On the day Ontario Premier Doug Ford got booed by a 3,000-member audience at the opening ceremony of the 2019 Special Olympics in Toronto, Steven Del Duca was heading to a much smaller event in Newmarket.
There were only about 50 people, but Del Luca said his team expects his own crowds will get much larger.
Based on what he's been hearing, he knows that Ontarians are increasingly worried by what is happening in the Doug Ford government.
"I don't believe Doug Ford and the people around him are competent," @StevenDelDuca said as he shared his plans to rebuild and modernize the Ontario Liberal Party he hopes to helm. #onpoli
Recent public opinion polls also show Ford's slumping popularity. An Environics poll commissioned by a public sector union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, recently found that three quarters of Ontarians thought that the Ford government was on the wrong track, mainly due to cuts in healthcare, the Toronto Star reported earlier in the week.
"It is a sign to me that Ford is badly off track and, under Ford, Ontario is off track and people want to see it change back to something that is more moderate and competent and pragmatic and responsible," Del Duca said. "They don't have these things with Doug Ford."
Del Duca, 46, is marking his 31 consecutive years as a card-carrying member of the Ontario Liberal Party (he started when he was 15) by being the first to throw his hat into a leadership race, which hasn't been formally announced. Details of the leadership bid are expected to be confirmed in two weeks at the June 7 annual general meeting in Toronto, where the party also has to deal with $10 million of debt accumulated during the June election (Elections Canada says $9.3 million of that amount still needs to be paid off).
Congratulations to the @OntLiberal Team. We laid out an operational plan, worked it, remained committed to success, and the result was one of the largest early bird registrations in decades! #bettereveryday https://t.co/s3DHKQRygz— Brian Johns (@_BrianJohns) May 11, 2019
In Kathleen Wynne's government, Del Duca served as economic development minister and transportation minister, until he lost his seat in the June 2018 election that brought Ford's Progressive Conservatives to power and reduced the Liberal Party from a majority government to seven seats — not enough for official party status in the legislature.
That caucus is getting even smaller.
Last week, two of the Ontario Liberals current seven MPPs announced that they’d be leaving the caucus to pursue other opportunities. Ottawa-area MPPs Marie-France Lalonde and Nathalie Des Rosiers said they would be leaving Queen's Park later this year. Lalonde will seek the nomination for the federal Liberals in the riding she currently represents provincially — a vacancy that emerged after MP Andrew Leslie, who’s been in office for just one term, announced that he wouldn’t be seeking re-election. Des Rosiers will leave electoral politics altogether, to become principal of Massey College, at the University of Toronto, after two and a half years at the provincial legislature.
Lalonde was a possible candidate for the provincial Liberal leadership. But so far, only two candidates — former cabinet ministers Del Duca and Michael Coteau (a sitting MPP) — have declared that they’re running.
Speaking of friends—long time, no see, @coteau! Always a pleasant surprise when the road brings former colleagues together.— Steven Del Duca (@StevenDelDuca) April 13, 2019
Proud of all the work you and many others are doing to hold the government to account and rebuild the @OntLiberal Party. #OLPRebuild pic.twitter.com/I0uxbFpH6j
Everyone agrees the Liberal Party needs to rebuild and modernize. Del Duca, himself, has come up with a series of ambitious plans. He wants to create a 124-member caucus that has at least 30 candidates under the age of 30, and half of whom are women. He wants to find a way to respect the taxpayer's money while also investing in Ontario — something he believes the Liberal government lost track off in their last days in office.
Most importantly, the Liberal Party is contending with picking someone who can beat Doug Ford, and Del Duca believes he could be that person.
"The overarching concern I have is that I don't believe Doug Ford and the people around him are competent," Del Duca says. "And I think that what we've seen so far ... really disturbs me, and not as a Liberal, not as a partisan or a political guy. That disturbs me as an Ontarian."
