Nine years ago, Kathleen Wynne was a social activist-turned school trustee who handily knocked off a sitting cabinet minister to earn a seat in the Ontario legislature. On Saturday evening, she made history on two fronts: as the first woman chosen to lead Ontario’s government and the first openly gay premier in the nation’s history.
After three rounds of voting, she stormed past Sandra Pupatello at the Ontario Liberal leadership convention in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, defeating her chief rival 1,150 to 866 to succeed Dalton McGuinty.
When the results were announced, she joined hands with Ms. Pupatello and raised them in the air, as her supporters’ cheers swelled to a deafening roar.
“Believe it or not, this was the easy part,” Ms. Wynne said, acknowledging the troubles the government faces in navigating a minority parliament, reaching labour peace with teachers and dealing with an $11.9-billion deficit.
In a display of unity, she called all the other leadership candidates, and then Liberal caucus members on to the stage.
“Thank you Sandra for your energy, for your passion, for your dedication to the party. I’m going to need you,” she said. At the end, she called up Mr. McGuinty, who clasped her hand.
In her concession speech, Ms. Pupatello was equally gracious: “Tonight, we made history – our final ballot had two women on it,” she said. “From the beginning, we had the boys on the run.”
Ms. Pupatello, a former cabinet minister from Windsor, Ont., was seen as the choice of the party’s establishment and led on the first two ballots. The turning point came after the second round of voting, when candidates Charles Sousa and Gerard Kennedy came over to Ms. Wynne’s camp.
Ms. Wynne met with Mr. Sousa in an arena bathroom to hammer out a deal. Originally, he and Mr. Kennedy planned to cross over to Ms. Wynne together.
But Mr. Kennedy led his supporters out of the stands and into a nearby hallway to discuss his decision with them. They were still talking when Mr. Sousa and his entourage crossed the convention floor to Ms. Wynne’s side. After some 20 minutes, Mr. Kennedy emerged as well and, surrounded by a crush of supporters, made his way over to Ms. Wynne. As he climbed the stairs leading to her balcony, Ms. Wynne stepped out to meet him.
The pair joined with Mr. Sousa and Eric Hoskins, the last-place finisher on the first ballot, who moved to support Ms. Wynne. The four stood on Ms. Wynne’s balcony, waving to a mass of ecstatic supporters below.
A policy wonk with a laid-back, likeable persona, Ms. Wynne successfully pitched herself as a woman ready to govern, promising to bring the legislature back next month and push forward the party’s agenda by working with the opposition.
Despite concerns she was too low-key to fight her way to victory, Ms. Wynne turned in a formidable performance at the convention, with a raucous entrance that saw her supporters dancing on-stage, followed by a speech that combined personal anecdotes with partisan rhetoric.
She also addressed, head-on, the worry some Liberals had expressed that an openly-gay candidate could not win a general election. She pointed out that the other candidates – a Portuguese-Canadian, an Indo-Canadian, a Catholic and a woman – would once have been thought unelectable.
“I don’t believe the people of Ontario judge their leaders on the basis of race, colour or sexual orientation,” she said to loud cheers from her supporters. “I don’t believe they hold that prejudice in their hearts.”
There had been debate in Ms. Wynne’s camp over whether the topic should be in her speech, but campaign insiders say she insisted on including it.
It was fitting that Ms. Wynne’s victory came in large part because of her conciliatory style.
Born and raised in Richmond Hill, Ont., a city north of Toronto, the 59-year-old made her career as a professional mediator. She got into politics by way of activism, joining one group opposing the merger of several municipalities into a single city of Toronto and another advocating for better public education during the 1990s cutbacks of then-premier Mike Harris.
Elected a school trustee in 2000, she went to Queen’s Park in 2003 after unseating Tory minister David Turnbull. That same election was the one that brought Mr. McGuinty to power, and Ms. Wynne’s star rose quickly. She became education minister in 2006, working on the government’s signature full-day kindergarten program. Ms. Wynne later served in the transportation and municipal affairs portfolios.