With Del Duca, the Liberals know what they’re in for

OPINION: New Ontario Liberal leader Steven Del Duca is a known quantity. Here’s what we know about his baggage
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Mar 09, 2020
Steven Del Duca won the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party on Saturday, earning just under 59 per cent of the vote. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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By the time I got on camera with colleague Steve Paikin on Saturday morning, he was already calling it the "corona convention.” The 2020 Ontario Liberal leadership convention was on red alert over coronavirus, with fist bumps and hand-waving replacing hugs and handshakes. The phrase, however, works in another way: “corona” also gives us the word coronation, and Steven Del Duca won his leadership bid handily on Saturday, earning just under 59 per cent of the vote.

So congratulations to Del Duca, who, for his sins, now has arguably the worst job in Canadian politics. He’s got to somehow rebuild a party that made a dismal third-place showing in 2018 and has no official recognition at Queen’s Park, and he’s got to pay down the party’s debt while fettered by most of the same fundraising limits the Liberals themselves passed in reaction to their own scandals.

It would be absurd to assume too much about how well he and the Liberals will do in 2022; it’s simply too far away, and there are too many unknowables to comment intelligently. In all likelihood, more will depend on what Premier Doug Ford does in the intervening years than on anything Del Duca does.

Any leader comes with pros and cons, and any leader the Liberals chose was going to face many of the same daunting obstacles. What’s notable about Del Duca is that the demerits on his record are already well known. Indeed, they’re nearly part of his brand at this point.

I’ve written previously about Del Duca’s shenanigans in relation to the approval of the Kirby GO train station and won’t rehash them exhaustively here. Suffice it to say that Del Duca has never conceded that he did anything wrong, and anyone expecting him to see the light will probably be waiting a long time. This is unlikely to be the kind of issue that voters punish Liberals for (aside from the small minority of transit obsessives) if for no other reason than that GTA voters never punish anyone for gross malfeasance on the transit file.

A more substantial problem for Del Duca, and thus the Liberal party, is his history with two construction unions. Before entering electoral politics, Del Duca worked for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, and he was a staunch ally of the union when he held elected office. The union has historically competed with another union, LiUNA, for membership and work. The 2018 budget — the last under Liberal rule, for now — saw the legislature strip powers LiUNA members had enjoyed for decades to the benefit of the Carpenters, and LiUNA leadership immediately knew who to blame: Del Duca.

LiUNA responded with an “anyone but Liberal” campaign in the 2018 election. Given the number of other things going against the Liberals by that point, it’s not possible to say whether LiUNA’s campaign cost GTA Liberals their seats, but it certainly couldn’t have helped. When Saturday’s results were announced, LiUNA vice-president Joseph Mancinelli tweeted “[Del Duca] attacked the hard working men and women who build the province of Ontario. He directed an attack on #LIUNA members & buried it in a budget. He lost his seat. His lost trust. He lost respect. LIUNA Members will not stand for someone who attacks their earned rights!”

It’s not obvious that LiUNA’s support or opposition in 2022 will be a critical factor in the election. But it’s also not like the Liberals need an additional obstacle in their path.

None of this is news to the party’s supporters, who knew all this well before Del Duca had launched his leadership bid. OLP members know all these things, and their reactions mostly range from resignation to “so what?” These things are part of the Del Duca package.

Even the one minor scandal that erupted in the midst of the leadership race itself — CBC reported that Del Duca has illegally built a backyard pool too close to protected green space in Vaughan — is, while less obscure than his previous scandals, still somehow on brand. “Failed to get a building permit before indulging in a bit of suburban affluence” is the kind of thing that will irritate the people who were already going to be irritated by a Liberal but isn’t going to alienate a huge number of the suburban voters the Liberals need in the future. Indeed, they may see themselves in it.

At the risk of over-reading the evidence, what all three cases (Kirby, LiUNA, and backyard pools) suggest is that Del Duca is out to do what he can for friends and family and that he isn’t overly fussed about playing by the rules of the game. That’s not unheard of in politics, but it also comes with risks. Just ask Ford, who last year learned the hard way that there are limits to how far you can go to help out your friends (or their lacrosse-playing kids).

What the Liberals have going for them is that Del Duca is, deep in his core, a pretty boring guy. At the risk of being proven wrong, I would bet good money that there’s no secret record of Del Duca — to pick a totally random example — dressing up in costume wearing blackface. All of the real knocks against him are a matter of well-documented public record.

Whatever happens next, the Liberals won’t be able to say they weren’t warned.

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