Biting the political bullet, Wynne clears path for Liberals to campaign out of her shadow

Ontario Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne's surprise admission of defeat five days ahead of the election clears the path for her party's candidates to ditch the weight of the premier's unpopularity and race to the finish line on their own steam, many say.

Admission of defeat widely seen as a Hail Mary for Liberals to win enough seats to keep party status

An emotional Kathleen Wynne on Saturday acknowledged that she will no longer be premier after the June 7 election and encouraged voters to elect Liberal candidates to prevent the NDP or PCs from securing a majority. (CBC)

Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne's surprise admission of defeat five days ahead of the election clears the path for her party's candidates to ditch the weight of the premier's unpopularity and race to the finish line on their own steam, many incumbent Liberals say.

In a stunning move Saturday, an emotional Wynne conceded her days as premier are over when voters head to the ballot box June 7 — but called on Ontarians to vote Liberal anyway, saying a vote for her party is a vote to keep the next government in check, be it one led by the NDP or the PCs.

At stake for the Liberals are eight seats, which they need to hang on to party status at a time when support has been floundering in the polls amid a virtually neck and neck race between the competition.

Wynne's move was a gamble.

'I've thought long and hard'

"I would never want to do anything that would undermine any of my candidates," Wynne told reporters. "I have thought long and hard about this, believe me."

It was a decision many candidates say caught them off guard.

"For me, it was just shocking," said Minister of Children and Youth Services Micheal Coteau, running for Don Valley East, who learned of the move on social media. Many others in the party found out during a conference call Saturday morning.

"There was less than half an hour, I would say, between finding out, and the announcement," said Coteau, who says his task remains to remind voters in a riding that voted 57 per cent in favour of the Grits in the last election, of the values for which the party stands.
Minister of Children and Youth Services Micheal Coteau, running for Don Valley East, said he learned of the move on social media, while many others in the party found out during a conference call Saturday morning. (CBC)

Many other party stalwarts, including Mitzie Hunter and Charles Sousa, told CBC News they too didn't know the move was in the works, with Hunter saying it was "unbelievable" to her when she first found out. But both called it a courageous act by a leader who wanted her party to move forward.

I'm not going to lie. It wasn't a boost in momentum for me.- Nadia  Guerrera ,  Parkdale-High  Park candidate

For first-time Parkdale-High Park candidate Nadia Guerrera, the news was doubly difficult. After all, it was less than a month ago that Guerrera's team got a phone call saying her office was going to be Wynne's first campaign stop.

Fast forward to Saturday, a conference call with the premier admitting she wasn't going to win.

"I'm not going to lie. It wasn't a boost in momentum for me. It was difficult for somebody that I respect," said Guerrera. "I can't imagine what she must be feeling right now. But there's work to do. "

Public support for Wynne's Liberals has plummeted since the election started on May 9, and CBC's Poll Tracker indicates that even long-time strongholds like St. Paul's in Toronto and St. Catharines could be lost. Asked if there was a moment that prompted her to finally admit defeat, Wynne said the decision was the result of a "confluence of things."

A 'responsible' move, say some

Windsor West candidate Rino Bortolin says Wynne acknowledging she won't win enough votes to form government is part of her track record of making "tough decisions."

"When I've knocked on doors that they want to vote for me, they wanted my representation but they had reservations about supporting this government or supporting this premier. What this does is allows them to walk into the ballot box and vote for the person that they feel best represents their interests," Bortolin said. 
For first-time Parkdale-High Park candidate Nadia Guerrera, the news was doubly difficult. It was less than a month ago that Guerrera's team got a phone call saying her office was going to be Wynne’s first campaign stop. (CBC)
Liberal incumbent for Ottawa West-Nepean Bob Chiarelli expressed a similar view, calling the move "unusual," but one that was necessary "to protect the people of Ontario."

"Quite frankly, I thought it was practical. And it was responsible," he said of Wynne's political martyrdom.

"We want to take the concerns about Kathleen Wynne off the table and we want to say, 'What type of government do we want in Ontario, not particularly trying to defeat Kathleen Wynne' … I think people will understand why she did what she did."

Sudbury candidate Glenn Thibeault echoed that sentiment saying, "Yes, it took us all, I think, by surprise, but I think it's now the opportunity for us to say we can now go door to door, talk about the issues."

Whether Wynne's Hail Mary plea to voters to cast their ballot for her party is effective when there is no chance of a Liberal government remains to be seen.

But if her plan works, London North Centre candidate Kate Graham says, a minority government will be "a real opportunity" for a government that works across party lines.

A race to the finish … or maybe just survival

"It forces parties to work together," she told CBC News, something she believes will please many voters. Speaking with voters door to door, she says she's heard loud and clear that "people are not comfortable with any of the options." 

"They don't want to hand the keys over to any single leader or party."

Ottawa Centre MPP and Attorney General Yasir Naqvi took the day's announcement into stride, saying he never takes an election for granted and this time is no different.

"I've worked as hard as I'm working this election," he said, calling Wynne's move a "courageous" one but difficult to hear.

Asked by reporters Saturday if she'll step down as party leader, Wynne wouldn't say, though some believe it's a foregone conclusion.
Windsor West candidate Rino Bortolin says Wynne acknowledging she won't win enough votes to form government is part of her track record of making 'tough decisions.' (CBC)

Couteau was among those eulogizing the premier's legacy following the announcement, remembering Wynne as his MPP growing in up Flemingdon Park who took a chance on him.

"I'm not the traditional guy who's brought into politics.… She gave me an opportunity to run, to be a part of that, to be a part of her cabinet. She was the person who helped bring me into the fold."

But whether campaigning without a viable candidate for premier helps secure the Liberals' survival or puts them underground remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome June 7, all eyes were surely on Wynne on Saturday.

"My coach Bonnie Parkhill said, 'You always had a really good kick, which is the last bit at the end," said a wistful Wynne, referring to her track coach. "So I'm going to use that. I'm going to use that for my candidates around the province."

With files from CBC News