01/18/2013 10:00 EST | Updated 03/20/2013 05:12 EDT

Kathleen Wynne says she's willing to work with the opposition, avoid elections

TORONTO - When Kathleen Wynne joined the race to replace Dalton McGuinty as Ontario Liberal leader and premier nearly three months ago, political observers predicted she would be a front-runner.

With one week to go before the Liberal leadership convention on Jan. 25-27, the former education minister is in a virtual tie for the lead with former Windsor-West MPP Sandra Pupatello.

"The reason I want to take on this role is I feel so strongly about building on what we’ve done in the last nine years," Wynne said in a recent interview.

"I feel that I have the capacity to bring people together, to resolve a lot of the issues that we're confronting."

Wynne, 59, who also served as minister of aboriginal affairs, municipal affairs and transportation, was first elected to the legislature in 2003 after serving as a Toronto school trustee. Before entering politics, she was a conflict mediation professional running her own company.

Wynne's no-nonsense, professorial style often mirrors McGuinty's, but she believes she's different than the outgoing premier and is the right leader for the times.

"Dalton and I have different personalities, different approaches, but I have seen the value of his integrated personality," said Wynne.

"He really is able to be the same person no matter who he's talking to, and it's the value of that that I've really witnessed over the last nine years, but I think we're different people, and right now calls for a different kind of politician than 2002-03."

Wynne won the support of 25 per cent of the delegates elected to choose the new Liberal leader at the convention, while Pupatello has the support of 27 per cent of the delegates. She's also second to Pupatello in support from former and current members of the legislature and cabinet ministers. The roughly 400 so-called ex-officio Liberals automatically get a vote for the new leader, in addition to the 1,837 delegates selected from ridings across the province.

Wynne admits the government's popularity suffered since the October 2011 election because of the decisions to scrap two gas plants in Liberal-held ridings at a cost of at least $230 million, a police probe of the Ornge air ambulance service, anger in rural Ontario over industrial wind turbines and a nasty fight with teachers over wage-freeze legislation.

"I would be naive to suggest that what's happened in the last year has not created some challenges for us, and those are issues that we need to deal with and I'm fully prepared to take those on," she said.

"I think in each case we have learned from what happened ... and one of the huge learnings for me is that we better stay in touch with the people who are on the front line. We better pay attention to communities and listen to what they're saying."

Unlike Pupatello or former MP Gerard Kennedy, who was third in committed first-ballot delegate support, Wynne has a seat in the legislature, prorogued in October by McGuinty when he announced his resignation. She said she would recall the house by Feb. 19, and would not call an election this year or design a budget that would trigger the government's defeat.

"My objective will be to reach out to the opposition leaders. I want to bring in a budget that is not doomed to failure, that can pass," she said.

"Everywhere I go in the province there are people who are uncomfortable with prorogation."

The Toronto-born Wynne, who is married to Jane Rounthwaite and has three children and two grandchildren, said "homophobia" always comes up in her campaigns and has in this one too, with a Toronto newspaper editorial asking if Ontario is ready for an openly gay premier.

"The question is posed to me in that way, as an electability issue," said Wynne.

"I really believe that it underestimates Ontarians to assume that sexual orientation or gender or race or background are going to be the determining features."

Wynne, who promised to appoint herself as agriculture minister for at least one year if she becomes premier, received the backing of former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray when he dropped out of the race in early January, just before the delegate selection meetings.

"I believe that we have done an enormous amount of good for the province as a Liberal government ... so I want to extend the principles that we have governed on into the future," she said.

"It's about not losing the gains that we've made and then pushing the province and ourselves to the next level."