Seventeen years ago at Maple Leaf Gardens, Dalton McGuinty took a major step on the road to becoming Premier Dad. Here’s how it happened.
When Ontario’s Liberals vote for a new party leader this weekend, they’ll cast ballots in the same building where Dalton McGuinty won his position in 1996. It remains to be seen whether Maple Leaf Gardens will again witness a dramatic, disorganized, all-night race.
Heading into the November 30, 1996 vote, the perceived frontrunner was current federal Liberal leadership hopeful Gerard Kennedy. The former executive director of the Daily Bread Food Bank was backed by the party’s Toronto-based backroom establishment and endorsed by the Toronto Star for his ambitiousness. Many believed he posessed the charisma and progressive vision that outgoing leader Lyn McLeod lacked. Within the party, Kennedy was a divisive figure, criticized for his inexperience (having replaced Bob Rae as York South MPP just months earlier), his perceived aloofness, and for being too far to the left for comfort.
McGuinty, the first candidate to enter the race, positioned himself as the family candidate. He promised little other than pushing the power of positivity. Considered the right-wing challenger, he raised his profile by offering to help out at any party function. McGuinty’s recent actions with respect to education were already foreshadowed through a private member’s bill which would have banned teacher strikes.
When the convention opened on November 29, a letter circulating around the floor urged delegates not to support Kennedy. The source: Kennedy’s riding association, some of whom were bitter that Kennedy defeated their preferred candidate, York alderman Bill Saundercook. The letter accused Kennedy of being a poor communicator and a parachute candidate who failed to engage his constituents. It offered the other challengers a chance to pounce on Kennedy’s weaknesses.
Chaos greeted party organizers the following morning when 1,000 people lined up at the Days Inn on Carlton Street (now the Holiday Inn) to fill 200 alternate delegate slots. Processing was complicated by a computer breakdown which forced officials to spend the night re-entering delegate data. Challenges from scrutineers further slowed processing to the point that some potential delegates waited for over six hours to find out if they could participate.
The delay filtered onto the convention floor. Scheduled to begin at 1 p.m., three hours passed before an X marked the first ballot. Delegates switched from chanting for their candidates to yelling, “We want to vote!” An inadequate supply of voting tables further delayed the process. Those waiting in line suffered the indignity of chilly feet, thanks to the thin covering laid atop the Gardens’ ice. Kennedy’s camp aided relieved thirsty voters by distributing water bottles which declared their candidate “a refreshing change.” Weary of the wait, live TV coverage of the event ceased.
When the first ballot results finally emerged around 7:30 p.m., Kennedy led the pack, but he’d failed to secure a commanding lead. McGuinty finished fourth with 450 votes. Sixth-place finisher Annamarie Castrilli provoked the next series of delays when, after seeing her teenage son cry when her vote count was revealed, attempted to retrieve her withdrawal letter. When she failed to get the letter back with the 15-minute window of opportunity, she screamed from the stands when it was announced she had been removed from the second ballot. Negotiations restored Castrilli, but the ruckus resulted in a last-place finish when results were revealed around 10:25 p.m. McGuinty remained in fourth place, but lost 10 votes.
McGuinty’s luck changed quickly. Having been mocked by MPPs who supported third-place finisher Dwight Duncan, Castrilli threw her support to McGuinty. Fifth-place candidate John Gerretsen dropped out and moved his support to McGuinty. These moves helped McGuinty rise to a second-place tie with Lawrence MPP Joe Cordiano when the third ballot results appeared around 12:40 a.m.
Duncan, whose campaign helped fuel the “Anybody but Kennedy” movement, shocked the convention floor when he walked over to the frontrunner. Many of his supporters felt otherwise, with just enough of them helping McGuinty survive the fourth ballot when results were announced around 2:35 a.m.
Forced off the ballot, Cordiano became the kingmaker. Though Cordiano declared his support for McGuinty, there were concerns the move wouldn’t be enough to stave off Kennedy. McGuinty’s camp figured they needed two-thirds of Cordiano’s supporters to move over with him, and weren’t comforted when high-profile Cordiano backers like Elinor Caplan walked over to Kennedy. In the end, 80% of Cordiano backers followed their candidate—and when the fifth ballot was finally announced at 4:30 a.m., McGuinty had defeated Kennedy by 140 votes. Tears were observed among Kennedy supporters.
Less than five hours after his win, McGuinty spoke over breakfast at the Delta Chelsea Inn. Star columnist Rosie DiManno observed the bleary-eyed attendees, about whom she wished that, because of their attacks on Kennedy, “their bran muffins should have stuck in their craw and their coffee scalded their venomous tongues.” The new leader pledged to make children’s issues his top priority and vowed to heal party divisions.
Assessing McGuinty’s victory, Star columnist Thomas Walkom felt it was due to a mixture of deal-making, self-confidence, and being the least irritating candidate: “In choosing McGuinty, the Liberals, knowingly or not, have returned to the 1950s. This is not necessarily a bad idea. For those suffering through the 1990s, the ‘50s seem a golden time—when cars had fins, stores had clerks, people had jobs and governments were run by self-confident and deliberately vague politicians like Dalton James Patrick McGuinty.”
Additional material from the November 23, 1996, November 25, 1996, November 30, 1996, December 1, 1996, and December 2, 1996 editions of the Toronto Star.