These are not words typically used to describe the public persona of new Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, something the married father of two girls aged 12 and 8 readily acknowledges.
“I have been told almost since the beginning, when I got elected in 2012, that ‘you need to do a better job of softening the edges a bit, you need to smile more’ — those kinds of things.”
Saturday’s first-ballot victory will no doubt help on that front for the 46-year-old former cabinet minister. Away from the glare of TV cameras, he’s known for a ready smile, an approachable manner and a keen wit that includes self-deprecating jokes about his non-existent “hairline” (he started going bald at 19 and shaves his head).
He laughs comfortably over coffee at a cafe near Queen’s Park when told a veteran public relations executive advising his campaign has recently quipped “there’s not going to be Steven-mania.”
Del Duca, who drives an electric Chevy Bolt and takes his daughters to Starbucks for breakfast on Saturdays before grocery shopping together, then changes gears to explain his matter-of-fact approach as the Liberal party looks to rebound in the June 2022 provincial election from a devastating defeat two years ago.
“It can be a bit of a struggle to let one’s whole personality show, especially in the hothouse of politics,” added Del Duca, who has been an active Liberal since the age of 14 and met his wife, Utilia Amaral, at a party fundraiser.
“I do take the responsibility of public life very seriously and so whether that’s as a cabinet minister, an MPP, a leadership candidate or leader, there are big things we grapple with and people want to know there is somebody competent in charge.”
In contrast to Donald Trump and Doug Ford, one veteran Liberal politician said privately that Del Duca’s straightforward style could well be an asset when voters next head to the polls.
“The cult of personality has not necessarily served us well,” the insider said.
After a leadership campaign that remained low-profile, given the party’s low standing in the legislature — Del Duca now heads a caucus of eight MPPs and does not himself have a seat — the hothouse of politics returned for Del Duca two weeks ago.
That was when CBC reported that his new backyard pool in Vaughan was too close to a lot line and the environmentally protected land beyond to satisfy a local bylaw. He and his wife are now asking the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority for a piece of the protected land in a swap for another piece of their lot on a cul-de-sac.
“It’s embarrassing,” he told CBC, blaming the error on an “honest mistake” but conceding the pool construction continued even after a complaint was made. “I accept full responsibility.”
The snag came at an awkward time for Del Duca, who went back to school in 2003 at the age of 29 after several years working in then-Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty’s office doing community outreach to get a law degree at Osgoode Hall — even though he did not want a legal career.
“I’ve always believed I’m a reasonably strong critical thinker but I wanted the ability to hone that,” he said, adding that legal training is good background for a legislator.
Del Duca was offered a job as director of public affairs for the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario upon graduation and stayed there until running for MPP in Vaughan after his mentor Greg Sorbara — a cabinet veteran and party strategist who was the architect of McGuinty’s election victories — decided to retire in 2012.
He won, eventually serving as transportation minister — where he faced controversy for a push to locate a new GO Train station in his riding — and minister of economic development and trade, building his resume as a potential future premier.
But the experience of losing his seat to Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Michael Tibollo in Ford’s 2018 landslide was searing for a man now in the position of having to resuscitate the Liberal party.
“I knew with a week-and-a-half to go,” he said, describing the experience as one that “takes your breath away.”
That feeling of being publicly humbled, however, “is a good emotion for Ontario Liberals to lead with as we rebuild.”
Insiders say Del Duca is keenly aware of the challenges he now faces in travelling the province to revive Liberal riding associations and recruit candidates of the calibre needed to present the party as a government-in-waiting.
“He said in jest, ‘The only thing I’m worried about is I might win — there’s so much work to do,’” said Sorbara.
The product of a fresh off-the-boat Scottish mother with a thick brogue and an Italian father who worked in construction management, Del Duca is one of four siblings and recently got a kilt in a nod to his maternal heritage.
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Thanks to his father’s loyalties, he is a Montreal Canadiens fan. Thanks to his competitiveness, he has tried to dethrone his dad as the maker of the family’s Christmas lasagna, says older brother Mark.
Growing up near Centennial Park on Wellsworth Drive in Etobicoke, Del Duca was stepping up to do public speaking as early as Grade 3, recalls his longtime friend Anthony Martin.
“The skills he has today were on display then,” Martin said.
Del Duca’s wife recalls getting a similar impression when they met while nibbling on meatballs at the fundraiser for former Scarborough MPP Alvin Curling.
Even though they travelled in similar Liberal circles, “I had no idea who he was,” said Amaral, who was doing government relations for the Fair Rental Policy Organization at the time and while her future husband was working on Barbara Hall’s mayoralty campaign.
Although there was attraction because of his evident humour and charm, “I wanted to lobby him,” she admitted, breaking into a laugh.
“He was very certain about how his life would unfold. He had focus, he had direction, he had it all mapped out for politics,” said Amaral, who was born in Angola to Portuguese parents and conquered stage 3 melanoma several years ago.
“This guy knows what he wants and how he’s going to get there. I liked that.”
Del Duca sombrely credits his late brother Michael, who was killed in a car accident two years ago, with adding to his passion for public life.
“I think that has driven me a little bit harder,” he said. “Michael was always a real warrior for me.”
One of his critics in transportation was New Democrat MPP Cheri DiNovo, who took Del Duca to task frequently over concerns about the construction of the Union-Pearson Express, which cut through her riding of Parkdale-High Park.
“The good thing about Steve is he would actually take a meeting, which wasn’t always the case with other cabinet ministers,” said DiNovo, a reverend who retired from politics before the 2018 election.
His style will be welcome in the legislature whenever he wins a seat, she added.
“He’s going to be the opposite of a Doug Ford. Steven Del Duca is a rational, slow-to-take-umbrage kind of guy. You need someone who’s conciliatory and can work with others.”
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