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(L-R) Steven Del Duca, Mitzie Hunter, Alvin Tedjo, Kate Graham and Michael Coteau, gather on stage for a group photo at the candidate showcase for the Ontario Liberal Party 2020 Leadership Election in Toronto on Thursday, November 28, 2019.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

The fight to become the next Ontario Liberal leader officially launched this week, with five official candidates competing for the job of both replacing Kathleen Wynne and rebranding the party after its devastating loss in the last election.

Party delegates will choose their new leader at a convention in March. That will leave the winner just over two years to rebuild a divided, indebted party that has five seats in the Legislature before facing Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath at the polls.

On Thursday night, about 200 Liberals showed up at a downtown Toronto conference centre to hear brief remarks from those with hats in the ring: former cabinet ministers Steven Del Duca, Michael Coteau and Mitzie Hunter, and unsuccessful MPP candidates Kate Graham and Alvin Tedjo. A sixth contender, Ottawa lawyer Brenda Hollingsworth, has also filed nomination papers, but is still awaiting party approval.

Nominations closed this week, and only new members signed up by a Monday deadline can vote for the delegates who will head to the convention in Mississauga next year.

The widely acknowledged front-runner is Mr. Del Duca, who served as Ms. Wynne’s minister of transportation, and faced controversy in that post for his role in locating a new commuter rail station in his own suburban riding in Vaughan, north of Toronto. A party activist since his teens, he leads the pack in fundraising and has been campaigning across the province for months.

He abandoned the podium Thursday and paced the stage with a wireless mic, pledging to rebuild the party’s machinery for what he calls “the fight of our lives” against Mr. Ford.

Mr. Del Duca, 46, said the new leader must raise enough cash quickly to launch a campaign to counter the attack ads targeting the new leader that he expects in short order from the PCs and groups such as Ontario Proud.

In an interview, he also said the party must learn to listen in order to win back Ontario voters.

"The first and most important precondition to us being successful in 2022 is that we stop believing that we have all the answers, we open our ears, we stop lecturing at voters, we listen to them and we lead them to where we want to take this province,” Mr. Del Duca said.

While Mr. Del Duca said his party remains united, its divisions were on display at its annual general meeting in June. A motion to scrap the party’s delegated leadership convention for a one-member-one-vote system, common with other parties, won majority support but fell short of the required two-thirds. The change was championed by many young Liberals and some of Mr. Del Duca’s leadership rivals. Mr. Del Duca said he will strike a task force to review the issue.

But his competition appears to be calling for a more complete overhaul of the party.

Mr. Coteau, 47, served as minister of children and youth services under Ms. Wynne and as the minister responsible for the 2015 Pan American Games. His campaign highlights his roots as a black immigrant who grew up in one of Toronto’s poorest neighbourhoods, Flemingdon Park.

He said his party “lost the trust of Ontarians” after a series of scandals and appeared “arrogant and aloof." He has floated some headline-catching policy ideas, such as free public transit and lowering the voting age to 16. And he argues the party needs to focus on its own renewal and not just on the battle to come.

“It’s all about reimagining what it means to be a Liberal today, and not necessarily about the fight with Doug Ford,” said Mr. Coteau, who unlike Mr. Del Duca, won his Toronto seat despite the party’s 2018 bloodbath.

As did Mr. Coteau, former education minister Mitzie Hunter, 48, still has her Scarborough seat in the Legislature. The former head of Toronto’s CivicAction group, she immigrated with her family to Toronto from Jamaica as a child. She said her party needs a “bottom-up" approach.

“A lot of what I’m focused on is about millennials and the next generation,” she said. “I absolutely see our Liberal party of the future being a younger party, a more modern party, a more inclusive party.”

Also running is Kate Graham, 35, an academic and former municipal public servant from London, Ont., who finished third as the Liberal candidate in London North Centre in 2018.

Despite her lack of experience in elected office, she has amassed support from former deputy premier Deb Matthews, former cabinet minister Eleanor McMahon and former Liberal leader Lyn McLeod.

After the election, Ms. Graham led a project that reached out to failed candidates, producing a report that found the party had become too insular.

“We have a chance to change the culture of the party, and maybe even of politics right now," she said in an interview.

Candidate Alvin Tedjo, 36, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Oakville-North Burlington, outside Toronto, has attracted attention for his proposal to merge the Catholic and public school boards.

“It’s never too early to do the right thing, if we know that history is going to be on our side eventually,” Mr. Tedjo said in an interview.

Amid the gloom, there are some bright signs for the party. Some polls this year put the struggling Liberals back in the lead, ahead of both Mr. Ford, as his government stumbled with unpopular spending cuts, and Ms. Horwath, who takes up much more airtime as Leader of the Official Opposition.

Plus, interim Liberal Leader John Fraser, who is staying neutral in the race, says the rebuilding the leadership contenders are talking about is already under way, with rising membership and monthly fundraising numbers.

Liberal strategist Peter Donolo, who aided Ms. Wynne’s victorious campaign in 2014 but is staying neutral in the leadership contest, said whoever wins must appeal to voters in the entire province and not just the party’s urban strongholds.

“The party has become perceived through recent years as kind of a downtown Toronto coffee klatch, right? I think that’s unfair," Mr. Donolo said. "But that’s the perception."

With reports from Laura Stone

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