This is Part 2 in a series that provides a behind-the-scenes look at how candidates in the Liberal leadership race are lining up their key endorsements.
It's highly unusual to get a former party leader to endorse any contestant for the position that leader once held.
David Peterson, who was premier of Ontario from 1985 to 1990, has offered advice to all of the Ontario Liberal leadership hopefuls. So has Dalton McGuinty, premier from 2003 to 2013. Neither is expected to endorse any candidate officially. And one can expect Kathleen Wynne, who held the job from 2013 to 2018 and is still an MPP, to follow suit.
So if you can actually get a former party leader to go public and say “You're my candidate,” that tends to capture the attention of the party faithful.
Don Valley East MPP Michael Coteau is one of six candidates seeking the Liberal leadership, and his troops got to wondering whether they could reel in a big fish as they considered potential endorsements. The campaign did have a bit of an ace up its sleeve. Mississauga mayor Bonnie Crombie's son Jonathan works on the Coteau campaign. And Crombie is related to four-time Liberal leader Robert Nixon, now 91 years old and living in Telfer Place, a seniors' residence in Paris, Ontario.
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It is not an exaggeration to say that Nixon is a legend in Liberal circles. His father, Harry, was premier of Ontario in 1943 and an MPP for more than 42 years — the longest-serving MPP in Ontario history. He died, in office, in 1961.
Robert successfully contested the 1962 byelection to replace his father, and, five years later, he was leader. In fact, Bob Nixon was such a consensus choice to lead the Liberals in 1967 that he was acclaimed to the position. Although he never became premier, he did lead the party into the 1967, 1971, and 1975 elections. He had the misfortune of trying to wrest power away from the Big Blue Machine and two of its most formidable leaders: John Robarts and Bill Davis.
Nixon stuck around Queen’s Park after stepping down as leader in 1976 and was therefore on hand to assume the interim leadership of the party twice, after future leaders lost elections and stepped down.
When Peterson emerged as the victor after the 1985 election, Nixon finally followed in his father’s footsteps, moving to the government side of the legislature. He was Peterson’s deputy premier and finance minister for five years.
After the Liberals lost the 1990 election, the new premier, Bob Rae, appointed him to be Ontario’s agent-general to the United Kingdom. While Nixon didn’t match his father’s record for longevity, he still managed to represent Brant in the legislature for almost three decades. And his daughter, Jane Stewart, continued the family commitment to politics, serving as an MP from 1993 to 2004 — for seven of those years, she was a cabinet minister in Jean Chrétien’s government.
Earlier this year — on Nixon’s July 17 birthday, in fact — Coteau happened to be campaigning in the Brant area and called Nixon at his retirement home. Since we’re in the neighborhood, could we drop by for a visit? Coteau asked.
Nixon agreed, a 45-minute visit ensued, and, apparently, the former leader was favorably impressed. Remarkably, Nixon still e-blasts out to friends a daily blogpost in which he offers his thoughts on life and politics. He gave Coteau a glowing review.
Months later, after the federal election, the Coteau campaign followed up.
“You were very gracious about Michael in your blogpost,” a campaign staffer told Nixon over the phone. “Do you want to take the next step?”
Nixon was perplexed. “You’ve already got my donation,” he replied — as if to say, you had to ask?
The campaign asked whether, given the positive blogpost about the candidate, Nixon would be comfortable publicly endorsing Coteau. Nixon agreed, then shared the news in his daily e-blast.
“I’ve taken another dive into the political water with a statement of personal support for Michael Coteau for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party,” Nixon wrote on October 27. “My cousin Jon Crombie has been assisting him in the leadership campaign and brought Michael to meet me at Telfer Place. We had a good chat and I was impressed by his background, education and accomplishments.”
I saw Coteau at the Liberal leadership showcase last Thursday night in downtown Toronto, where the five approved candidates gave short speeches to introduce themselves to party members. I asked him what the Nixon endorsement meant to him.
"He evokes a time when our party had good, solid links in rural Ontario," Coteau said.
“He’s a high-profile validator,” added a campaign spokesman.
With only five seats, the Ontario Liberals are in trouble everywhere in the province, but they’re on life support in rural Ontario. When they’ve been successful at election time, the party has managed to win rural seats. For example, the Liberals won Huron–Bruce with 46 per cent of the vote in 2007. In 2018, the party took 14 per cent of the vote there. When McGuinty won his first majority government, in 2003, the Liberals took Sarnia–Lambton with 48 per cent of the vote. In 2018, they managed only 4.4 per cent of the vote. Nixon’s endorsement just might make some in rural Ontario give Coteau a look.
But other campaigns may be wondering: Was Nixon just doing a “solid” for cousin Crombie by endorsing Coteau?
“I can’t imagine that wasn’t a factor,” acknowledges a campaign spokesman. “But it wasn’t determinative.”
There’s good evidence that’s true. In the 2013 Liberal leadership race, Jon Crombie worked on the Wynne campaign. But Nixon endorsed Sandra Pupatello for leader in that race. (Wynne visited Nixon anyway and got a photo with him).
“The endorsement shows that the man who had the job of Liberal leader — and knows what it takes to do the job and knows that area of the province well — sees some of that in Michael,” is how Jon Crombie himself described the value of Nixon’s move.
Nixon’s endorsement clearly won’t bring a gaggle of organizers or votes to the convention, which takes place next March. “But he is a statesman of our party,” a Coteau campaign spokesman says. And the candidate will happily take that.
“I won’t be a delegate [at the convention], but I look forward to watching the action and supporting [Michael’s] candidacy from the safety and comfort of Telfer Place,” Nixon wrote in his blogpost.
And that’s how you line up a legend.