06/10/2014 01:40 EDT | Updated 08/10/2014 05:59 EDT

Kathleen Wynne Put Fresh Face On Liberals, But May Not Win


TORONTO - Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne may be a bit bruised as she wraps up her maiden election voyage, but whether she'll manage to steer the battered Liberal ship back to port with a fourth mandate on Thursday remains to be seen.

She acknowledges that she's spent a lot of time during the campaign defending herself and her party against accusations of mismanagement and corruption that have dogged her since she was sworn in as premier more than a year ago.

"I believe in life, not just in politics, but I believe in life, you play the hand that you're dealt," she said Tuesday in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"You deal with the factors and the challenges that you're given, and my approach has been to make the very best of what I've been given," she added. "I have experienced success, I think, because I've tried to turn whatever the challenge is into energy and into a positive force."

It hasn't been easy. The Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats have taken some of the wind out of her sails, using the spending scandals she inherited from her predecessor Dalton McGuinty as cannon fodder during the campaign.

There was plenty of ammunition: the cancellation of two gas plants that will cost an estimated $1.1 billion, a criminal probe into the questionable business dealings of the province's Ornge air ambulance service and a decision to bail out the MaRS innovation and research complex in downtown Toronto.

Both the Tories and NDP have accused the Liberals of corruption, with the Tories claiming Wynne may have tried to cover up the deletion of documents about the gas plants for political reasons.

But Wynne said she believes so strongly in what her party is trying to do, she's not going to let herself "be dragged back by the naysayers and the negativity."

"Life is short," she added. "What's the point?"

Wynne is more "austerity light" than McGuinty, putting public services she's deemed to be important to Ontario's social and economic fabric ahead of slaying the province's $12.5-billion deficit, said Bryan Evans, politics professor at Toronto's Ryerson University.

She's reinvented a party that's been in power for over a decade, giving it a fresh face and moving it to the left of the political spectrum, he said.

"I think it's genuine on her part, I'm not sure if that's something that's deeply rooted in the Ontario Liberal Party," Evans said.

"But she has made the remarkable job of being able to keep this minority government alive."

Wynne, 61, became Ontario's first woman premier and Canada's first openly gay provincial leader when she took office on Feb. 11, 2013. But her position has yet to be ratified by voters.

Born in Toronto, Kathleen O'Day Wynne married Phil Cowperthwaite in 1977 and moved to the Netherlands for a few years before returning to Canada. She has a son and two daughters as well as three grandchildren.

But the marriage didn't last. Wynne came out as a lesbian at age 37 and in 2005 married Jane Rounthwaite, whom she'd first met in university about 30 years prior. The two were inseparable over the marathon campaign across the province.

She was first elected to the legislature in 2003 after serving as a Toronto school trustee and running her own company as a conflict mediation professional.

Wynne said she made the jump to provincial politics because she wanted to defeat a Conservative government under Mike Harris that had slashed spending and pushed ahead with controversial changes to public services that sparked widespread labour unrest and sometimes violent demonstrations.

"I think the first defining moment for me was when Mike Harris cut social assistance rates by 21 per cent and then at the same time was sending, I think it was a $200 cheque to everyone in the province," she told The Canadian Press. "I was so angry."

The welfare cuts, amalgamation of the cities and school boards, and cuts to the education system "lit a fire" under her, Wynne said. It also brought like-minded people together across Toronto, who were angry that the Tories were focusing on the individual, rather than the public good, she said.

"Those were kitchen table discussions that morphed into movements ... because we were, again, so upset and worried about the impact of the cuts and the changes he was making."

She took on important portfolios under McGuinty, serving as minister of education, aboriginal affairs, municipal affairs and transportation.

Her reputation as a conciliator was part of her appeal during the leadership contest, a skill she's used to mend fences with public school teachers angry over wage-freeze legislation and rural communities upset over decisions to cancel the slots-at-racetracks program and the installation of industrial wind turbines.

She also managed to pass one budget by tailoring it to satisfy the New Democrats, who helped to trigger the election last month by pulling their support for the Liberals.

Her diplomatic approach has served her in good stead, as it has previous premiers like Bill Davis and David Peterson in the 1970s and '80s, said Evans.

"Government is very much about that," he said.

"In a period of minority government, those skills are incredibly valuable. In fact they're necessary."

But it doesn't help much in a nasty election campaign, where politicians have to give as good as they get.

Wynne has fired back at her rivals, claiming the Tories would plunge Ontario back into a recession with massive cuts, including 100,000 public sector jobs.

She's also employing a time-honoured Liberal tactic to fight the New Democrats, warning voters that casting a ballot for the NDP would help the Tories win.

She also attacked their populist policy, saying they've strayed so far from their core principles, they were no longer the party of the late Jack Layton, Ed Broadbent or Stephen Lewis.

Election campaigns are "a pitched competition between political parties," but they're also a chance to explain what motivates them, Wynne said on the campaign trail.

"There are different motives, and I think that it is important as people go to the polls in Ontario, that they have a sense of what motivates the leaders and what motivates their candidates."

— With files from Colin Perkel.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Wynne is 60 years old.

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