In Conversation with Sandra Pupatello

Meeting with the Brant PLA

I was surprised once again to get an e-mail out of the blue from a Liberal leadership campaign, but David from the Sandra Pupatello campaign very kindly asked me if I wanted to talk to Ms. Pupatello over the phone for ten minutes. I was given full leeway over my questions and was not asked to vet them in any way. After my conversation with Gerard Kennedy, I thought it would be nice to add another potential Liberal leader (and premier) to my collection, so I agreed.

Ms. Pupatello has been running an interesting campaign. Having spent sixteen years as an MPP for Windsor, she stepped away from politics in the 2011 election before deciding to go for the leadership. I confess that I knew little of Ms. Pupatello's accomplishments, but that doesn't mean that she hasn't had them. She has won every election she has contested, and has served her party both within Queen's Park and without. She cut her political teeth campaigning for Herb Grey. She was the deputy leader while the provincial Liberals were in opposition against Mike Harris, and she served as the Minister of Community and Social Services, the Minister of Education, the Minister of Economic Development and Trade, the Minister Responsible for Women's Issues, the Minister of International Trade and Investment, and the Minister of Economic Development and Trade.

The fact that she stayed under my radar tells me that she ran these ministries (which, for me at the time, were not my main interest) competently and with vigour. And now that Dalton McGuinty has stepped aside, she is taking her skill and long experience to the next level as the Liberals' renewal candidate. She has paid her dues, worked in the trenches, and has won the support of many MPPs in the Liberal caucus because of it. I think that's a credible narrative.

Anyway, I asked Gerard Kennedy four questions, and I asked similar questions of Ms. Pupatello during our conversation over the phone yesterday evening. My recording system was working, so I didn't have to type madly away while Ms. Pupatello talked, and the transcript of our question and answer session is below:

Q. Ms. Pupatello, you have said that you intend to call Queen's Park back into session after you regain a seat in the legislature...

A. "What I said is that I'd call the house back as soon as possible. And I do intend to run in a by-election to have a seat when that house opens. And the timing of that is right around the same time anyway, because this convention is at the end of January. Traditionally our House comes back in the spring session in the third week of March. It has only been in the last couple of years since Family Day that the premier was recalling the House in February, but he also included the weeks off in each month before the end of the spring session. So we will still have as many sessional days in the spring session, even if it starts a little bit later because I'm taking the time to run in a by-election."

Q. If I recall correctly, restarting the legislature requires a throne speech to be read and passed, and that's a confidence motion. Do you believe that either of the opposition parties will allow the throne speech to pass? What do you think will have to be done to get the throne speech passed? Or do you anticipate that we'll be having an election, say, in May?

A. "Well, I expect, frankly, that if I win the leadership, it will be a solid showing that jobs and the economy truly is the number one issue. I've been hearing that in every region I go to, so I intend to start right away talking exactly about that: jobs and the economy. I can't even conceive of another party not supporting me on jobs and economy initiatives which I'm going to get started with right away. I've sort of called out the other leaders already to say, "get ready, 'cause I'm calling on them to help us with this initiative.' So, I fully expect that they would support a throne speech, that they would support a budget, because I can tell you, it will be a throne speech and a budget around jobs and the economy. I can't even imagine that, given the status of the economy in North America right now, that they would not be supportive of that."

Q. A question I asked Mr. Kennedy related to how polarized Ontario politics have become. If we look at a map of this province, we see the Liberal brand being strongest in the urban areas. The Conservatives appear to have a lock on rural southern Ontario and the NDP hold most of the seats in the north. It doesn't appear as though any party has room to grow unless they step outside these boundaries. What do you see as the best way to grow your voting base and how do you intend to take the Liberal Party back to majority government?

A. "Well, I intend to bring the party to the centre of the political spectrum, and I believe that most of the public is there, to be honest with you. So, that's exactly what I intend to do. I want people who would have historically voted for the NDP because they think that those are the ones who will fight for them; I want them to know that I'm going to fight for them. And then I'm going to go to the red Tories who know that Tim Hudak is so extreme, they are very uncomfortable with him. I want them to vote for me because I know they are going to be comfortable with me. And in my 16 years of elected office, that's who's supported me every time in my home town. 

