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Big Tent Politics, Persistence The Keys To McGuinty's Success


By Susanna Kelley

Susanna KelleyIt was 4 o'clock in the morning on that first day of December in 1996, and Maple Leaf Gardens was hot, sweaty and full of politicians, party delegates and political journalists.  We'd all dug in for the long haul.

Junkies that we were, no on was willing to leave until they learned who was to become the new Ontario Liberal leader.

It had been an exhausting nine hours since the first ballot results had been announced. At 7:31 p.m. on November 30th - literally the day before - Gerard Kennedy was in first place. It looked like he would easily claim the crown.

Dalton McGuinty Jr. was a long way back in fourth.

But as exhaustion gave way to an adrenalin rush, I made my way up the stands and into a massive scrum with Kennedy, holding my microphone in close to catch his first words when the big moment came. Everyone still thought he was going to take it.

Everyone, except perhaps Dalton McGuinty.

At precisely 4:25 a.m., the official on the stage announced that Dalton James Patrick McGuinty Jr., the fourth place finisher on the first ballot, had worked his way up to first place on the fourth ballot to become the new leader of the Ontario Liberals.

That was the last time I underestimated Dalton McGuinty.

He'd known during the campaign that he wasn't the first choice of many delegates, so he asked them to pledge their support if and when their favourites dropped off the ballot. And it worked.

It was a pattern of dogged perseverance that followed him through his 22 years as a member of the Ontario legislature.

And many of them were hard, slugging, lonely years.

Years of party barbecues and so-called rubber chicken dinners in church basements, travelling all over the province to meet with Liberals and build support.

Years of long weeks away from his own family, where his long-suffering wife Terri was holding down the fort, raising their four small children and juggling her work as a teacher in Ottawa.

Years including 1999, his first election as leader, when the Mike Harris Conservatives ran attack ads with the devastating line that defined him to voters: "Dalton McGuinty: He's just not up to the job."

But McGuinty kept slugging along, wooing immigrants in the 905 belt long before Jason Kenney of the federal Conservatives ever made his way there.

There may be a simple explanation for why he kept on when others would have quit.

Many know McGuinty was the eldest of eight children, and the son of Dalton McGuinty Sr., the first McGuinty MPP from the riding of Ottawa South.

But many don't know how much this shaped him.

Chatting idly before a taping with him one day, I asked him why he alone, of the seven Premiers I've covered, still had his dark hair. (All the others went white from the stress of the job - Bob Rae within 6 months of being elected Premier.)

"Because I've done this all my life," he said.

"When I was growing up, my dad was at Queen's Park during the week, and my mother took on extra jobs at night as a nurse to help feed the eight kids."

"So it was my job each night to make sure dinner got on the table, everyone ate, the dishes got done and everyone did their homework. Including me."

That's a lot of stress on a teenager growing up, and it obviously made him used to hard work and long hours.

Eventually, McGuinty built a strong political coalition, broadening the Liberal Party into a modern one that saw those immigrants become MPP's and cabinet ministers.

He lured some of those who leaned left, invading the NDP's turf. That was a big change from the old days, when Bill Davis' PC's were seen as more progressive than Ontario Liberals under Bob Nixon.

He made the party into a big tent: some labour unions such as the Canadian Auto Workers, and some public service union members, in a move to defeat Harris, practiced "strategic voting" and worked for the Liberals in some ridings. 

Of course, the unions were easy pickings once Bob Rae ripped up their contracts in the early 1990's to impose settlements - for which they never forgave him.

As the leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, McGuinty day by day chipped away at Harris' divisive political style. 

By the time Harris stepped down and Ernie Eves led the PC's in the 2003 campaign, McGuinty was older, wiser, had been through two campaigns and was able to personify a safe alternative to a divisive, tired Harris government.  The PC's Common Sense Revolution had long been over, and a whiff of corruption wafted from the old government as Harris supporters and hangers-on were handed lucrative untendered contracts.

The people who had come to fix government, had put the fix in government.

And the Harris Tories had exhausted the population, who were tired of constant, in-you-face fighting.

McGuinty looked refreshing with one of the best television campaign ads ever produced.

"I won't raise your taxes but I won't lower them either," he said, urging voters to "Take the high road" and vote Liberal.

They handed him the first of two back-to-back majorities, followed by what he termed a "major minority" a year ago. 

Electorally, he was one of the most successful Premiers in Ontario history.

But he lost a gamble to turn the minority into a majority when the NDP took a by election in Kitchener Waterloo - the first time it had won that riding since the early 1940's under the CCF banner.

And his government seemed to list from left to right in its quest to make minority government work.

First he agreed to an NDP demand for a tax hike for those making over $500,00 a year rather than lose a confidence vote.

Then he lurched right, imposing a wage freeze on teachers and trying unsuccessfully for Tory support for a bill to hold down public servant wages.

But when the scandal broke over an election team decision to pull the plug on a controversial gas-fired electric plant at the 11th hour of the campaign, the government just couldn't right the good ship Liberal.

It stood on the precipice of being declared in contempt of the Legislature for refusing to release documents related to the cancellation of that plant and one other.

It first released 32,000 documents, and then McGuinty said public servants suddenly found 20,000 more.

At its saddest performance in the Legislature, this week McGuinty, Energy Minister Chris Bentley and House Leader John Milloy resorted to blaming public servants for withholding the documents. 

It seemed the government was in a box and there was no way out.

But when reporters speculated at his press conference that McGuinty was going because he was on the ropes, he scoffed.

"In 1990 when I was the only newly elected Liberal in the province, they told me there was no way I could win. In 1996 they said there was no way you're going to win the leadership of this party. In 2003, 2007 and 2011, we went into each of those elections behind. So there's still going to be a few people out there who are going to say 'you can't win.'

"It has nothing to do with that and everything to do with a decision Terri and I have made. It's time for us to return to our own lives and it's time for me to make an effort to renew the leadership of our party."

When you think back to that teenager who shouldered the responsibility for seven siblings each night, he just might be telling the truth.

You can find Susanna here: @susannakelley

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