Deadline looms for entry to Ontario Liberal leadership race

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It’s D-Day for Ontario Liberal leadership candidates.

The deadline for joining the contest, which costs $100,000 to enter, is 5 p.m. Monday.

Barring any last-minute surprises, it appears that five people will be vying to lead and rebuild a moribund party that was all but wiped out by Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives in the June 2018 election.

Ford ended a Liberal dynasty that extended back almost 15 years, reducing the Grits to seven seats in the 124-member legislature.

Thanks to retirements, the Liberals’ standing has dwindled to just five MPPs, though they are favoured to win winter byelections in Ottawa-Vanier and Orleans.

The perceived front-runner in the leadership race that will be decided at a delegated convention in Mississauga on March 7 is Steven Del Duca, a former minister who lost in Vaughan-Woodbridge to Tory Michael Tibollo.

His main challengers are MPPs Michael Coteau (Don Valley East) and MPP Mitzie Hunter (Scarborough Guildwood), who were ministers in former premier Kathleen Wynne’s cabinet.

Kate Graham, who finished third in London North Centre in last year’s election, and Alvin Tedjo, the 2018 runner-up in Oakville-Burlington North, are also running for the top job.

Del Duca said the Liberals “have an extraordinary opportunity — the five of us in this race, working with the women and men of our party across the province — to learn from those challenges and move forward.”

But he warned last week that regaining the trust of Ontario voters will be “a pretty steep hill” for the party to climb.

“We still have to raise millions of dollars as a party. We still have to win two byelections that will be coming up in Ottawa over the next couple of months. We’re going to have to nominate well over 100 candidates who are not currently incumbents,” said Del Duca.

“And we’re going to have to develop a platform of ideas that are so compelling that voters will once again say — even though they put us into the penalty box back in June 2018 — that they … have an open mind and an open heart to what we’re offering.”

All of that before the June 2022 election.

Hunter said the party needs to modernize and ensure the voices of young people are heard.

Youth in particular have been affected by a number of Conservative policies in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education, and she said “we need to restore every dollar that was taken out of financial aid” for college and university students.

“When we think about how Ontarians have lost trust in Doug Ford and the chaotic way he’s governed, it’s been disappointing and they are looking to the Liberal party,” said Hunter.

“We’ve got a lot of hard work that we need to do in our party,” she said Friday as she unveiled her affordable housing proposal, which includes co-living buildings for students and seniors, more density around transit stops and better protections for renters.

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“We need to get out to listen to Ontarians, focus on them and making sure we are building the party from the ground up, not the top down.”

All the candidates have been releasing policy plans.

Coteau’s recent proposal to make transit fares free over the next decade garnered headlines across Ontario.

“Climate change is an urgent, existential threat. We need to act in ways that empower Ontarians to reduce their carbon footprint and save their hard-earned money,” he said earlier this month.

“Our actions must be bold and decisive … I believe, as a principle, that like other public services in Ontario, public transit should be free at the point of access.”

While Tedjo, a former Queen’s Park political aide, is seen as a long shot, his call last month for an end to publicly funded Catholic schools garnered much attention, including a high-profile interview on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning.

“As a Catholic I have a choice, but others don’t have that choice,” said the father of three young children who attend Catholic school.

Graham, meanwhile, is casting herself as an outsider from beyond the insular “beltway” of Queen’s Park.

A fellow at the Centre for Urban Policy and Local Governance at Western University in London, she said the Liberals need to address issues that resonate beyond the Greater Toronto Area.

The five leadership hopefuls will gather for a party “showcase” Thursday at the Chestnut Convention Centre in downtown Toronto.

Robert Benzie

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie





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