June election was 'like trying to tread water in quicksand'
Del Duca knew he was going to lose his seat in Vaughn, Ont. — a riding he has lived in for 30 years and one that has voted Liberal provincially and federally for an entire generation — a week and a half before voting day.
"It was like pushing against a massive tidal wave," he told National Observer in an interview. "And there was just no defense mechanism to deal with it."
So, he told his wife, his parents and his campaign manager that the math was not in his favour. The loss of his riding was writing on the wall that the Liberal Party would be south of 12 seats, he said. They would come in at third place. Election night, however, was "a decimation."
Like most other Liberal candidates running in the June election, Del Duca heard the Liberal Party's defeat at the doors. The residents he had grown up with weren't disenchanted with him, but said his government was "out of touch," that the Liberals had been in power too long, that they didn't like former premier Kathleen Wynne.
"It didn’t matter how much I pushed back. It was like trying to tread water in quicksand. You just can’t do it," Del Duca said. "They had made up their minds well before the four weeks of the campaign. There was a very thick, very impossible to penetrate wall between me and people in my community. This time around the desire for change was huge."
Del Duca says the Ontario Liberals had allowed themselves to lose track of "the day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month pocketbook challenges or anxieties" residents face. Ontarians believed the Liberals weren't empathetic to those concerns as they pushed "large transformational policies," he says.
"I think we got to a place where we frankly misjudged the notion that when we said we would do this for free and that for free, that voters would believe us," Del Duca said.
"Government is right to invest taxpayers dollars in things that will actually make Ontario better and stronger and that's what we believe we were doing," he said. "But this notion that we could somehow convince voters that all of this was going to be accomplished magically and for free with no cost to them or their kids or, frankly, their grandkids was something that didn't sit well with the electorate.
"And so to me, I think the final nail in our coffin was the people."
Climate change 'is crying out for leadership' in Ontario
Del Duca isn't "slavishly attached" to balancing the books, because he believes in investing and building. But he wants to see the Liberal Party members remind themselves that Ontarians "don't expect government to be perfect they don't expect us to fix every single thing that needs fixing. But they do expect us to be respectful and responsible."
Ford is not doing that right now, Del Duca said. In an effort to be "anti-Kathleen Wynne and anti-liberal," Ford and his caucus have been unable to develop a personality "that projects confidence in themselves, confidence in Ontario's future," making one "horrifically backward decision" after another.
Ford's cuts to education are hurting the talent pool that serves as Ontario's "single biggest economic advantage." Healthcare is also being take decades back from where it stood last year, Del Duca said.
The first step on the journey to 2022 is kick-starting the #OLPRebuild.— Steven Del Duca (@StevenDelDuca) April 4, 2019
I’ve penned a Pledge for Progress that shares some of my thoughts on where the @OntLiberal party could go. Will you join the conversation? https://t.co/gIf5Q4y0D0
On climate policy, too, the Ford government is "picking partisan fights instead of listening to science and figuring out how to protect people," he said. What Del Duca would like to see is a policy system that would remove the politics from climate policy. "It doesn't mean that only Liberals have the best way to fight climate change. I don't believe that to be true," he said. "I'm quite certain that the Green Party and the NDP and even some Conservatives and certainly some Liberals have knowledge and ideas. They want to be innovative. They want to be creative, too."
To tap into this, Del Duca wants to create a non-partisan, special committee of cabinet — made up of members of all parties and experts — to tackle the climate crisis effectively. Federal Green Leader Elizabeth May recently proposed a similar idea in a 20-point climate plan, unveiled on May 16.
"If every political party has representation at that table and is there, in an authentic way, to inoculate the decisions that come out of that committee...they all become part owner of the eventual decision," Del Duca said. "How ridiculous would it be for me to go out and attack it? I couldn't with any credibility and I wouldn't even try."
Del Duca hopes Doug Ford reads about his non-partisan special committee to fight climate change and steals the idea. He says he'll be the first to tweet his congratulations and call him on the phone number the premier has shared across the province.
Climate change, Del Duca said, "is crying out for leadership in this province."