This is Part 4 in a series that provides a behind-the-scenes look at how candidates in the Liberal leadership race are lining up their key endorsements.
When deputy ministers are on the job, offering advice to their ministers without fear or favour, they’re notoriously tight-lipped with the media.
Even after they retire from the public service, it’s extremely rare for them to go public with their political preferences. These men and women work in the shadows for a reason. Almost all of them avoid the spotlight.
So it’s rather extraordinary that a former deputy minister of health, Bob Bell, has chosen to go public with an official endorsement of Steven Del Duca, one of six candidates seeking the leadership of the Ontario Liberal party.
“Welcome to partisan politics,” I tell him over the phone this past Saturday.
“I’ve actually been bouncing around it for a while now,” Bell admits.
That’s true. Since the Progressive Conservatives came to power over a year and a half ago, Bell has had an unusually high public profile, challenging many of the health reforms introduced by the Doug Ford government.
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That is not unprecedented. Former deputy minister of health Michael Decter often offers his opinions to reporters when asked about the latest developments in health care. And former deputy minister of education Charles Pascal can frequently be seen on Twitter offering blistering criticisms of the Ford government’s latest changes in education.
But a former deputy minister endorsing a candidate in the middle of a leadership contest is something I can’t recall ever happening in the nearly four decades I’ve been watching politics at Queen’s Park.
So how did it happen?
It all started when Bell was deputy minister of health during the years in which Kathleen Wynne was premier of Ontario. As a senior civil servant, he spent a lot of time attending cabinet meetings.
“I was always impressed by Steve,” he says, using the shortened version of Del Duca’s first name, which almost no one uses, because Del Duca’s mother hates it. (We’ll assume the former deputy didn’t know that.)
The previous Liberal government was feeling the pressure to build a new hospital in Vaughan, the riding Del Duca used to represent before losing his seat in the 2018 election. Del Duca was transportation minister, so, technically, had no responsibility for the hospital file. But it was in his riding, and local interests were urging him to stick his nose in there and interfere.
But Bell says Del Duca didn’t. He kept an eye on things but didn’t muck around. “He respected the process,” Bell now says. “It was my first encounter with him, and I was quite impressed.”
Bell is one of the biggest names in the Ontario health-care scene. An orthopedic surgeon by profession, he was president of the University Health Network — an amalgamation of the Toronto General and Toronto Western hospitals, the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, and the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. Bell ran the massive 1,300-bed, $2 billion teaching and medical research organization until his secondment for four years to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. He’s been on the health-care scene for four decades.
Interestingly, both men claim to have initiated their first meeting, which took place shortly after Del Duca jumped into the Liberal leadership race back in April. Del Duca told me last night, after the Liberal leadership debate in Guelph, that he “asked for the meeting,” wanting Bell’s advice on what a future Liberal government “would have to fix,” given the changes the Tories are currently making. Bell says he initiated the first of the several meetings and email exchanges in which he offered health-policy advice. Regardless, the two hit it off and discovered they had similar views on what the Ontario health-care system needed —first and foremost, the denial of a second term for the Ford government.
They also agreed on an accelerated timetable for constructing new long-term-care beds for the aging population, and improved “virtual service” (and a way to pay doctors for it) to take the stresses off primary care and hospital emergency departments.
At one point, Del Duca asked Bell, “Are you going to advise me to blow up everything the Tories have created?”
No, Bell assured him. The new Ontario Health Teams, he said, are a necessary reform, but, in his view, they’re insufficient. Del Duca seemed relieved.
Unprompted, Bell had joined the Ontario Liberal party and even made a donation to the Del Duca campaign.
“I’ve never been a member of a political party in my life,” Bell tells me. “But I guess I’m a paid-up member now and can vote for a delegate to go to the leadership convention.”
Actually, Del Duca’s campaign has something else in mind. It wants Bell to run for a delegate slot in the riding of University–Rosedale, then go to the leadership convention in March to vote directly for Del Duca.
It was only a week ago that Del Duca reached out to Bell and raised the issue of whether the doctor might formally and publicly endorse the candidate.
“I told him I wasn’t sure how important or influential an endorsement would be,” Bell says. “But, since I’d already donated to the campaign, which is essentially a private endorsement, if he thought it would be helpful, I’d be happy to do it.”
Del Duca’s reaction: “I have such enormous respect for him He adds a very significant component of validation that I hope will captivate the people of Ontario and help convince them to trust us to govern again.”
Is this the beginning of a deeper commitment by Bell to public life? Could he, for example, perhaps run for the Liberals in the next provincial election? He says that he and the candidate have had no conversations on that subject.
“I haven’t given that any thought at all,” Bell says. “And he hasn’t asked or offered.”
Del Duca confirms that. “I would be delighted if he’d step forward and run, regardless of who wins the leadership, but we have not had that conversation explicitly.”
Since Bell left his deputy minister’s post 18 months ago, he’s been doing some consulting, sitting on the board of the Canadian Cancer Society, and written a novel — proceeds from which ($15,000 so far) are going to the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre foundation.
What impact can this kind of endorsement have?
“It helps encourage the troops,” Del Duca says. “It’s a real morale boost. It creates a sense of momentum and that things are coalescing. And those are very good things.”