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Ontario Liberals to pick new leader to succeed Kathleen Wynne

TORONTO — Ontario Liberals will gather this weekend to select their new leader, a person who will face the daunting task of whipping a decimated party back into fighting form in time for an election just over two years away.

TORONTO — Ontario Liberals will gather this weekend to select their new leader, a person who will face the daunting task of whipping a decimated party back into fighting form in time for an election just over two years away.

Though the event will be a delegated convention, typically a dramatic affair with candidates dropping off successive ballots and crossing ballroom floors to throw their support behind others, Saturday's gathering is all but a coronation.

Steven Del Duca, a former cabinet minister, has the support of about 43 per cent of the committed delegates selected for the March 7 convention.

He says he is also close to securing the support of 200 of the approximately 640 so-called ex-officio delegates — largely party heavyweights — which likely puts him over 50 per cent and means a first ballot victory.

But victory on Saturday is just the first step in the monumental task of trying to rebuild a party reduced in 2018 from a majority government under Premier Kathleen Wynne to one in third place without official party status in the legislature. Wynne ended up essentially bowing out days before the election and now sits in the legislature as the member for Don Valley West.

Dubbed the "minivan party" when they held just seven seats in the aftermath of that election, the Liberals now hold eight seats, thanks to Amanda Simard, the Progressive Conservative-turned independent who recently joined the party. Her addition would have given the Liberals official party status had the Tory government not raised the bar to 12 seats in late 2018.

Interim Leader John Fraser said while it is encouraging that some polls suggest the Liberals are doing well electorally even without a permanent leader, the new head of the party will need to bring people together, attract strong candidates in 124 ridings, and fundraise.

"Families hit hard times," he said. "Everyone's got to come home. Put aside the differences we have and work on getting strong again."

The party has not been doing fundraising events while Fraser has been at the temporary helm, he said.

"Now that we're no longer leaderless," he said with a smirk, "it's easier for a leader who has a longer mandate to get out and raise money."

The Liberals took on $10 million in debt to help fund their election campaign. Last year, the Liberals reported $9.3 million of that amount had yet to be paid off, but didn't provide updated figures when asked this week.

Scott Reid, a former adviser to Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, said Del Duca will be a natural to get the fundraising, candidate recruiting and volunteering machines back up to full power. His organizing strength helped him become the front runner and that suggests he can do the same for the party, Reid said.

"That's the sort of thing that Steven Del Duca will be like a duck to water at," he said.  

But job No. 1 for the party is to define Del Duca before the governing Progressive Conservatives get a chance to, Reid said, because he is an unknown to the general public.

"I can't imagine that public opinion polls would find a chemical trace of unprompted name recognition," he said. "He has to build a sturdy definition of who he is that contrasts with Ford, that resonates with people."

Policy announcements Del Duca rolled out during the leadership campaign include incentives for electric vehicle purchases and funding for more charging infrastructure, developing a long-term STEM education strategy, and increasing the money municipalities get from the gas tax.

The other contenders for the Liberal leadership are former cabinet minister Michael Coteau, who comes into the convention with 371 delegates, politics instructor and former London, Ont., public servant Kate Graham with 273 delegates, former education minister Mitzie Hunter with 130 delegates, former college administrator and public servant Alvin Tedjo with 72 delegates and Ottawa-based lawyer Brenda Hollingsworth with 25 delegates.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 6, 2020.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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