Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Wynne for Ontario, maybe not Liberals

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Fearful of becoming political history, Ontario's Liberals have opted to make history -- in every way.

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.

For a Liberal party sliding in the polls, Wynne's triumph could be a game-changer.

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.

The candidates heaped breathless praise upon each other and postured for future considerations rather than debating the province's economic fate in a sustained way. Leadership races are like that.

"This was the easy part," Wynne reminded more than 2,000 delegates who came together at Maple Leaf Gardens to crown her as the province's incoming premier at the head of a minority government.

Now it's back to the business of governing -- and going up against the Tory and NDP opposition leaders who could bring down her government at any time.

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).

Wynne's top priority will be to change the channel from scandal to renewal, with both substance and style.

Premier Dad has been replaced by a 59-year-old grandmother who is a bold risk-taker and a smart conciliator.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.

Whether she can work the same magic with labour or the rest of the province will be her bigger test. She shouldn't be underestimated.

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 practises 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-chairwoman).

Can she win over the province's voters? That might take a miracle, given the accumulated grievances after a decade of Liberal rule under McGuinty.

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 and 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.

In an era of scripted politicians -- McGuinty, Hudak and Horwath being peas in a pod -- Wynne is an original. Let's see if she stays that way.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 28, 2013 $sourceSection0

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