Toronto·Analysis

Steven Del Duca's to-do list: Rebuild Ontario's Liberals, take on Doug Ford

For Steven Del Duca, winning the Ontario Liberal leadership was the easy job. Now he faces the far more difficult tasks of rebuilding his third-place party, giving Ontarians a compelling reason to vote Liberal, and taking on incumbent Premier Doug Ford.

After his convention victory, new Ontario Liberal leader faces uphill struggle toward 2022 election campaign

New Ontario Liberal Party Leader Steven Del Duca celebrates at the convention in Mississauga, Ont., Saturday, March 7, 2020. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

For Steven Del Duca, winning the Ontario Liberal leadership was the easy job.  

Del Duca, a former cabinet minister, succeeds Kathleen Wynne as party leader after his landslide first-ballot victory at Saturday's Liberal convention in Mississauga.  

Now Del Duca faces the far more difficult tasks of rebuilding his third-place party, taking on incumbent Premier Doug Ford, and giving Ontarians who want Ford gone a compelling reason to vote Liberal in 2022 rather than NDP or Green. 

Here's what's on Steven Del Duca's to-do list:

1. Introduce himself to Ontarians

People who follow politics closely know Del Duca from his six years as the Liberal MPP for Vaughan, Ont., including four years in cabinet. But for the vast majority of Ontario voters, he's unknown.

His back story has the potential for some appeal: he's a first generation Canadian, son of a Scottish mother and Italian father. He went to law school, graduating from Osgoode Hall in Toronto in 2007.

While even his supporters admit he's far from the most charismatic politician Ontario has ever seen, they argue he is smart, hard-working and plain-spoken.   

Ontario Liberal leadership candidate Steven Del Duca speaks to supporters Saturday at the party's convention in Mississauga, Ont. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

But the Progressive Conservatives and NDP will quickly aim to tie Del Duca to the Liberal legacy that brought about the party's decimation in 2018, and paint him as emblematic of all that is wrong with Liberals in power.  

"He's the Liberal party's gift to us," a PC insider told CBC News at their party convention in Niagara Falls, Ont., last month. Speaking on condition of anonymity to reveal the party's internal discussions, the insider said the PCs hoped Del Duca would win because they believe he will be far less appealing to voters than other Liberal leadership candidates.

NDP leader Andrea Horwath has her attack lines ready. 

"The people of Ontario have to keep in mind what the Liberal track record was," Horwath said last week. "Mr. Del Duca will be a very quick and easy reminder about why people rejected the Liberals for their behaviours in the last 15 years."  

2. Deal with his baggage

Del Duca's tenure as transportation minister is not without controversy. He was criticized in the 2018 auditor general's report for approving construction of two GO stations against the advice of Metrolinx staff, including one at Kirby, near his Vaughan riding.

Del Duca defends the move as the right call, saying the analysis by Metrolinx didn't take into account expected population growth. 

Just last month, CBC News revealed Del Duca built a backyard swimming pool without all the necessary permits and too close to neighbouring conservation land, according to municipal bylaws. Del Duca calls it an "embarrassing ... honest mistake" and is seeking a land swap to bring the pool into compliance. 

As a key member of Wynne's government, Del Duca will also need to figure out whether to distance himself from her record, embrace her accomplishments, or toe some fine line between the two. 

Steven Del Duca, right, served as minister of transportation and minister of economic development under then-premier Kathleen Wynne. He will need to decide whether to distance himself from Wynne's record or embrace it. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Dan Moulton, a former Liberal staffer, now an analyst with Crestview Strategy, a Toronto-based communications and government relations firm, says he is less concerned about Del Duca's baggage than about "whether Ontarians know who he is at all."

It's crucial for Del Duca to communicate to voters "why he's in politics and what motivates him" before other parties have the chance to define him first, said Moulton. 

