01/20/2013 10:00 EST | Updated 03/22/2013 05:12 EDT

Harinder Takhar says he can pull Ontario out of the red if chosen premier

TORONTO - If he wins the race to replace Premier Dalton McGuinty, Harinder Takhar would be the first visible minority to hold the top job in Ontario.

But the former minister and businessman says he never thinks about the prospect of smashing the race barrier.

"I've been in Ontario and Canada for about 38 years," Takhar said.

"I got married here. I built my business here. My kids were born here, they were educated here. I'm as Canadian and as Ontarian as anybody else. So that thought never crosses my mind."

Even though the outcome of the race could see Ontario mark a new milestone in diversity, what matters most to people are the ideas and policies of the candidates, Takhar said.

"People are looking for real leadership and somebody who's going to look after their interests, rather than the partisan interests," he added.

Takhar, 62, was first elected in the Liberal sweep of 2003 to represent a riding in Mississauga, west of Toronto. He was elevated to cabinet after the Liberals won a second majority government in 2007 and served in a number of portfolios, including minister of transportation.

Married with two daughters, Takhar previously worked as chief financial officer of the Peel District School Board. He also held various senior positions at a number of corporations, including president and CEO of Chalmers Group — a private manufacturing company in which he has a controlling interest.

Takhar has emphasized his private sector experience during the campaign, painting himself as a fiscal hawk among the leadership candidates — a businessman and accountant who isn't afraid to make the tough decision to eliminate Ontario's deficit a year ahead of schedule.

Ontario must slay its $14.4-billion deficit early, he said. The province has a $272-billion debt, and if the government keeps sinking further into the red, the debt will continue to climb, requiring the province to pay billions more in interest costs.

"So then you have to start chopping up the health care and the education," Takhar said.

"I really want to make sure that we manage our expenses, we manage our interest costs. But more importantly, in order to do that, we have to eliminate the deficit pretty quickly."

He's running the lowest-cost campaign in the race, spending less than $100,000, he said. Many of his staff are full-time volunteers, doing everything from making calls to stuffing envelopes.

Even with a shoestring budget, Takhar has placed fourth in the race, amassing 244 delegates who will vote for the next leader.

But like many other candidates in the race, the former minister carries some weighty political baggage.

In 2006, Ontario's integrity commissioner reprimanded Takhar — then transportation minister — for failing to keep his distance from the person handling his business affairs.

Politicians are required by law to place their assets in a blind trust to ensure they avoid conflicts of interest, and also to inform the commissioner whenever they find themselves in a potential violation of the act.

The watchdog found that Takhar violated that rule by appointing as the independent trustee a man who served as his company's chief financial officer and later became treasurer of his riding association — something Takhar failed to disclose. In his report, the commissioner said Takhar was also "egregiously reckless" in attending a meeting at his company's offices.

Takhar wasn't dropped from cabinet, but he was demoted to the small business and entrepreneurship portfolio.

He's also raised eyebrows during his leadership campaign.

He resigned from cabinet and declared his candidacy just before the Nov. 23 deadline, and his officials revealed soon after that they'd signed up thousands of new party members. It sparked questions about the possible use of ministerial resources as his campaign was being put together, but Takhar has denied those charges.

During the race, Takhar often spoke about coming to Canada from India in 1974 with $7 in his pocket, finding success through his university education. However, his accounts of humble beginnings in Canada were disputed by an estranged uncle who told a newspaper columnist his nephew lived with him in a comfortable Toronto home.