Name: Sandra Pupatello
Riding: Currently unseated
Years as MPP: 16 for Windsor West
Former cabinet positions/notable portfolios:
- Minister of Community and Social Services, October 2003
- Minister of Education, April 2006
- Minister of Economic Development and Trade, September 2006
- Minister Responsible for Women’s Issues, late 2005
- Minister of International Trade and Investment, September 2008
- Minister of Economic Development and Trade, June 2009
Bio: Born in Windsor in 1962, Pupatello says she has been a loyal Liberal party member since 1974 and credits former federal MP Herb Gray with bringing her into politics. Her involvement in politics goes back before she graduated from the University of Windsor, she says. Her first political rally that she attended was one for her hero, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, at Windsor’s Caboto Club in 1976. She has won four elections beginning in 1995 and was a key player in McGuinty’s cabinet, leading the education, economic development and trade and international trade and investment portfolios, among others. But Windsor’s favourite daughter decided not to seek re-election in 2011, instead accepting the position of director of business development and global markets at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Toronto. Pupatello is married to Jim Bennett, a lawyer and former leader of the Liberal Party of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Platform: Jobs and the economy have been Pupatello’s mantra since she entered the race in November. But she has been criticized for being short on policy details. Her Plan Forward focuses on six steps including: work locally, trade globally; keep Ontario open for business; and strengthen urban and regional communities.
On Toronto/GTA: She has said she’d ask for more funding from the federal government to help fix traffic gridlock in the GTA.
Quotes: “I don’t know,” she says on what she’d do if she loses the leadership bid. “Lick my wounds for a while but not for long.”
Premier Dalton McGuinty’s successor will likely be a woman. The question is which one?
Former Windsor West MPP Sandra Pupatello and Toronto Don Valley West MPP Kathleen Wynne are in a virtual dead heat for the premier’s job, heading into the Ontario Liberal leadership convention this weekend.
According to the Ontario Liberal Party, Pupatello has a small lead with 27 per cent of delegate support, followed by Wynne (25 per cent) and former MPP Gerard Kennedy (14 per cent). The trailing candidates are MPPs Harinder Takhar (13 per cent), Charles Sousa (11 per cent) and Eric Hoskins (6 per cent), respectively.
“I feel great because I wasn’t leading going in,” Pupatello told CityNews.ca on Jan. 17.
A week earlier she appeared to have suffered a setback when Murray — the first to throw his name into the ring after McGuinty announced his surprise resignation on Oct. 15 — dropped out and threw his support behind Wynne.
But Pupatello was quick to point out that Murray’s decision didn’t hurt her because his campaign chair and several others on his team joined her campaign. What’s more, many of his supporters weren’t elected as delegates for the leadership convention because he quit before the delegate selection process on Jan. 12-13.
Pupatello’s slogan during the leadership race has been Sandra…for a change. Jobs and the economy have been her mantra since she entered the race in November.
“We’ve got to restore confidence. We’re got to focus on the economy — get the revenues coming in,” she says. “There are lots of priorities but jobs and economy always drive what a government is able to do.”
As minister of international trade and investment, Pupatello travelled overseas, selling Toronto to the rest of the world.
“Getting Ontario back to the top of its economic game involves Toronto and the GTA, big time,” she told a sold-out crowd at the Toronto Board of Trade on Jan. 18.
She wants Ontario to diversify its export market to the United States.
“We must focus more effort on fast-growing, emerging economies,” she told the Toronto Board of Trade crowd, adding that her government would assist exporters, particularly small and medium size businesses in China and India.
Her government will align Ontario’s export policies with Export Development Canada and make sure trade deals benefit the province’s companies, she said.
But she has been criticized for being short on details when it comes to her platform. On Jan. 20, the Toronto’s Star’s Martin Regg Cohn wrote that Pupatello told him she needed more time to consider what the finance minister says is the most challenging issue facing the Liberal government: the issue of traffic gridlock which is hurting the economy in the GTA.
Pupatello has said that she would ask the federal government for more public transit funding, something the columnist said was a pipe dream.
One thing working in her favour is that Pupatello, who left politics before the 2011 election after 16 years as MPP for Windsor West, hasn’t been at the cabinet table so she can distance herself from the Liberals’ gas-plant scandal and teachers dispute — both of which have plagued McGuinty’s minority government.
“She has the benefit of that,” says Graham Murray, president of G.P. Murray Research Ltd., which publishes the newsletter, Inside Queen’s Park.
Another advantage is that unlike all the other candidates who hail from the GTA, Pupatello isn’t from Toronto, a city the rest of the province loves to hate. But she’s had a home here for 17 years.
Pupatello has been described as a firecracker and a pit bull when she was the Opposition deputy leader during the Mike Harris era in the late 1990s. She’s also fun. She told one interviewer recently she wished her campaign song was The Bitch is Back.
“She has a lively passionate approach to politics, someone who shakes the room up,” says Murray, who sat on a panel together with Pupatello.
But those same qualities may not serve her well if she takes the helm of a minority government.
“That kind of gutsy politician is exciting but nerve-wracking to others,” Murray says.
In the home stretch
With days to go until the leadership convention, Pupatello has been talking to her rivals listening to what roles they may want to play in her government if she wins, saying it’s important for her to know but adding that no promises of caucus jobs were made.
Under party rules, delegates are required to vote for their declared candidate on the first ballot at the convention but they can vote for whichever candidate they want in subsequent rounds.
Pupatello and her team of volunteers have been working the phones asking delegates, “if I’m not your first [choice], would I be your second?”
Of the 2,200 or so delegates, there are also some 400 ex-officios, who are former MPPs and candidates, and it’s been harder to tell who they’ll be supporting, Murray says.
There have been recent reports painting rival Wynne as someone who would seek a coalition with NDP Leader Andrea Horwath to avert an election. Both have denied such talk in other reports.
Pupatello ruled out a coalition government with the Opposition.
“I’m not the coalition candidate,” she says.
But she says she’d work with the NDP and PC leaders to get to work right away on jobs and the economy, the platform she’s been championing.
“My goal is to keep a government going as long as possible,” Pupatello says.
Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, says the next premier will be driven by the polls.
“If they get elected and they think, ‘Now we can win,’ you call an election,” he says.
If Pupatello wins, she will face some considerable obstacles. For one thing, she doesn’t have a seat in the House.
She has said that she wouldn’t reconvene Parliament, which McGuinty suspended in mid-October, until after she wins a byelection. Wynne has said she’d reopen the House as early as Feb. 19.
Finance Minister Dwight Duncan — whose days with Pupatello go back to the early 1980s when the two worked for then provincial labour minister Bill Wrye and regard one another like siblings — has offered his seat in Windsor Tecumseh.
Pupatello wouldn’t say when she’d run in a byelection but she said “fairly quickly.”
Her immediate concern is winning the Liberal leadership race.
“I’m not taking second in any of this,” she says, adding she’s going into the convention “thinking I can win.”