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Sandra Pupatello, a possible contender for leadership of the Ontario Liberals, on Oct. 30, 2007. (Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail)
Sandra Pupatello, a possible contender for leadership of the Ontario Liberals, on Oct. 30, 2007. (Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail)

Ontario

As Duncan exits, Pupatello enters centre stage for Ontario Liberals Add to ...

Sandra Pupatello, a former member of Premier Dalton McGuinty’s cabinet, has all but jumped into the race to lead the Liberal Party, saying she would make the economy central to her campaign.

Ms. Pupatello’s name has been mentioned frequently as a possible successor to Mr. McGuinty, who is retiring from politics after 16 years as Liberal Leader and nine as Premier. A major obstacle was removed when Finance Minister Dwight Duncan announced on Wednesday that he plans to follow his boss out the door. Mr. Duncan and Ms. Pupatello have been good friends since their teens.

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With the minority Liberal government facing defeat in the next provincial election, she said, the focus needs to be returned to the province’s financial situation.

“I worry that nobody wants to talk about the economy,” Ms. Pupatello told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday. “I am in the business community, and I hear why people are worried.”

Ms. Pupatello, who most recently represented Windsor West, spent 16 years in government. She has been director of business and global markets at PricewaterhouseCoopers during the past year, a particularly tumultuous time for the Liberals. This allows her to distance herself from the government’s fight with doctors and teachers and scandals over the province’s air ambulance service and two cancelled gas plants.

If she wins the leadership, she would follow Christy Clark of B.C., Alberta’s Alison Redford, and Kathy Dunderdale of Newfoundland and Labrador as recent female premiers who took office between elections. But before deciding whether to make such a “monumental move,” she said she has to be certain she is better than her potential leadership rivals.

“If I truly believed that any of my colleagues that are in there could do just as good a job, I don’t need to do this,” she said. “I don’t need the title.”

Ms. Pupatello, who turned 50 this month, was a member of Mr. McGuinty’s cabinet from the time the Liberals came to power in 2003. She was first elected an MPP in 1995, and was renowned around Queen’s Park for her strong personality and fashion sense – big hair, stilettos and oversized jewellery.

She is also remembered for her tenacity and highly partisan attacks on opposition members. Former cabinet colleague George Smitherman, who had a tumultuous relationship with Ms. Pupatello, most memorably over the Samsung green energy deal, said he respects her as a straight shooter.

“She’s a warrior,” Mr. Smitherman said in an interview. “We had some notable differences of opinion. ... But notwithstanding that there was some fierceness from time to time, I hold her in high regard.”

Tony Dean, who was cabinet secretary and head of the Ontario Public Service during much of Ms. Pupatello’s time in cabinet, described her as a team player and a “very credible” potential candidate.

While she comes from the “somewhat smaller world of Windsor politics,” he said, she has wide experience provincially and could adjust to being back in “the larger pond” with the right campaign team.

John Snobelen, a former cabinet minister in the Progressive Conservative government, remembers all too well what it was like to come up against Ms. Pupatello when the Liberals were in opposition. He recalled that she “just peeled me” one day in Question Period, but later smiled and asked him how things were going. “She understands the theatre of politics,” he said.

Ms. Pupatello was one of Mr. McGuinty’s most reliable attack dogs. When Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave him short shrift at their first meeting in 2006, Mr. McGuinty had Ms. Pupatello seek out reporters to deliver a blistering attack on Mr. Harper.

“I just feel it’s totally inappropriate to spend time backslapping with Tories in a very partisan fashion and then give the Ontario Legislature the bum’s rush,” she said at the time.

With Mr. Duncan out of the running, a high-profile group of backroom Liberals is lining up behind his fellow Windsorite, Ms. Pupatello.

Sources told The Globe on Wednesday that the people encouraging the former economic development minister to run – and prepared to back her candidacy – include Labatt executive and former Premier’s Office staffer Charlie Angelakos, former national campaign manager Gordon Ashworth, and consultant/media personality Warren Kinsella.

Mr. Duncan said he would support Ms. Pupatello’s candidacy, and she would have unfettered access to the Liberals’ considerable Windsor organization. Perhaps more importantly, she could run as a relatively centre-right candidate against more left-leaning contenders such as Municipal Affairs Minister Kathleen Wynne or Health Minister Deb Matthews, both of whom are considering launching campaigns.

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