By electing Kathleen Wynne, they have chosen the province’s first woman premier and — let’s not be coy — the first openly lesbian leader: A politician who has broken barriers and changed attitudes throughout her career.
But the rules of the game also change today, because the convention party is over: The three-month leadership race triggered by Dalton McGuinty’s departure fell flat, failing to resonate with Ontarians. It’s unlikely to provide a discernible post-convention bounce.
Despite their high hopes for renewal, the leadership campaign took place in a Liberal echo chamber — polite, plodding and all in the family. There were no impolitic questions about political scandals, from cancelled gas plants to ORNGE.
By opting for Wynne over her fellow front-runner, Sandra Pupatello, the Liberals have dodged the bullet of prolonging prorogation (the seatless Pupatello wanted to call a byelection before recalling the legislature, a handicap that cost her support).
Premier Dad has been replaced by a 59-year-old grandmother who is a bold risk taker and a smart conciliator. The contrast with the province’s two opposition leaders, who have overtaken the Liberals in the polls, will be immediate.
For NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, Wynne is a headache: A longtime advocate of social justice, the new Liberal leader threatens to peel away progressive votes from the New Democrats in their overlapping power bases. She might even heal the party’s recent rift with labour (though that remains a long shot) more effectively than the tough-talking Pupatello could have.
For Tory Leader Tim Hudak, Wynne could be a gift: A Toronto-based politician with an unconventional family image, she will be painted as an urban lefty out of touch with rural Ontario. But a baiting strategy could easily backfire on Hudak.
Wynne’s first challenge, of course, will be to heal any internal wounds within the party, though there is no major rift and no risk of retribution (most candidates were more annoyed at me than her).
She reached out with grace Saturday night by inviting not just her fellow candidates, but all their caucus supporters, to share the stage with her. A Harvard-trained mediator, she behaved like a faith healer at a hockey arena.
Wynne is no loser. She trounced then PC leader John Tory when he targeted her for defeat in 2007. She overcame the odds to overtake her rivals in the leadership campaign. But more importantly, she has a proven track record of winning over allies across Ontario.
As a lesbian, Wynne not only embodies diversity, she practices the real thing: She reaches out to other minority groups that don’t always get a fair hearing — from aboriginals to Muslims — integrating, not ghettoizing them.
She is a wonk with a human touch — a linguist, but also a retail politician. She works her urban riding masterfully, but has also forged links with rural Ontario (as transportation minister), small-town Ontario (as municipal affairs minister), native reserves (aboriginal affairs), and unheld Liberal ridings in the hinterland (as campaign vice-chair).
Will she grow on them? It would be a mistake to underestimate Wynne’s political smarts and emotional appeal. Like the increasingly popular Horwath, she has a high AQ — authenticity quotient — that comes through in person, but also onstage.
In almost every public appearance, Wynne flubs something — a spilled glass of water, a mangled line — yet invariably turns it around as evidence of her humanity and humour. During her prime time acceptance speech, she spoke off the cuff — and lost her place on the Teleprompter. Without missing a beat, she spoke from the heart — and made light of it.
“I wish you could see the Teleprompter,” she joked with disarming candour, as the operator scrolled through the text frantically to catch up with her. She kept her cool and charmed the crowd.