Steven Del Duca has been elected the new leader of Ontario’s Liberal party.
In a first-ballot victory Saturday, Del Duca vanquished his five rivals with more than 58 per cent of the vote to take the helm of a party that was trounced by Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives in 2018.
The former cabinet minister, who lost his Vaughan seat when Ford wiped out premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals, won won 1,258 of 2,140 eligible ballots cast at the delegated convention attended by 3,000 partisans.
“It took Doug Ford and his friends 15 years to win an election,” the 46-year-old married father of two daughters told the party’s leadership convention at the International Centre in Mississauga.
“We know they will not give up easily because for them, sadly, governing s a game,” said Del Duca, the first-generation Canadian son of a Scottish mother and an Italian father.
“They’ve made it clear that their power and their party is their only priority,” he said, warning “the attacks will be ugly, they will be personal, and they will not be honest.”
Indeed at a Tory fundraiser Thursday night that was closed to the media, attendees said Ford likened Del Duca to a “gangster” and predicted a tough fight with the new Liberal chief.
Del Duca countered that “Doug Ford can remain focused on me and on us, but we will remain exclusively and relentlessly focused on the 15 million women and men who call our province home.”
Likening Ford to a “climate-change dinosaur” for scrapping Ontario’s carbon cap-and-trade environmental alliance with Quebec and California, the Liberal leader promised a greener future for the province.
“We need a premier who really accepts that climate change is a scientific fact,” said Del Duca, who also pledged to return peace to Ontario’s tumultuous education sector, which has been roiled by rotating teachers’ strikes for months.
But the new leader has his work cut out for him.
The Liberals hold just eight seats in the 124-member legislature — four shy of official party status — and still owe millions of dollars from the bruising last campaign.
He does not plan to seek a seat in the legislature unless Tory Michael Tibollo, who beat him in 2018 and is now the minister of long-term care, steps down in Vaughan.
In each of their 30-minute pitches to delegates Saturday morning, the candidates appealed for unity.
The Liberals “suffered the worst defeat in our history and yet here we are — 3,000 Liberals from across the province, who believe in our future,” said MPP Michael Coteau (Don Valley East), who finished second with 363 votes.
“Our opponents should know by now, when things get tough for Liberals, we do what we do best, we come together, rethink, reorganize and reimagine. And we are just getting started,” he said.
Coteau, a former Wynne minister, said the sobering 2018 defeat and the party’s subsequent comeback should “remind us of our ability to reimagine Ontario and bring people together.”
Third-place finisher Kate Graham, a former Liberal candidate who has emerged as a rising star in the party, received 299 votes.
Graham, a Western University professor who is pregnant with her first child and joked about “wearing maternity tights,” said the Liberals must appeal to a new generation that wants to move beyond partisanship.
“We’re here because we can’t afford to settle for less. We’re here because we have to prove we’re capable of giving people more,” she thundered.
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“We have to do more than fundraise using fear. We have to restore trust.”
In the convention’s lightest moment, a beaming Graham belted out a charming impromptu rendition of ABBA’s “Take A Chance On Me,” which delighted delegates.
MPP Mitzie Hunter (Scarborough-Guildwood) came fourth with 122 votes, but delivered perhaps the most rousing speech of the day.
“All around us there’s polarization and a sense of division and, sadly, no force is more polarizing than the current Ontario government and its leader,” Hunter said in a slap at Ford.
“The time for looking in the rear-view mirror has passed. I am laser-focused on the future. I am committed to leaving this convention as one member of a united Liberal team committed to leading Ontario to real change,” she said.
Alvin Tedjo, a former Liberal candidate who finished fifth with 74 votes, echoed that and urged the party to embrace his controversial proposal to eliminate publicly funded Catholic schools in favour of one secular system.
“We should never again be afraid to do the right thing,” said Tedjo.
Brenda Hollingsworth, an Ottawa lawyer new to politics, received 24 votes. She said she took a chance because the Liberal party needed a fresh voice with her business and legal experience.
“I felt an urge to step out of my very comfortable life,” she told the crowd.
“People around me told me you’re making a big mistake, you’re not a politician … but my heart was simply not going to take no for an answer.”
Former premier Dalton McGuinty, who rebuilt the Liberal party between 1996 and 2003 before winning three elections, well understands the challenges that Del Duca faces.
“He brings a lot of experience but more than that he brings capacity to grow,” said McGuinty, for whom Del Duca worked in opposition 20 years ago.
“I’ve known Steven for a long time and he’s humble enough to recognize that he’s a work in progress,” he said.
“I’m confident he’s going to surround himself with some really good people, some thoughtful people. I’m confident he’s going to listen carefully.”
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