Ontario Liberal Leadership: Sandra Pupatello To Join The Fray

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Former cabinet minister Sandra Pupatello launched her bid for the Ontario Liberal leadership today. CREDIT: Tibor Kolley, CP
Former cabinet minister Sandra Pupatello launched her bid for the Ontario Liberal leadership today. CREDIT: Tibor Kolley, CP

TORONTO - The latest entrant into the Liberal leadership race says she won't bring back the legislature immediately if she becomes Ontario's next premier.

Rather than get right back to work if she is chosen as leader at the end of January, former cabinet minister Sandra Pupatello said she wants to win a seat first.

"I plan to have a seat in the house before that house opens," she said Thursday in launching her attempt at a political comeback.

"I don't want my party in the house without me in it as the leader."

She confirmed that Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, a longtime friend, has agreed to clear the way by resigning his Windsor seat if she wins.

If that happens, it's unclear who will deliver the next budget at a time when the province is facing a $14.4-billion deficit and credit agencies have put the minority Liberals on notice that they need to provide specifics on how they'll get Ontario out of its fiscal hole.

Pupatello, a 16-year veteran of the legislature, said the house is typically closed through March. In fact, it was slated to come back in mid-February as usual until Premier Dalton McGuinty prorogued the legislature on Oct. 15, leaving it up to his successor to decide when it would return.

When the legislature does reopen its doors, Pupatello promised to make job creation her top priority, but didn't provide many details.

Instead, she emphasized her role in attracting jobs when she was international trade and investment minister from 2008 to 2009, when Ontario was in the throes of a recession.

"I'm about jobs," she said. "It's where I flourished when I was in government. It's what I missed when I left government."

Pupatello said she'd even implement ideas from the New Democrats and Progressive Conservatives that would bring more jobs to the cash-strapped province.

Ontario would also have a more frugal and transparent government under her watch, she said.

"What you see is what you get," she said. "I want to be that transparent person that speaks openly and straightforwardly to the public of Ontario — even when it's ugly."

As for public sector compensation, Pupatello said she doesn't believe a proposed bill to force a wage freeze will be necessary because the current government will likely negotiate one before a new premier is chosen.

By focusing on employment and austerity, Pupatello may end up stealing some thunder from the Tories, who have made Ontario's economic troubles their No. 1 argument for why the Liberals need to go.

Before she'd even launched her bid, the Tories posted an Internet attack ad that highlighted her role in giving $2.7 million to wind turbine manufacturer Windtronics to create 200 jobs in Windsor. But it moved to Michigan two years later.

Pupatello is also tainted by the government's scandals, from eHealth to Ornge to the cancellation of two gas plants to save Liberal seats, the opposition parties said.

"She was at the cabinet table, she was part of the government that brought forward job-killing policies," said Tory Monte McNaughton.

"And she's part of the Liberal legacy here in Ontario, and that's one of waste, scandal and mismanagement."

A Liberal since the age of 14, Pupatello was first elected to the legislature in 1995 and became a cabinet minister when the Liberals won the election in 2003.

She took on various portfolios over the years, from education to community and social services to economic development and trade — her dream job. That diverse background will help her lead the province and preserve its public services, Pupatello argued.

"This accumulated experience as a minister — on the social side, on education, on industry — tells me that when we have good jobs in Ontario, we as a Liberal government get to do the things we want to do," she said.

Known for her high heels, big hair and brash style, Pupatello always spoke her mind and quickly earned the reputation of an attack dog in the legislature. But she's mellowed since then, she said.

"When I entered the house in 1995, you spoke up or you got rolled over," she said of her Opposition days. "And I wasn't going to let that happen for the people of Ontario."

But even as a minister, her sharp tongue sometimes landed her in hot water. In 2009, she had to apologize after calling Toronto residents "a bunch of babies" for complaining three days into a garbage strike, when Windsor had quietly been suffering through a three-month garbage strike at the time.

She acknowledged that she's made some "errors in judgment" over the years, but she learned from her mistakes and has a different style now.

Pupatello left politics only a year ago, when she decided not to run for re-election and joined PricewaterhouseCoopers as director of business development and global markets. Liberal Teresa Piruzza now holds her former seat of Windsor West.

If she wins the race, Pupatello would make history as Ontario's first female premier. Her husband, lawyer Jim Bennett, is the former leader of the Newfoundland Liberal Party.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Charles Sousa is also expected to throw his hat in the ring when he makes a yet-unspecified announcement in Mississauga on Saturday.

However, Sousa hasn't yet resigned his cabinet post — a prerequisite for launching a leadership bid.

Former cabinet ministers Kathleen Wynne and Glen Murray — both Toronto MPPs — jumped into the race earlier this week.

Ex-MP Gerard Kennedy, who lost to McGuinty by just 140 votes in 1996, might also take a run at the leadership.

Potential candidates have until Nov. 23 to launch their bids.

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