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Stronach takes Newmarket riding by a hair Glamorous political novice elbows past Liberal opponent in tightest of races

Glamorous political novice elbows past Liberal opponent in tightest of races

NEWMARKET, ONT.

nda Stronach, rich man's daughter, political novice and runner-up in the Tory leadership race, was elected to Parliament last night in a squeaker of a race in the new riding of Newmarket-Aurora, just north of Toronto.

"I'm really excited," Ms. Stronach said. "I'm ready to go to Ottawa."

As of midnight last night, both CTV and CBC had declared Ms. Stronach the winner. With 93.3 per cent of polls reporting, she was more than 500 votes ahead of her Liberal opponent, Martha Hall Findlay, a bilingual lawyer and management consultant. Ms. Hall Findlay led most of the evening, but by fractions of a percentage point.

In mid-June, polls suggested Ms. Stronach had a 2-to-1 lead over her opponent, and political observers expected her to win by a sizable majority.

Ms. Hall Findlay, 44, is a former Bay Street lawyer who put herself through law school while running two retail stores. A political novice like Ms. Stronach, Ms. Hall Findlay stepped into the race after the presumed Liberal candidate withdrew in March. Throughout the campaign, Ms. Stronach received virtually all the media attention. But in a Globe and Mail column 10 days ago, Heather Mallick said there was no comparison between the two. "If I can put political qualification in real-estate terms," Ms. Mallick wrote, "Ms. Stronach is a basement apartment and Ms. Hall Findlay is Versailles on a sunny day."

Ms. Stronach, 38, quickly became a welcome flash of celebrity in an election whose focal point was which party the voters distrusted more. She wrapped herself in Conservative fiscal policies, but declared herself in favour of same-sex unions, albeit not necessarily ones blessed by the church. When it came to religion, she said only that she did not attend church regularly, and dodged the question of whether she believed in God.

She wore Gucci and Prada, styled her blond hair long and appeared at functions in four-inch stilettos. Last night, she donned a pink poplin suit with white trim by Oscar de la Renta, accessorized with white high heels from Paul Smith Woman. She kicked up her heels at DiNardo's, a banquet hall in Aurora. Volunteers were served crustless sandwiches and listened to two bands, Glass Tiger and Carpet Frogs.

A fixture at society events, Ms. Stronach was known for hobnobbing with Mike Myers, the Canadian actor best known as the voice of Shrek and for his portrayal of Austin Powers, the sex-obsessed secret agent in The Spy Who Shagged Me. She also appeared several times with former U.S. president Bill Clinton, prompting one U.S. tabloid to dub her Bubba's Blonde Pal. But she failed to get even a mention in his 957-page memoir, My Life, published last week.

Ms. Stronach burst onto the national political scene this year when she resigned from her job as CEO of Magna International Inc., the company her father founded, to run for the leadership of the newly reunited Conservative Party. She won 35 per cent of the vote, and was defeated by Stephen Harper.

After that, some pundits expected she would not deign to run as an ordinary candidate. Instead, Ms. Stronach plunged into the campaign, hiring top advisers including John Laschinger, a campaign strategist, and Bonnie Brownlee, Mila Mulroney's former image consultant.

Ms. Stronach, who rarely put in a full day at the office when she was named vice-president of Magna in 1995, campaigned hard during this election. She said she didn't take a single day off and rarely left the riding except to campaign for fellow Tories.

Yesterday morning, her aides said she was up at 6 a.m. to wave at motorists. She then visited seven malls and several coffee shops and telephoned voters. At 3 p.m., she retired to her lavish home to work on two versions of her thank-you speech.

When she heads to Ottawa, Ms. Stronach, a university dropout and twice-divorced mother of two, will be leaving the Magna cocoon for the first time in her life. It has been a gilded cocoon. She lives with her two young children in a mansion inside the Magna compound, a Bavarian-style headquarters with a golf course, horse stables, pond, tennis courts and private gym. Her parents live on the grounds, too, in a separate mansion. Yesterday, she said she planned to keep her children, aged 10 and 12, in the riding and commute to Ottawa.

Her life has been deeply entwined with Magna. One of Ms. Stronach's close advisers, former Ontario premier Bill Davis, is a Magna board member. She also met both her former husbands through Magna.

One, Donald Walker, was elevated to CEO after their marriage. He left the job, and she assumed it, after their 1995 divorce. Ms. Stronach met her other husband, Norwegian Olympic gold-medal speed skater Johann Koss, when she chaired an athletes' organization bankrolled by Magna.

The auto-parts maker had sales of $13-billion (U.S.) in 2002. Worldwide, it has 73,000 employees. Ms. Stronach joined Magna's board at age 23. Her salary as CEO last year, with bonuses and other payments, was $9.1-million (Canadian).

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