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Bonnie Crombie speaks to party members after winning the Ontario Liberal leadership election in Toronto on Dec. 2, 2023.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Bonnie Crombie took aim at Premier Doug Ford on Saturday after being named leader of the Ontario Liberal Party, winning the race on the final ballot after she positioned herself as the best candidate to take on the Progressive Conservatives in the next election.

Ms. Crombie, the three-term Mayor of Mississauga, was elected leader of the provincial Liberals on the third ballot with 53.4 per cent of the points in the party’s ranked-ballot system, compared with 46.6 per cent for Liberal MP Nate Erskine-Smith. The other two candidates in the race, Liberal MP Yasir Naqvi and provincial MPP Ted Hsu, were eliminated earlier in the day.

In her inaugural speech as party leader, Ms. Crombie said Mr. Ford will be coming for the Liberals “any minute” – and said her party has to be ready to take him on. She also alluded to the Progressive Conservative government’s now-reversed decision to carve out parts of the Greenbelt, a protected area of farmland, forests and wetlands that arcs around the Greater Toronto Area, for development. That decision is now the subject of an RCMP investigation.

“Doug Ford and his Conservative government haven’t just lost touch with the people of this province – they’ve deliberately ignored people’s needs,” Ms. Crombie said in her speech.

“Doug Ford cares more about lining the pockets of a few well-connected, wealthy friends than he does about building homes for real people.”

Ms. Crombie’s win means the third-place party now has its highest-profile leader since the Liberals’ devastating election loss in 2018 under former premier Kathleen Wynne. Her successor, Steven Del Duca, led the party into another disappointing finish last year. The Liberals now have nine seats in the legislature – still not enough for official party status – but have been emboldened by two recent by-election wins in the Ottawa area and Scarborough.

“There is no question – being an Ontario Liberal is back,” Ms. Crombie told the crowd at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in downtown Toronto.

She later told reporters she would resign from her position as mayor early in the new year, and said she would consider running for a seat in the legislature if one were to become available, particularly in Mississauga.

Ms. Crombie herself was the subject of criticism from her rivals throughout the campaign, who argued she was too similar to Mr. Ford. Early in the campaign, Ms. Crombie mused about being open to land swaps in the Greenbelt, with proper consultations, but has since vowed not to touch the protected area.

Mr. Erskine-Smith and Mr. Naqvi pointed to Ms. Crombie’s acceptance of large donations from developers – including some who had supported Mr. Ford. Mr. Naqvi had called Ms. Crombie “Doug Ford lite.” Ms. Crombie has defended her ability to raise money, saying it will be needed to compete with Mr. Ford in the next election. She said all of her donations are legal and above board.

Mr. Naqvi, who joined with Mr. Erskine-Smith to encourage each other’s supporters to mark the other as second choice on the ranked ballot called for unity after the results were announced. “It is vital that we come together behind Bonnie to ensure that together we defeat Doug Ford in 2026 and restore the promise of Ontario,” he said.

Mr. Erskine-Smith also urged the party to move past the leadership campaign. “While we have had healthy disagreements as candidates, we should all be united around a common belief in a competent, ambitious and compassionate alternative to Doug Ford’s Conservatives. Let’s keep building that party, together,” he said on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

In her speech, Ms. Crombie criticized Mr. Ford for not having a plan to fight climate change, for refusing to pay health-care workers “a living wage,” and for picking fights with teachers.

“Doug Ford doesn’t care about the real people in Ontario. This has been made abundantly clear. And that is simply not good enough for Ontario families, not anymore,” she said.

Shortly after her win, the Progressive Conservative Party issued a statement that in turn accused Ms. Crombie of not understanding the concerns of “everyday people.”

“She drives fancy cars and vacations at her home in the Hamptons. She’s been pushing for a carbon tax for 15 years. Under her watch, taxes have gone up. She is proud to oppose Highway 413, keeping more people in gridlock,” the party said.

The PC statement also criticized Ms. Crombie for not getting enough homes built in Mississauga during her time as Mayor, while also attacking Liberal Party positions on road tolls, license plate fees and gasoline taxes.

In response, Ms. Crombie says she doesn’t own a car because she has a fleet vehicle, and said she inherited a home from an aunt and uncle who passed away.

NDP leader Marit Stiles congratulated Ms. Crombie on her new role.

“As you set a new direction for your party, I’m looking forward to your ideas and contributions to the debate on the future of our great province,” she said.

The NDP later issued a party statement comparing Ms. Crombie to Mr. Ford and said the leadership results show “a divided party still searching for purpose.” The party also launched a website attacking Ms. Crombie’s record.

The Liberals also said Saturday that 22,827 people cast ballots in the vote – less than a quarter of the more than 103,000 members they had said were eligible. Still, it’s more than any other leadership election in the party’s history, Ontario Liberal Party spokesman Carter Brownlee said.

Ms. Crombie said the voter turnout, nearly double the 2020 numbers, was “pretty incredible.”

“Look at the spark that was created, how we’ve reinvigorated the party,” she said.

With a report from Jeff Gray.

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