Meet Kathleen Wynne — Ontario’s premier and the 180-degree opposite of Rob Ford


Though it’s been five months since the first reports emerged that Toronto mayor Rob Ford smoked crack cocaine, it’s only been within the last week that the controversy surrounding Ford has reached truly staggering attention.toronto ontarioCanada Flag Icon

When the embattled mayor earlier this month admitted that he used crack cocaine in a drunken stupor, he only opened the floodgates to more questions — and more allegations, which have certainly followed in short order.  It’s been a truly catastrophic week for Ford, who made his problems even worse with some misogynist comments about a former female aide, his refusal to step down as mayor, further admissions that he’d purchased illegal drugs in the last two years, and that he’s operated a vehicle while drunk.

But this week also marks the first time that anyone’s suggested that the province of Ontario should step in — and that’s putting Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne in the spotlight, who is the absolute opposite of everything Ford represents.  Wynne is not only the first female premier of Ontario and the highest-ranking openly gay official in Canadian politics, Wynne exemplifies the polite, dignified consensus-driven leadership for which Canada has become so well-known.

Wynne gently waded into Toronto’s growing crisis earlier this week, urging Ford to take heed of the Toronto city council’s call to step down:

“The concern for me is that city council can function and it seems today that that’s exactly what’s happening,” she said, referring to two overwhelming council votes to politically emasculate the mayor by stripping him of some powers.  “I see that city council is making decisions and they are determined . . . to find a way to make that work,” the premier said at a Council of the Federation meeting in Toronto.

There’s not much that the Ontario premier can actually do to remove Ford, though Wynne opened the door to legislative action earlier this week — but only at the request of the Toronto city council and only with the support of the leaders of both the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, Tim Hudak, and the Ontario New Democratic Party, Andrea Horwath.

Ironically, it’s the ‘amalgamation’ plan that former Progressive Conservative prime minister Mike Harris pushed through the Ontario legislative assembly in 1998, over the protest of many Toronto residents, that made Rob Ford’s 2010 election possible.  Under amalgamation, the city of Toronto merged with the surrounding communities of East York, Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough, and York — Ford himself comes from Etobicoke, a suburb to the west of Toronto’s urban core.

Meanwhile, the Toronto city council is likewise limited in its ability to remove Ford from office, though it voted to strip Ford of many of his powers on Friday — on a vote of 39-3, councillors removed Ford’s ability to hire or to fire the city’s standing committee chairs and the deputy mayor, and on a vote of 41-2, councillors voted that Ford’s powers should be delegated to the deputy mayor in the event of an emergency situation.  Despite the council’s limitations, it’s important to keep in mind that the office of mayor in Toronto is relatively circumscribed — in many ways, Ford is more like the council chief than a true chief executive with the broad executive powers of, say, the New York City mayor.

Ford has become an international punchline, to the horror of many Toronto residents, who are proud of a city long known as Canada’s financial capital, a magnet for immigration, and a quiet showcase of North American prosperity and safety.

Far less well-known is Wynne, who is the anti-Ford of Ontario politics.  In her remarks on the Toronto mayoral situation earlier this week, she stressed that Ford’s antics do not characterize Ontario and do not characterize Toronto — Wynne herself represents Toronto in Ontario’s legislative assembly:

“I believe Toronto is not defined by one person, by one politician. We have to be very careful that we not allow ourselves to be defined by this,” she said.

Still, the premier expressed sympathy for Ford and his family, given the mayor’s drinking and admitted illegal drug use.  “I’m very concerned about the human element of this. A person who is struggling in his life, as far as I can tell, and so I hope that he will look after himself.”

Wynne became the province’s first female premier in February.  But that’s not exactly a surprising feat in Canada, where Kim Campbell served as the first female prime minister (however briefly) for just over four months in 1993, and where the premiers of Québec, Alberta and British Columbia are all women.  What makes Wynne more remarkable is that she’s the first openly gay premier of any Canadian province.

What make her even more remarkable is that she took over as premier and Ontario Liberal leader after a decade of Liberal rule under former premier Dalton McGuinty.  Though McGuinty handily won the 2003 and 2007 provincial elections, the Liberals suffered losses in the 2011 election that reduced them to a minority government.  McGuinty himself left office incredibly unpopular — not just with center-right voters, but with many center-left supporters and union activists, who opposed his efforts to impose wage freezes and other conditions on teachers in a bid to balance Ontario’s budget.

In the January leadership race, Wynne defeated frontrunner Sandra Pupatello, who was viewed as a slightly more centrist and business-friendly alternative to Wynne, and who had served in the Ontario legislative assembly between 1995 and 2011.  Pupatello returned to Ontario politics after two years in the business world for the express purpose of leading the Liberal Party — a hope that Wynne dashed with her quiet, disarming manner.  It’s not Wynne’s first upset — though she first won her riding in the 2003 wave that swept the Ontario Liberals back to power, she defeated Ontario Progressive Conservative leader John Tory in the 2007 provincial election.

When Wynne became Ontario’s premier in February, she assumed control of a Liberal caucus of just 49 legislators in the 107-member assembly, and everyone expected that she would have to call snap elections to seek her own mandate (as a technical matter, the next election need not be held until October 2015).

Instead, Wynne turned to Horwath and the Ontario NDP to pass a budget for the year — and while the temporary alliance between Horwath and Wynne hasn’t always been smooth, it’s still a fairly remarkable testament to Wynne’s ability to build consensus.  At the same time, the Ontario Liberals have bounced back from third place in most polls into a slight lead in advance of the next election — the latest IPSOS poll released on November 7 shows that the Ontario Liberals would win 34% in the next election, with the Ontario NDP and the Ontario Progressive Conservatives winning 31% each.  More voters (33%) rate Wynne as the best choice for premier than either Horwath (29%) or Hudak (28%).

While municipality elections and government is non-partisan in Canada, Ford has close ties to the federal Conservative Party (finance minister Jim Flaherty is a family friend) and to the Ontario Progressive Conservatives — Hudak once considering recruiting Ford’s brother, Doug Ford, also a Toronto council member, as a candidate for the provincial parliament.  That means that, to the extent the Toronto mayoral debacle is likely to affect provincial politics, it’s likely to hurt Hudak, who has increasingly distanced himself from the Ford brothers.

Olivia Chow, a prominent member of the federal New Democratic Party and the widow of Jack Layton, who died of cancer shortly after leading the NDP into the official opposition following the 2011 Canadian election, leads polls for Toronto’s next mayoral race, which will take place on October 27, 2014. (Though it’s absolutely fascinating that, depending on the scenario, between 20% and 33% of the electorate still support Ford’s reelection).

Not only is Wynne the anti-Ford, in many ways she’s also the opposite of federal Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau, whose rise to the federal leadership earlier this year transformed support for the federal Liberals nearly overnight — and virtually entirely on the basis of personality, not on policy.  Trudeau is the handsome son of the late Liberal leader Pierre Trudeau, who served as Canada’s prime minister between 1968 and 1984, except for one nine-month stint in the early 1980s.

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