 3. Rebuild the Liberal machine

Among Del Duca's most important tasks now: "the unglamorous but very, very important work of party building," says one of his senior campaign advisers. This means nurturing local riding associations, recruiting candidates, developing policies and raising money, all with an eye toward the June 2022 election. 

"It's going to entail working like crazy over the next 26 months," said the adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy.  

The 2018 election disaster left the Ontario Liberals with not only their worst result in party history, but also with a financial mess. The party raised just $970,000 last year, according to donations recorded on the Elections Ontario website. It's a far cry from the PCs' haul last year in excess of $4.8 million. Doug Ford raked in more than $2 million on just one night this past week, at his annual leaders' dinner. 

New Ontario Liberal Party Leader Steven Del Duca receives a congratulatory hug at the convention in Mississauga, Ont., on Saturday. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

If any of the leadership candidates have the organizational skills for the rebuild, it's Del Duca. Active in the party since he was 15, Del Duca worked his way up from lowly volunteer through political staffer and riding-level campaign manager before becoming the party's candidate to succeed the longtime Vaughan MPP and Liberal éminence grise Greg Sorbara. 

In large part through Del Duca's recruiting, the Liberal leadership race boosted the party's membership numbers to the 38,000 mark, back in line with its pre-2018 figures. His decisive victory at the convention also means the party is less divided than it could have been had the race turned into a bitter toe-to-toe battle between two distinct Liberal factions.

Expect Del Duca to announce an election readiness team as early as next week. 

4. Contrast with the NDP

Much could change by the time Ontarians go the polls in 2022, but right now the next election looks set to be a referendum on Doug Ford. People who want to vote "no" in that referendum will have options other than Del Duca's Liberals, chiefly Horwath's New Democrats.

Given that the Liberals and NDP (as well as the Greens) will be fishing in the same pool of anti-Ford voters, Del Duca needs to contrast himself as the clear alternative. He'll likely do that by painting the New Democrats as ineffective in holding Ford to account, as he did in his speech to the convention Saturday, and by whipping up fears that an NDP government would harm the economy.   

NDP leader Andrea Horwath (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

But he will also need to craft compelling reasons to win back the nearly 750,000 voters who fled from the Liberals in 2018, and win over the millennials who now make up the largest demographic chunk of potential voters.  

"People need a reason to show up other than to vote against something," said Moulton. 

"Millennial voters in particular look for that in their politics," he added. "We as Liberals have to articulate a vision that when they show up and vote, it's going to lead to change." 

In his convention speech, Del Duca hinted at some of the themes he's expected to campaign on: climate change, universal pharmacare, a patient bill of rights, and protections for workers in the gig economy.  

5. Face off against Doug Ford

There are plenty of voices out there insisting there's no way Doug Ford can win a second term in 2022, but that's a rather naive view. Ford loves campaigning, he has a formidable re-election team and his party is rolling in cash.

The Liberals cannot simply rely on Ford losing. Del Duca knows that, as does his team. "Anyone who suggests that this government is done for doesn't know what they're talking about," said his senior adviser.  

Del Duca's ultimate goal will be to defeat incumbent Premier Doug Ford in the next provincial election, scheduled for June 2022. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

"It took Doug Ford and his friends 15 years to win an election. They will not give up easily," Del Duca said in his speech. 

Expect Del Duca to try to win back voters by seizing on a perception that Ford's time in power has been chaotic. He'll want to portray himself as the competent alternative, a safe pair of hands to run the province, the kind of campaign that John Tory ran against Rob Ford and Doug Ford in the Toronto mayoralty race of 2014.

You cannot overstate the size of the task facing Del Duca, with so few incumbent MPPs, so little money, and the brutal 2018 defeat still fresh in voters' mind. 

But it's not unheard of for a party to go from a distant third-place finish to a majority win within one election cycle. Justin Trudeau's Liberals did it federally in 2015. Mike Harris's PCs did it in Ontario in 1995. Steven Del Duca's efforts to make that happen in 2022 start today.  

About the Author

Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C.

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