By Robert Benzie Richard J. Brennan and Rob Ferguson
Ontario Liberals have made political history, betting that a downtown Toronto woman could rescue their government.
Kathleen Wynne, the parent activist turned cabinet minister, won the support of three of her opponents and held off the spirited campaign of Sandra Pupatello to triumph in a three-ballot marathon at Maple Leaf Gardens.
It was a Wynne win.
“It is a remarkable night for all of us,” the 59-year-old Don Valley West MPP told more than 2,000 cheering Liberal delegates at Maple Leaf Gardens after she succeeded Premier Dalton McGuinty.
“Believe it or not, this is the easy part,” she said on a day when thousands of teachers and other unionized public service workers closed Carlton St. in front of the convention with a massive protest rally against the minority Liberal government’s austerity measures.
Wynne, an MPP since 2003, stunned front-runner Sandra Pupatello, the firebrand former Windsor West MPP, with a come-from-behind victory on the third ballot after securing the support of the last two also-rans.
Using a superior organization led by campaign whiz Tom Allison and buoyed by the most passionate speech of the day — in which she tackled lingering questions of whether Ontarians would elect a lesbian premier — Wynne won 1,150 votes to Pupatello’s 866.
In her victory address, she played down long-held concerns that a leader from Toronto would be a tough sell in other parts of Ontario.
“Let’s get the Toronto thing out of the way. I am going to be the premier for the whole province,” said Wynne, who had previously pledged to serve as agriculture and rural affairs minister for the first year of her administration.
Pupatello, who did not seek re-election in the 2011 vote that reduced McGuinty’s Liberals to a minority after two majority terms, was warm and gracious in defeat.
“We had the guys on the run,” she told the convention, calling Wynne a “spectacular candidate” and holding her hand high.
“I am thrilled for us … tonight, we made history … our final ballot had two women.”
Pupatello, who told the Star she’s unsure she will run for a seat in the legislature, knew her odds were slim after Mississauga-Erindale MPP Charles Sousa and former Parkdale-High Park MP and MPP Gerard Kennedy dropped out to support Wynne after the second ballot.
“I gave it my all. Right now my feet want to stop. I tell you I couldn’t have worked harder, so I feel good … there wasn’t one more thing I could have done.”
Her fate was sealed by a private conversation in a holding room underneath the hockey arena seats where Sousa and Kennedy huddled with senior advisers and agreed to move to Wynne together. The confab and a subsequent outreach to Wynne were brokered by former cabinet minister Joe Cordiano, a Kennedy supporter, who is close to Allison and friendly with Sousa.
Their decision came after St. Paul’s MPP Eric Hoskins was eliminated from the race in the first ballot and dramatically threw his support to Wynne from centre ice, when it appeared as if he might be actually going to Pupatello across the floor.
With a theatrical flourish, he and his entourage stopped and Hoskins turned to point at Wynne to thunderous cheers from her ranks.
Pupatello’s supporters — who believed they had a deal for support from Hoskins — were momentarily deflated until Mississauga-Erindale MPP Harinder Takhar crossed the floor to endorse her. However, Takhar’s overture came too late for his name to be removed from the second ballot, blunting its impact.
Wynne, who will hold a news conference at the Delta Chelsea Inn on Sunday morning, said her Liberal MPPs will meet Tuesday and the legislature, which McGuinty prorogued in a controversial move when he resigned Oct. 15, will resume Feb. 19.
It’s not yet known when she will meet with Lieutenant-Governor David Onley to be sworn in as Ontario’s 25th premier.
But sources say her transition team includes Liberal campaign chair Greg Sorbara, and former cabinet ministers Michael Bryant and Monique Smith. Her campaign co-chairs Health Minister Deb Matthews and former minister John Wilkinson will also help shape the new administration.
Sorbara was neutral in the race, but played a critical behind-the-scenes role in getting Hoskins to start the snowball rolling toward Wynne. Bryant and Smith were key players on the Wynne campaign throughout.
The premier-designate said she plans to reach out to Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak and his NDP counterpart Andrea Horwath in a bid to avert an election, promising to be fiscally responsible and socially progressive.
Wynne, a former mediator who studied at Harvard University, indicated she would be more willing to work with the opposition than McGuinty had been since the October 2011 election, where he boasted he could govern with a “major minority” that was just one seat short of majority.
Hudak congratulated Wynne, but noted she “inherits and must confront many urgent challenges in her new role.”
“Our province has lost precious time, more than 14 months since the last election, the legislature was shuttered by prorogation, and government ground to a halt as successors to the outgoing premier focused exclusively on internal Liberal party politics,” Hudak said in a statement.
“The deep fiscal hole they have dug has grown deeper still,” he added in reference to the deficit of $11.9 billion and annual debt interest payments of $10 billion, more than 10 per cent of the provincial budget.
Horwath said it’s time for MPPs to get back to work.
“We need to take a constructive approach to create and protect good-paying jobs, improve health care and education and take a balanced approach to balancing the books,” she added in a statement.
The political hot potatoes Wynne inherits from McGuinty include controversy over the cost of the politically motivated cancellations of power plants in Oakville and Mississauga — with an auditor-general’s report coming this spring, labour troubles with teachers, and keeping a promise to eliminate an $11.9 billion deficit by 2018, which will likely mean more cutbacks.
- Torstar News Service