Charest's uphill battle begins at home, literally
Vandalized election campaign signs featuring Jean Charest line a street in Sherbrooke, Que., on Friday, August 10, 2012. How tough is the challenge ahead for Jean Charest's Liberals, with polls suggesting their defeat and even a loss in the premier's own riding? Even the guy who lives in Charest's old home is unsure about voting for him. But some of the people who remember a scrappy young Charest warn you shouldn't count the old warrior out today. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andy Blatchford
SHERBROOKE, Que. - How tough is the fight ahead for Jean Charest's Liberals? The polls hint at the party's defeat and point to the premier losing his own seat.
Even the guy who lives in Charest's childhood home might not vote for him.
He actually voted against the premier in the last election, and is weighing his options this time. Philippe Duvivier, who bought the modest, red-brick house in Sherbrooke, Que., from the Charest family about four years ago, said the feeling in town toward the Liberal leader is just as uncertain.
"It's divided," Duvivier said on the front stoop of the two-storey home that housed the Charests for half a century. The house is set back from bustling Portland Boulevard, partially hidden in the shade of the property's lush trees.
"There are people for him and people against him."
Charest has clung to the Sherbrooke seat in eight federal or provincial elections since he entered politics in 1984. He even survived the devastation of the Progressive Conservative defeat in 1993 that reduced the party to two seats across Canada.
There have been some close calls on his home turf — and this campaign could be his toughest yet.
New polls Friday suggested the Parti Quebecois had a solid lead among francophone voters, teetering between minority and majority government territory.
A separate survey taken in Charest's Sherbrooke riding suggested a 15-point advantage for his PQ opponent, a former Bloc Quebecois federal MP for the area.
PQ supporters had difficulty containing themselves Friday in the downtown campaign headquarters for Serge Cardin.
One grinning young man inside the office rubbed his hands together as he approached a reporter: "This is going to be an historic election."
Cardin could succeed Charest for the second time in a political office. When Charest left federal politics, it was Cardin who won his vacant seat. Now he's hoping to force the premier out at the provincial level.
Cardin, 62, said locals remember what he was able to accomplish during his years as a Bloc MP and they're fed up with the premier and the "odour of corruption" around his Liberal party.
"It creates a pretty imposing divide," Cardin said Friday after visiting workers at a factory in the city, about 150 kilometres east of Montreal.
He also charged that Charest had neglected the local economy: "Right now I have the confidence of the population," he said.
Still, Cardin remains cautious when reading the polls. He has fresh memories of losing his federal seat last year in the sudden Quebec surge by the New Democrats. In the 2011 election campaign, he watched his early lead in the polls evaporate.
He fears it could happen again if his supporters sense an easy win and stay home on election day.
"We're not taking anything for granted," said the former Sherbrooke city councillor. Cardin first won the federal riding for the Bloc in a 1998 byelection and held it in four more federal races.
But one Sherbrooke man, who remembers a scrappy young Charest, warns the old warrior shouldn't be counted out now.
On balance, he says, the Charest Liberals have governed well.
"Evidently, I am pro-Charest, but this doesn't mean that the government is perfect — perfect governments don't exist," said Bernard Bonneau, a mentor to the wild-haired, teenage Charest.
"I think he is an excellent premier."
Bonneau, who was a religious counsellor at Charest's high school, believes corruption allegations against the Liberals have been greatly exaggerated.
The 78-year-old praised the Liberal government for how it guided the province through the global recession. The province's unemployment rate is virtually equal to the national average — a considerable change from when Charest took office in 2003.
A tough race in Sherbrooke is nothing new, he said: "This is a riding that has always been quite close."
Charest won the seat in 2008 by earning around 45 per cent of the votes, compared to nearly 38 per cent for his PQ rival — a difference of 2,314 ballots.
In 2007, he received under 37 per cent of the votes, compared to nearly 33 per cent for the PQ candidate — a gap of 1,332.
On election night, one TV news outlet had even jumped the gun and erroneously declared that Charest had lost his seat.
Bonneau's faith in Charest goes back a long way.
He remembers watching him overcome big political obstacles in his hometown — starting with his first-ever campaign speech at the age of 16.
The priest recalls that the feisty Charest wasn't a model student and didn't have particularly good grades at what he described as a "tough" public school.
He sensed, however, a strong personality within the 11th grader. He urged him to run for student-body president at Ecole Montcalm. Bonneau even helped him pen his campaign speech.
But moments before Charest was to deliver the address, to around 1,000 students in the school's packed auditorium, the teenager began to panic.
Charest stood nervously backstage and said he wanted to back out.
Bonneau said he pushed the young man through the curtains toward the podium.
Charest wound up giving a passionate speech off the top of his head — without once pulling a copy of the address out of his pocket.
There was wild applause from Charest's peers. He won the election later that day.
"He's probably one of the students I pushed the hardest," said Bonneau, noting he was pleasantly surprised that Charest went on to became a good student president.
"(But) I didn't think he would become premier one day."