It’s never been harder to be Ontario’s Liberal leader

Steven Del Duca has the toughest job of any new leader in Liberal history. How do you rebuild a once-proud party in the midst of a global pandemic?
By Steve Paikin - Published on Feb 09, 2021
Steven Del Duca won the Ontario Liberal leadership on the first ballot in March 2020. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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It’s entirely possible that the last person I ever shook hands with was Steven Del Duca.

It was late on Saturday afternoon, March 7, 2020, and Del Duca had just won the Ontario Liberal leadership in convincing fashion, on the first ballot. I was anchoring TVO’s gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Mississauga event, which we jokingly called “The Corona Convention,” because we were beginning to hear warnings about this new virus, which would come to dominate our lives.

Del Duca made his way to our broadcasting position and sat down for our interview.

“I have only been fist-bumping all our guests until now, but let me make an exception for the new Liberal leader,” I told him as I extended my hand and shook his. Immediately thereafter, I reached for some hand sanitizer and deposited a dollop in each of our hands.

Yes, it was a strange ending to one of Del Duca’s best-ever days in politics but just the beginning of an unprecedentedly daunting year for new leader. The Ontario Liberals had been decimated in the June 2018 election, surviving with only seven seats (and Del Duca’s seat in Vaughan wasn’t one of them). They were dead broke and didn’t even have official-party status in the legislature, meaning that all that extra money to hire staff and do more rigorous research wasn’t available to them.

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As the realities of the pandemic became apparent, Del Duca came to realize he’d need to raise more money and find more candidates than any of his 32 predecessors as Liberal leader, going all the way back to Archibald McKellar in 1867. And because of promises he’d made as a candidate, fulfilling that mission was going to be even more challenging.

“The election campaign is only 14 months away,” Del Duca told me last week on a Zoom call. “I’ve served in cabinet before, so I can tell you, I know how quickly the time will go.”

Del Duca promised to open up the party even more by ensuring that half his candidates for the 2022 election would be women, and further, that 30 would be under age 30. The party has started nominating candidates already but has almost 100 still to find.  (There are 124 ridings to fill; Del Duca says he’ll contest his former seat in Vaughan, which is currently held by cabinet minister Michael Tibollo.) At this point, more than half his candidates are women; only three are under 30, and Del Duca admitted that keeping that commitment to the party’s youth wing may be a bridge too far.

“It’s been a struggle to convince young people that partisan politics is the right vocation,” he said. “But many are kicking the tires on us.”

In fact, Del Duca said, 400 people have requested candidate-application forms, which suggests the Liberal brand still has more than a bit of a pulse out there.

The hardest part of the job, of course, is to try to do all the things a leader has to do in the lead-up to an election — and all of it from a living room. Del Duca joked that his wife has given up asking him to hang up his suit jackets, many of which are hanging on chairs in the family’s dining room, the place where Del Duca does all his Zoom hits.

He takes former premier Dalton McGuinty’s well-worn admonition to heart — “Never too high, never too low. Just relentless” — and reminds himself that both McGuinty and David Peterson started on the opposition side of the house before becoming premier in 2003 and 1985, respectively. (They didn’t, however, have the Everest-sized mountain to climb that the current leader is facing. Both McGuinty and Peterson led decent-sized official-opposition caucuses and had their own seats in the house. The 47-year-old Del Duca has neither.)

But he’s trying to find the silver lining in that. Not being an MPP means he never has to worry about house duty, leaving him free to pursue candidates and money, the latter of which will be even tougher to find now that the current government has done away with the per-vote subsidy parties used to enjoy receiving.

Del Duca has farmed out the policy-development process to two of his leadership rivals: former cabinet colleague and Don Valley East MPP Michael Coteau (who came second) and London North Centre candidate Kate Graham (who, at just age 35, came third and captured a lot of attention for her thoughtful and energetic campaign).

“They’ve been tasked with coming up with ideas that align with my values and those of Ontario Liberals,” Del Duca said. “They’ll make sure the platform is authentically me and will deliver a message that’s compelling and relatable. The public wants to feel not just think that we get them.”

The leader has also been fortunate inasmuch as several party veterans have emerged to lend a helping hand. For example, pollster and strategist Don Guy, who helped McGuinty and British Columbia premier Christy Clark win elections, now volunteers to assist Del Duca.

“There will come a time,” he said, “when even if people are somewhat satisfied with the status quo, they’ll want to see the alternatives. So I’m working on myself and my own personal performance so they’ve got a better choice.”

Whenever Del Duca speaks about his hopes for Ontario, he always, and I mean always, talks about “women and men.” He never says “men and women.” I wondered why.

“How we speak about issues matters,” he explained. “I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by strong women my whole life. Both my grandmothers, from Italy and Scotland, have been through a lot in life. My mother has had many different careers. My wife is an immigrant who’s got three university degrees and runs her own business. And we’ve got two daughters, and I want to make sure that nothing holds them back.”

It’s also true that the Liberals have no hope of getting back into government unless they improve their popularity with female voters. The Tories have a huge advantage in male voters. And Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats, after recently shuffling their critic roles, now have women in the top six jobs in opposition: from the leader to the critics for all the top shadow portfolios.

“That’s progress,” Del Duca admitted. But in the next breath, he said that Horwath is “auditioning for the job she’s already got. They want to hold what they’ve got rather than develop a road map for the future.”

New Democrats would obviously disagree and suggest that, if people are looking for an alternative to the current government, they’re more likely to consider the party that’s only 23 seats shy of a majority, rather than the one that’s 55 seats back. That’s what happened more than three decades ago when Bob Rae took his NDP from third place (1985) to official opposition (1987) to government (1990).

But Del Duca has other ideas. “I believe the Ontario Liberal party has been rejuvenated,” he said, noting the most recent poll puts them in second place, close behind the Tories and ahead of the NDP. “But I take nothing for granted. The public wants a leader they can trust.” And despite his current circumstances and lack of profile, Del Duca insisted, “I’m getting there.”

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