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Kathleen Wynne speaks at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto during the Provincial Liberal Leadership Convention on Jan. 26, 2013.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Kathleen Wynne cut her political teeth in the tumultuous world of left-wing activism in 1990s Toronto. Ontario was in the throes of Mike Harris's budget-slashing Common Sense Revolution, and the slender, bookish mother of three was among those battling Queen's Park. She formed one group lobbying for better education and joined another led by John Sewell, a famously radical former mayor, to battle the merger of six municipalities into the megacity.

Today, she embodies Queen's Park, set to take over the premier's office after winning the Liberal leadership convention. Her career trajectory has been an unusual one, a uniqueness amplified by her trailblazing status as the first openly gay premier in Canada's history. But those closest to her say the same qualities that won her the race – a devotion to principle coupled with a talent for conciliation – have been evident all her life.

Her partner, Jane Rounthwaite, remembers meeting Ms. Wynne as a 19-year-old undergraduate student at Queen's University. Ms. Rounthwaite interviewed Ms. Wynne for a job as a residence proctor and was immediately impressed by her charisma. They bonded further in history classes.

"We were often the two mouthiest women in the class," she recalls. "Remember, this is 1973 we're talking about, and girls didn't speak up in class nearly as much as they do now."

Ms. Rounthwaite also introduced Ms. Wynne to Philip Cowperthwaite, whom she wound up marrying. When Mr. Cowperthwaite's work as an accountant took him to the Netherlands, she went with him and the couple started a family. After returning to Ontario, she juggled raising their children – Christopher, Jessica and Maggie – with earning a master's degree in adult education. She also set up a professional mediation company.

Ms. Wynne was a devoted mother, Christopher Cowperthwaite recalls, and taught her children to take responsibility themselves. When he had run-ins with teachers at primary school, for example, Ms. Wynne insisted he sit down with them himself and work things out.

"As kids, we knew we unconditionally had her support, but that didn't translate into carte blanche for what we wanted to do," he says. "She allowed me to forge relationships with [teachers] and fight my own battles."

The family always ate dinner together, and political conversation was the norm.

Throughout this time, Ms. Rounthwaite had remained close, visiting Ms. Wynne in the Netherlands and accompanying the family on ski trips. By the early 1990s, Ms. Wynne's marriage broke up and the long-time friends began a relationship. At first, the change was hard for the children.

"They weren't excited to have their mother come out or to have a stepmother, even though they'd known me their whole lives," Ms. Rounthwaite says.

But the family adjusted, helped by an amicable arrangement: Ms. Wynne, Ms. Rounthwaite and Mr. Cowperthwaite lived in the same house for a time. Later, they lived in homes with adjoining backyards, allowing the children to come and go easily. Ms. Wynne and Ms. Rounthwaite married in July of 2005 in a ceremony at Fairlawn Avenue United Church in their North Toronto neighbourhood.

It was because of her family that Ms. Wynne became politically active. She had long volunteered at her children's schools – serving on parent councils and training students in conflict resolution – and, in 1994, made an unsuccessful run for a position on the school board. The following year, Mr. Harris came to power. He quickly began cutting social spending, centralizing education decision-making with the minister's office and amalgamating Toronto. Ms. Wynne founded the Metro Parent Network and joined Citizens for Local Democracy.

"She realized she had an ability there, standing in front of all those people at that podium, moving all those people, that she needed to take it to the next level," Christopher Cowperthwaite says.

In 2000, Ms. Wynne was elected school trustee and, three years later, defeated a cabinet minister to win a seat at Queen's Park. That same election brought Dalton McGuinty's Liberals to power, and Ms. Wynne distinguished herself among the scores of newly minted MPPs with a willingness to speak up at caucus meetings and a sunny outlook in the oft-bruising world of politics.

"[She works under] the assumption that there's more that connects us than divides us, even people in other parties," says Deb Matthews, who first won a seat that year and quickly warmed to Ms. Wynne. "Her approach is that everybody ran for public life because they want to make things better, so let's understand that, let's build on that."

Ms. Wynne's penchant for policy development quickly showed. She and Ms. Matthews helped set up a women's caucus, which drew up a poverty-reduction strategy for the province. It set up the Ontario Child Benefit, new after-school programs and dental care for low-income people.

In 2006, Mr. McGuinty rewarded Ms. Wynne with a promotion to the high-profile post of education minister. The file was a priority for the Premier, and Ms. Wynne helped oversee major policy steps, including a full-day kindergarten program.

Next, she ran the transportation ministry, where she put her mediation skills to good use. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford wanted to cancel a provincially funded transit-building program in his city. The compromise Ms. Wynne negotiated was controversial – using billions of dollars to dig an LRT tunnel through low-density suburbia – but she succeeded in placating Mr. Ford in the runup to a provincial election, a significant coup for the Liberals.

Despite the demands of her job, she makes time for her home life – she and Ms. Rounthwaite talk at the start and end of each day. In what little down time she has, the couple also enjoy watching television series: they finished the West Wing last year and are currently working their way through Modern Family. The hardest part of political life is the physical side: an avid early morning runner with an eye on fitness, sitting down for such long stretches has been a hard fit with her natural disposition, which Ms. Rounthwaite describes as "kinetic."

"She's an intense, passionate person," she says. "She just cares. She just really, really cares about anything that she does…There aren't enough hours in the day to do everything that she would like to do."