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Can one of these four Liberals resurrect the party and topple Doug Ford?

Two decades after Dalton McGuinty led the Ontario Liberals to power and launched a 15-year dynasty, the Grits are in the pits.

The Liberals have badly lost consecutive elections to Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives, failing twice to win even enough seats for official party status in the legislature.

A recent post-mortem on the disastrous June 2 campaign found a litany of systemic problems ranging from a shortage of money and volunteers to a lack of coherent policies.

But amid the smouldering ruins, there are flickering hopes for a party that governed Ontario from 2003 to 2018.

The nascent leadership race is generating buzz and excitement that have been sorely lacking in Liberal circles for years.

In sharp contrast to the official opposition New Democrats — whose incoming leader Marit Stiles will be acclaimed in two weeks after no challengers emerged — there are at least four would-be Grit leadership hopefuls.

This past week, the Star interviewed all four likely candidates who are actively courting Liberals across the province.

MPPs Mitzie Hunter, 51, (Scarborough-Guildwood) and Ted Hsu, 58, (Kingston and the Islands) as well as MPs Yasir Naqvi, 49, (Ottawa Centre) and Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, 38, (Beaches-East York) are exploring leadership bids.

Others are rumoured to be interested — there’s a quiet movement to draft Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, a former Liberal MP — but only these four are aggressively pushing their candidacies.

It’s shaping up as a diverse, well-educated and experienced field:

  • Hunter, who immigrated from Jamaica as a child, has an MBA from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and was CEO of CivicAction, a post at the influential non-partisan organization previously held by Toronto Mayor John Tory and former PC cabinet minister Rod Phillips. She was education minister and has been an MPP since 2013.
  • Naqvi, who moved from Pakistan as a teen, is a lawyer with degrees from McMaster, Carleton, and the University of Ottawa. He served as attorney general, solicitor general, and minister of labour, was the president of the Ontario Liberals and oversaw their 2013 leadership race.
  • Hsu, who was born in the U.S. and arrived in Kingston as an infant, has a PhD in physics from Princeton University. He was named Maclean’s magazine’s “parliamentarian of the year” in 2013 as the MP who best represents constituents and is one of the four newly elected Liberal MPPs at Queen’s Park.
  • Erskine-Smith, born in Toronto, is an Oxford University-educated lawyer who has worked at a Bay Street law firm and with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. First elected in 2015, he has won plaudits in Ottawa for being an independent-minded MP unafraid to criticize the Trudeau government.

While all four will await the rules and timelines for the leadership contest before formally kicking off campaigns, they are already criss-crossing Ontario building support.

“I’m on a listening tour,” said Naqvi, a former attorney general who lost his provincial seat in the 2018 election, only to win the federal riding three years later.

As party president a decade ago, he said it’s sobering to see the state of the organization and a reminder the Liberals “started taking quite a few things for granted” by the end of its 15 years in government.

“There is no central party so to speak. I’m concerned to see the health of the local riding associations. The party infrastructure is not as robust as it used to be,” Naqvi said of his meetings in church basements and cafes.

“It’s not just a matter of renewal anymore — we need a rebuild,” he said.

“But I’m finding it exhilarating to see traditional Liberals still energized. Our focus has to be on Ontarians and making it easier for people to live their lives.”

Hsu, who quit federal politics in 2015 only to jump to Queen’s Park last June, said he was “a little bit surprised by the state of the riding associations and the lack of organization in some parts of the province.”

“Probably a third of them are inactive or only exist on paper. So rebuilding riding associations and rebuilding the party infrastructure is essential,” he said.

Erskine-Smith said he sees “parallels” to the challenges tackled by the federal Liberals after they lost to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in 2006 ending more than a dozen years in power.

The national party endured years of soul-searching — losing elections under the uninspiring leadership of Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff in 2008 and 2011— before a fresh-faced dynamo named Justin Trudeau led them back.

“There’s certainly a hunger for change (provincially) and that will include an element of generational change,” said Erskine-Smith, recalling the hard work that was required for the federal Liberals to rejuvenate so they could compete with the Tories and New Democrats.

“I’m absolutely convinced that helping the provincial Liberal party renew and rebuild is where I can make the greatest contribution,” said the Beaches-East York MP.

Both he and Hsu contend that their lack of any connection to the governments of McGuinty or his successor Kathleen Wynne will be a plus with some voters in 2026.

“I’ve got no baggage,” said Erskine-Smith, adding he wants a “serious” party that will bring substantive and consequential change.

Hsu echoed that, saying he “represents a fresh start” for the Liberals and can bring a new perspective.

“Unfortunately in the last election, there was still an association with (then leader) Steven Del Duca as a former minister in premier Kathleen Wynne’s government. I don’t have that connection,” he said.

Hunter and Naqvi are both former Wynne cabinet members. But neither views that as a negative thing.

“The fact of the matter is that the Liberal government did a lot of good things — from full-day kindergarten to phasing out coal (fired generation) and taking action on the environment,” insisted Naqvi.

“Doug Ford has been creating chaos in health care and chaos in education. Ontarians are telling us the system is not there for them,” he said.

Hunter, who finished fourth in the 2020 leadership contest that chose Del Duca, stressed “experience counts” when it comes to bolstering public services.

“We have to fight for Ontarians, I really feel that to my core. I know we can do better as a province,” she said, wryly noting her electoral track record is unblemished.

“I’ve won four straight elections, including the last two. The members know what I bring.”

In a charge spearheaded by Hunter’s riding association four years ago, the Liberals look set to abandon traditional delegated leadership elections, which favour party insiders.

Instead, they are expected to opt for a one member, one vote system — weighted by riding so rural constituencies have as much clout as those in more populated urban areas — similar to how the Tories choose their leaders.

“We need to change how we select our leader, we need to make sure our grassroots members have a voice,” said Hunter.

Her three potential rivals all agree and Liberal members will vote on the amendment at the party’s annual general meeting in Hamilton on March 3-5.

(The reform was favoured by 57 per cent in 2019 — short of the 66 per cent necessary for a constitutional change — so ex-leader Del Duca was chosen at a delegated convention in 2020.)

The governing Tories, meanwhile, are mindful of the electoral threat a revived Liberal party could pose.

That’s one reason why Ford himself is wary of the Grits — routinely sparring with their tiny caucus in the legislature’s daily question period while ignoring official opposition NDP queries directed toward him.

The premier, a numbers buff who pores over polling data, is mindful that the Liberals actually received slightly more of the popular vote than the New Democrats last June — and could easily rise again in 2026.

It was only thanks to the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system and the NDP’s more concentrated vote that the party won 31 seats to the Grits’ eight while Ford’s Tories won 83. (Twelve is the threshold for official party status, which ensures more funding for staff and an enhanced role in legislative proceeding.)

“I believe we can win again (in 2026),” said one senior Conservative, speaking confidentially in order to discuss strategy. “But the next premier (thereafter) will be a Liberal, not a New Democrat.”

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie


Conversations are opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of Conduct. The Star does not endorse these opinions.

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