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In the past election, the Liberals sent only seven MPPs to Queen’s Park. Despite the loss, Steven Del Duca said he is feeling good about his party’s chances next year.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca sees a silver lining in the recent onslaught of political advertising pointedly targeting him. Both the Progressive Conservatives and the New Democrats released a series of negative ads this fall linking Mr. Del Duca to former premier Kathleen Wynne.

But for Mr. Del Duca – a former cabinet minister in Ms. Wynne’s government who won the party leadership in March, 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking off – every little bit of exposure counts.

“I think that’s actually helped with my name recognition,” he said. “I have more people who’ve come up to me, whether it’s Sudbury or [the Greater Toronto Area] or London or elsewhere, and say, ‘Hey, aren’t you Steven Del Duca?’ So I think that the haircut and the advertising kind of make it a bit easier to be recognizable.” The Liberal Leader wears distinctive black-rimmed glasses and, for the record, is completely bald.

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“There are some people who still ask, you know, ‘What’s different about you? How would you lead differently?’”

The answers to those questions will be top of mind for voters in next June’s Ontario election.

His plan is to harness the support of those who are disillusioned with Premier Doug Ford’s government, in particular its pandemic response. And in order to win over progressive voters, he’ll argue that NDP Leader Andrea Horwath – who has held her job since 2009 – is not a realistic alternative.

“Andrea Horwath and the Ontario NDP proved they didn’t have what it takes to stop Doug Ford from winning a majority government,” he said.

But first, Mr. Del Duca – who doesn’t have a seat in the legislature – will have to reintroduce himself. On his own terms.

Hardly a household name, Mr. Del Duca spent four years in Ms. Wynne’s cabinet, most notably as transportation minister. A former political staffer first elected in 2012, the 48-year-old father of two girls lost his seat in Vaughan-Woodbridge, north of Toronto, in 2018 to Michael Tibollo, now Mr. Ford’s associate minister of mental health.

In the past election, the Liberals sent only seven MPPs to Queen’s Park – a historic defeat. Despite the crushing loss, Mr. Del Duca said he is feeling good about his party’s chances next year, but even he acknowledges there is a lot of work left to do.

“The fact of the matter is 2018 was a tough moment, obviously, for our party and for me personally,” Mr. Del Duca, who speaks in a talk-radio-like voice, said recently over coffee at a Second Cup in Etobicoke, in west Toronto, near where he grew up and the area that Mr. Ford represents.

“I think there’s more openness amongst Ontarians right now to the Ontario Liberal Party and to me as a leader and to our team that we’re building. But they still, rightly so, want me to earn it.”

As the June 2 election approaches, Mr. Del Duca knows he’ll have to defend his time as transportation minister. He set off controversy after approving a GO train station near his Vaughan riding, contrary to expert opinion. His response is simply that, “we need more public transit” across the Greater Toronto Area, not just in his area.

He will also be forced to explain his decision to build a backyard pool in 2020 without the necessary permits, a situation he said has now been resolved. “My mistake triggered embarrassment for me and my family. Doug Ford’s mistakes have cost us all so much more during this pandemic,” he said.

He talks of lessons learned as part of the Wynne government, including a sense that the party had lost touch with the average voter. In particular, he said he’s realized that one’s time in politics is finite, and change must be achieved quickly.

“We were not a perfect government. But Ontarians had their chance to judge our performance back in 2018. And I don’t think most Ontarians live their lives by looking in the rear-view mirror,” he said.

His strategy so far has been to attack Mr. Ford’s competency while portraying himself as the reasonable voice on a number of policy issues. He was the first party leader to call for vaccine mandates and certificates, and has pitched ideas such as a four-day work week and electric-vehicle rebates. He promises more proposals for “economic dignity” in the new year.

Mr. Del Duca has come out strongly against Highway 413 – a proposed 59-kilometre corridor that would arc around Toronto through its western suburbs – one of the Ford government’s signature proposals.

“When Doug Ford talks in the abstract about what it’s like to commute in the 905, it’s my life. It’s not his life,” he said. “I know there’s a better way to resolve it and to give real relief to commuters right away, as opposed to 10 years from now.”

Part of his strategy is also to highlight his Liberal team. He’s received criticism, however, for running “women-only” ridings, which some in the party view as reverse discrimination. Close to 60 per cent of the party’s nominated candidates are now women. “I heard the concerns, but my take on it is that I wasn’t shy about this commitment,” he said.

As for the past, Mr. Del Duca said people don’t talk to him about Ms. Wynne as much as they did back in 2018 – even if recent advertising serves to remind them. The former premier has remained a Liberal MPP, and will be retiring from politics next year.

“I think Kathleen demonstrated a great deal of dignity and a great deal of class,” Mr. Del Duca said.

“It would have been very easy for her to say, ‘I’m out and you’re on your own.’ She, I think, did the admirable and honorable thing, which is … ‘I’m going to see it through.’”

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