"And people will affiliate me with the town that I come from. That always happens. There are six other candidates who are all MPPs from Toronto, and I'm the outside-of-Toronto candidate. That will have a lot of appeal from people outside of Toronto, which is where we lost seats. And that's really important to me. So I expect to go right into Hamilton and win those seats back, and those people in Hamilton are going to know I'm just like them, I come from the same kind of town. And then when I go to the north, and to eastern Ontario and to rural parts of Ontario, they're going to know that I come from Windsor, and I come from the same kind of place they come from and we're going to win those seats back."

Q. Speaking specifically about rural Ontario, I feel there is a fair amount of resentment out there over how the current Liberal government has handled the question of power plants in Mississauga and Oakville while rural residents were asked to accept possibly controversial wind power plants in their own back yards. You've positioned yourself as the renewal candidate. What do you say to the rural residents who may still feel resentment towards the Liberal government's actions? How do you show that the Liberal Party has changed?

A. "I'm going to tell the people in rural Ontario that when they conked us on the head, we actually got it and we're going to change and we're going to get smarter. And that means changing our energy policy. So when we move forward to any new generation, those projects will not move forward unless we have willing host communities, end of story.

"Let us be very clear about this: because even though the intent of the Green Energy Act was good, even though we had very good ideas and branded ourselves as the green energy economy for the world -- and that branding worked by the way -- implementation was less than stellar. To be honest, George Smitherman is chairing Gerard Kennedy's campaign, not mine, and Gerard and George are probably not assuming that what they did was wrong. I happen to think that what we did needed to change -- as we learned that things weren't working, we needed to change that up. And we didn't, and we got conked on the head for it. And we had better learn. 

"And I actually think that coming from the outside like I did this past year and a half that I wasn't part of the government, it was actually easier for me to see how regular folk from the outside were looking at what was happening in the government and realizing we really need to change. And I think -- I hope -- I bring some good credibility to that notion that even I believe -- and I was there for sixteen years, albeit not there the last year and a half -- I know that we've got to change up our policies and it's important that people hear that from me. They need to know that this will be different. It will be a different government."

I greatly appreciate Ms. Pupatello taking the time to talk with me. She seems like an enthusiastic person who believes strongly in public service, and as one who similarly believes in the value of public service (at least, in my best moments), that resonated with me. The political cynic wondered at the statement, though of, "I can't even conceive of another party not supporting me..." I assume she was paying attention during the past sixteen years in Queen's Park, wasn't she? Personally, I'm having difficulty conceiving of Tim Hudak playing ball with the Liberals or, frankly, anybody who isn't named Tim Hudak. Maybe Andrea Horvath would be more willing to negotiate with this government, but... well, we'll see. Gerard Kennedy had a similarly optimistic vision, and I believe we should encourage optimism. Hope for the best, as they say, while we prepare for the worst.

I will say that I did appreciate her clear statement that the Liberals got "conked on the head" in the rural ridings throughout Ontario, and she clearly identified reasons for the rural voters' verdict, and promised to do better. That sort of humility, a willingness to acknowledge the verdict of the voters that you work for, is something I wish more politicians had. It remains to be seen how willing rural voters will be to trust the Liberals in the next election. Renewal candidate or not, Ms. Pupatello still has the old Liberal government's record to deal with. How does she wipe the slate clean?

But it has been wiped clean in other jurisdictions. It's no accident that Warren Kinsella is an enthusiastic supporter, I think, and he has cited the example of Alison Redford changing the face of the Conservative Party of Alberta and halting what could have been a swing to Wildrose government. Can Ms. Pupatello do the same here? I do think she has the same vibe, and a sound strategy of aiming for the centre. And Hudak, in my opinion, is easier to beat than Danielle Smith.

So, just as I wished Mr. Kennedy the best of luck in the coming Liberal leadership race, I wish Ms. Pupatello the same luck in her campaign.

P.S. I hadn't realized that Ms. Pupatello was a strong critic of NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo during the September 2006 by-election that brought the woman to office. Honestly, I never tied her to that, as my conversation on the matter wasn't with her, but with bloggers within the Liberal blogosphere at the time. According to Wikipedia, Ms. Pupatello stands by those comments (at least, she did back in 2006) and, fair enough. I happen to disagree with her. But that's over six years ago, now, and water under the bridge, as far as I'm concerned. I will be interested in seeing how the next few months play out.

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