windsor, their dad’s alma mater.
It’s been well chronicled that Brown got the public service and political bug at an early age, becoming an admirer of federal PC leader Jean Charest in the 1990s and jumping feet-first into student politics.
In his U of T days, he would listen to taped lectures driving in a beat-up Pontiac Grand Am back to Barrie for council duties on Mondays and Thursdays. He crammed his law school classes at Windsor into Tuesdays and Wednesdays for the same reason, sometimes hopping cheap flights home through a student travel service.
“My parents felt that politics can be very precarious,” Brown says of his law school stint, noting his dad ran twice as an NDP candidate. “They felt it very important I have a career to fall back on.”
Windsor law friend Romano says Brown was very much then what he is now.
“With the exception of him having spiked hair and, I think, he had highlights at the time, there was nothing that would identify him as a student. He was already living and breathing, I believe, a dream to pursue a political life,” recalls Romano.
“My first impression of him was ‘This guy’s going to go somewhere.’ He was always ‘on.’ You would never see him with a hair out of place.”
The hair, until recently, had been a source of angst for Brown’s sisters and mother.
“He looked like a hedgehog,” Stephanie says bluntly of the short, military cut held slickly in place with gel or spray.
“It was the number one thing that would come up with Patty, change your hair! We berated him enough and we wore him down. It’s a win,” she adds, tossing in an election reference. “Everything’s looking good for 2018!”
The hair has grown longer, looking fuller and more natural.
“I just thought it was easy,” Brown says of the old style, insisting there was no professional help in the change of coiffure.
“You don’t need an image consultant when you have very active sisters and a mother in your life,” he adds, smiling, with one arm spread on the back of the couch in his office a floor above Wynne’s during a 30-minute interview.
The wall behind him is covered in pictures and mementoes, including a wooden hockey stick signed by his former boss then-prime minister Stephen Harper, and a jersey from his annual Hockey Night in Barrie charity fundraiser, which has now expanded to surrounding Simcoe County.
Outside the office, on the road, at the gym or at home, Brown likes to catch up with episodes of Stranger Things on Netflix and the political sitcom Veep.
TV is often watched while jogging on a treadmill during the hour of exercise he insists on in his daily schedule, or on his iPad while travelling the province. He always takes his tennis racquet or hockey gear.
Brown’s house north of Barrie is close to Lake Simcoe — “I’m a fish,” he says of his love for swimming, even in May and October — and full of art from his travels, including the iconic and beautiful Ha Long Bay in Vietnam.
That’s in marked contrast to his downtown Toronto apartment.
“It’s a place to sleep. I haven’t put anything up on the walls.”
Not being home often, Brown says he isn’t much of a chef but is comfortable making burgers on the grill for company and a “mean salad.” Breakfast, unless he’s at a meeting, is typically a Red Bull and a power bar.
“It’s my version of a coffee. You can’t chug a coffee and I’m always in a rush.”
The promise not to drink alcohol followed a request from his mother to be a good role model as the oldest child in the house.
“She said, ‘Whatever you do, your sisters look up to you and whatever you do they will follow,’ ” Brown recalls.
The promise stuck, and once he got to university, Brown was not interested in the cold beer, wine and liquor others were glugging at parties.
“I just never started. I thought to myself, when other people are hungover on a Saturday morning or a Sunday morning, I’m good and ready to go.”
There is another promise that he’s been less successful with — to find Mrs. Right, so to speak.
It was made to his grandmother Teresa, with whom he has dinner once a week.
Back in his midthirties, Brown pledged to settle down with a wife and children by the time he turns 40, which will be May 26, halfway through next June’s election campaign.
“I feel bad,” says Brown, who notes Stephanie’s three boys have taken some pressure off him. “Right now I’m devoted to this job.”
MPP Romano, a father of three whose wife was one of Brown’s law school housemates, says he’s often wondered what the personal sacrifice will mean to Brown later in life.
“I don’t worry about him because I know how much he loves this role. Maybe in 30 or 40 years’ time there will be thoughts, maybe he will say ‘I wish I would have turned my mind to this earlier.”
Brown’s sister Stephanie says he is a good uncle who would be a great father, but now is not the time, with a hectic schedule and bigger challenges to come, depending on the judgment of voters across the province.
“He’s hardly going to get involved with somebody and start having kids. If he had a kid right now, he’d miss out on everything. Guys have the luxury of waiting a little bit.”
And, she adds, with obvious humour, “it’s not like he can go on Tinder.”