Ontario MPP Kathleen Wynne last night upended former Ontario MPP Sandra Pupatello to become the next leader of the Ontario Liberal Party — and, accordingly, soon to become the next premier of the most populous Canadian province.
Pupatello, who was a slight favorite headed into the party convention, led on the first two ballots before Wynne clinched the leadership on the third and final ballot, with the support of the race’s original frontrunner, Gerard Kennedy, and another candidate, Charles Sousa.
That support was enough to turn the tide and it gave the leadership to Wynne on a vote of 1,150 to 866.
It also means that Wynne will become Ontario’s next premier — incumbent Dalton McGuinty is stepping down after nearly a decade as premier and after leading the Ontario Liberals to three consecutive electoral victories, albeit with a minority government in his third term. McGuinty has served as the leader of the Ontario Liberals since 1996.
Wynne defeated David Turnbull, then an incumbent Progressive Conservative minister of enterprise, in the 2003 provincial election in a municipal Toronto riding to enter the Ontario legislature a decade ago. She served as minister of education (just as Kennedy and Pupatello once did, ironically) from 2006 to 2010 before becoming minister of transportation and then minister of municipal affairs and housing and aboriginal affairs.
Wynne directly addressed the question of whether a lesbian could proceed to win an election province-wide following her win:
I want to put something on the table: Is Ontario ready for a gay premier? You’ve heard that question. You’ve all heard that question, but let’s say what that actually means: Can a gay woman win? That’s what it means….
You know, there was a time, not that long ago, when most of us in this leadership race would not have been deemed suitable. We would have been deemed unsuitable. A Portuguese-Canadian, an Indo-Canadian, an Italian-Canadian, female, gay, Catholic. Most of us could not have hoped to stand on this stage. But the province has changed. Our party has changed.
It’s a strong statement, and with Wynne’s elevation, Canada joins the vanguard of countries in the world where gay men and women have reached the pinnacle of political power. By contrast, even in relatively liberal California, the most populous U.S. state, it seems unlikely to think that voters would elect a gay governor less than a decade after former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger referred to lawmakers as ‘girly men’.
Wynne, who has three children with her former husband, came out at age 37, and has been with her current partner Jane Rounthwaite, since 1990.
So Wynne’s Saturday evening victory should be recognized for its historic importance.
But back in the world of day-to-day Ontario politics, the reality is that Wynne has a difficult task ahead of her in rejuvenating the Ontario Liberals after a decade in government if she doesn’t want to wind up as the Kim Campbell of Ontario politics.‡
She’ll first have to turn to Ontario’s teacher unions, still smarting after McGuinty passed a law in 2012 that implements a wage freeze on public teachers that also denies them the right to strike for two years, despite their crucial efforts in support of the Ontario Liberal in past election campaigns. Given her image as a relatively more leftist Liberal leader, she may well be best place to repair that relationship.
Then she’ll have to lead the Ontario Liberals in a new general election — before October 1, 2015, but quite possibly much earlier if she decides to call snap elections to seek a mandate in her own right. That seems like it’s less likely under the more laid-back Wynne under Pupatello, a much more vigorous campaigner. For her own part, Wynne is more of a policy wonk who seemed more comfortable with getting on with governing Ontario.
She’ll start out in a relatively weak position in the polls — the province’s New Democratic Party holds a lead in most surveys, and a recent Form poll taken January 23-24 shows the NDP with 34% to 31% for the Tories, just 26% for the Liberals and 7% for the Green Party. That mirrors the national rise of the NDP, which outpaced the federal Liberal Party to become the official opposition in the House of Commons following the 2011 Canadian elections.
NDP leader Andrea Horwath, at least until Saturday, was the most popular party leader in Ontario, though it remains to be seen if the NDP will continue to dominate polling federally or in Ontario at the next election — it seems likelier that as a more leftist Liberal leader, Wynne will potentially put even more NDP voters into play than Pupatello.
Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak is not especially popular with Ontario voters (unlike, say, former premier Mike Harris once was), but his party also consistently leads the Liberals.
Pupatello led narrowly by a vote of 599 to Wynne’s 597 in the first ballot (29% each) with Kennedy running a weak third place with just 281 delegates. Pupatello actually extended her lead to 817 (39%) to just 770 (36%) for Wynne and 285 (14%) for Kennedy in the second ballot before Wynne’s third-ballot victory.
Pupatello was an MPP in the Ontario legislature from 1995 until 2011, when she left for the private sector as director of business and global markets at PricewaterhouseCoopers. She served briefly as minister of education in 2006, succeeding Kennedy, in fact, and preceding Wynne, before becoming a minister of economic development. As a former MPP, Pupatello said she would wait until winning her own seat in a by-election before calling the legislature back into order (it’s expected that a current Liberal MPP from a safe constituency would have stepped down in order to allow Pupatello to return to the Ontario legislature). The delay that would have been caused by a Pupatello leadership, however, may have been a factor in Wynne’s victory — she will recall the Ontario legislature as soon as possible.
As the perceived ‘establishment’ candidate in the race, Pupatello was also seen as a more centrist candidate than Wynne — it remains to be seen if Pupatello will still return to the Ontario legislature, but her presence in a Wynne-led government, as finance minister, perhaps, would contribute both to party unity and demonstrating that Wynne is serious about cutting the Ontario budget, which remains in deficit. Ten years younger than Wynne, Pupatello could well make a future leadership challenge as well.
Although provincial ‘Liberal’ parties are not necessarily tied to the federal Liberal Party (especially in Québec), the federal Liberals are set to elect a new leader on April 14, with federal MP Justin Trudeau, son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, widely seen as the strong frontrunner. In Québec, on March 17 the Parti libéral du Québec (PLQ, Liberal Party of Québec) is set to elect a new leader to succeed former premier Jean Charest — currently, Québec MPP and former minister of health Philippe Coullard is the widely viewed frontrunner.
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‡ Campbell succeeded Brian Mulroney as prime minister of Canada and leader of the Progressive Conservative Party; she served less than five months as prime minister before the Tories lost all but two seats in the October 1993 Canadian election.