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Op-Ed: 

How Kathleen Wynne Became Victorious In Drama-Filled Convention

by Hershell Ezrin

Who says Americans enjoy more interesting politics than anything we tame Canadians can ever conjure up?

In as tense and drama-filled day played out before the TV cameras as any American contest, Ontarians watched an exciting Ontario Liberal leadership race which resulted in the election of two historic firsts: a woman, and openly gay, premier.  To those party apparatchiks who thought sexual orientation would always be the decisive elephant in any province-wide leadership vote, Wynne offered a direct challenge to the previously taboo subject.

But how did Kathleen Wynne come from behind in a seven-person race and pass front-runner Sandra Pupatello in the home stretch?  Why did those historic marches across the floor first by Hoskins, and then by Sousa and Kennedy, to throw their support behind Wynne allow her to claim a well fought but decisive third ballot victory?

At first, Pupatello’s advantages were clear and drew support not only across the party (almost 25% of sitting MPPs, an equal number of riding presidents and a bevy of sitting Cabinet Ministers) but also from the influential and delegate-rich ex-officio group of former elected and party officials. She was a strong and feared campaigner as demonstrated in her Opposition days, a quality she stressed in the run-up to what is expected to the next bruising campaign. In short she was campaign battle-tested and ready.

Pupatello was from outside Toronto, unlike her opponents, who were all clustered in the GTA (only three Ontario Premiers had ever come from Toronto) but also comfortable with Bay Street, and the current mantra of jobs, prosperity and deficit reduction. She even won the editorial endorsement of the polar opposite Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. And during a period when the McGuinty government was under attack on all sides, Pupatello had the luxury of being outside of Cabinet for a number of these decisions. 

Wynne’s campaign management had always been a strength.  She brought almost 8,000 new members into the party, and outraised most of her opponents in the all- important donation race. Nowhere was that depth clearer than in the superb delegate tracking and floor management her team displayed, with some 250 volunteers deployed strategically on the floor. Her team outperformed Pupatello’s in winning over both Hoskin and Sousa supporters in the pull and tug of floor relationships.  And Pupatello’s early lead among ex-officios was overcome by a tenacious campaign by Wynne’s followers.

But Wynne also used the short campaign, much of it under the provincial media and public radar, to expand her connections, build alliances, and sharpen her message. Wynne had campaigned tirelessly for some of her colleagues over the years; she had also gone out of her way to learn about other parts of the province beyond her ministerial remit. Nowhere did this interest in agricultural and rural Ontario bring greater returns than in capturing the support of influential former Minister John Wilkinson to co-chair her campaign.  As she crisscrossed the province, she spoke in concrete policy terms of what her premiership would mean, for the North, for the Ring of Fire, for farmers and for voters outside the GTA.

But Wynne never shied away from her progressive roots and social justice interests, something that mattered a great deal in a delegated convention. And it became the reason that Eric Hoskins and ultimately Gerard Kennedy, polling his own idealistic delegates, could bring many of their supporters over to her side. Kennedy tellingly spoke of the ‘cause’ that he was endorsing. While Sousa kept stressing Wynne’s progressive credentials in defending his move to Wynne, speculation remains that his concern over an early election and his desire to curry favour with Mayor McCallion also played a part of his decision. In short, being on the winning side mattered.

Through the repetition and pressure of a campaign, Wynne also found an authoritative ‘voice’ that was far less bureaucratic and that could connect with party members and citizens alike. As a skilled mediator and conciliator, she also offered queasy provincial Liberals a chance to buy time before the next election’s challenge by testing the intentions of the NDP to make the current government work. This mattered particularly to candidates in the outer ring of the GTA who saw Pupatello’s ‘run and gun’ style forcing an early election.

Going into the convention delegate selection process, Wynne managed to hold down expectations about her performance and instead focus the spotlight on being the alternative to the front-running Pupatello. By demonstrating time and again that she was closing the gap on Pupatello, the contest became a clear two-candidate race (no third-party-up-the-middle scenario like Joe Clark or Stefan Dion race here).

The campaign was genteel by almost any comparative standard; there were a few policy areas where the candidates clearly differed.  Although a member of the cabinet that introduced Bill 115, Wynne stressed her negotiation skills in seeking to work out a new relationship with the teachers. Pupatello was seen as more likely to fight than switch, regardless of her having no connection to the decision. To Liberals this mattered a great deal, as the teachers’ support has been the backbone of their recent electoral success.

Without a seat, Pupatello could only say she would call an immediate by-election; her leadership opponents felt that both Pupatello and the party could become victim of a knock-out blow by a concentrated combined attack of unionists and Conservatives in a less than safe Windsor seat. Or worse still, the province might be plunged into an early election in order to avoid that nightmare scenario but at a time when Liberal electoral fortunes had not yet recovered.

Meanwhile the provincial Legislature would remain prorogued, a sore spot for media and many Liberals alike. Wynne offered a clear date for returning the House, delighting the Opposition who would love to mark up a new government and Premier before it can set its own agenda. 

Then the whispers became amplified in the backrooms and media about sexual orientation being the trump card that would defeat Wynne’s bid for the leadership.  

Wynne and her team knew they had to address this challenge head on. Taking a risk, in the best speech of the morning, Wynne decided she would address the issue of electability head-on.

Wynne is no stranger to tough adversaries. No one should underestimate her mental toughness, first in ‘coming-out’ many years ago when this was almost never done; she beat a sitting Conservative minister in her Toronto Don Valley riding in order to get into the legislature and she subsequently defeated John Tory in that same seat.

Wynne owes some of her success not only to a well-orchestrated campaign that used the latest in electronic and social media technology; but she also spread the unsubtle message that things would change at Queen’s Park if she became the leader. This would inevitably mean a changing of some of the backroom guard that have earned the ire of caucus and party members alike by enforcing strong discipline on the party.

Wynne has much to do and no time to do it. Her premiership’s transition (including cabinet and staff appointments, and the overflowing dossiers of urgent issues) will have to be addressed without the usual hiatus given to a new leader and in the context of an unstable minority government. At the same time, Premier-designate Wynne will have to start shaping the new agenda, platform and budget upon which the Liberals will have to run as early as this summer. She will have to recruit a new generation of Ontario provincial Liberals as candidates and party followers.

But as her victory has proven tonight, Ms. Wynne has overcome towering odds to get this far. No one should underestimate her, and on the basis of this victory, I suspect no one will.

About Hershell Ezrin

Hershell Ezrin has more than 30 years' experience as a political advisor to elected officials at all three levels of government and senior executive roles in both the public and private sectors. He served as Principal Secretary to former Liberal Premier David Peterson and was a member of the federal-provincial relations team within the Privy Council Office under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. He is now the Managing Director of Ezrin Communications. He blogs regularly at www.hershell-ezrin.com
Posted date : January 27, 2013

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