Coffee with Del Duca

Paul Wells
5 min readMar 17, 2022

I worked at Maclean’s magazine for most of 19 years. I quit last Friday, several minutes after I filed my column for next month’s issue. (This phrasing seems to be confusing to some readers. I didn’t quit because of the column; I hurried to finish the column because I was about to quit and I didn’t want to leave colleagues hanging.) My editor then decided not to publish the column. So I get it back. Here it is. — pw

I met the leader of the Liberal Party of Ontario in a Second Cup coffee shop on Bloor St. In Toronto. It was the end of a weekday afternoon. The room was crowded. Steven Del Duca sat alone at a table. Nobody paid him any mind.

This may change. In an election campaign that will begin while this issue of Maclean’s is on newsstands — voting day is June 2 — Del Duca will attempt to unseat Doug Ford, the first-term Progressive Conservative Premier who has dominated the province’s politics through a brutal Covid pandemic.

This corner offers no prediction or warranty. The Liberals aren’t exactly in the catbird seat. They governed the province from 2003 to 2018, with Dalton McGuinty and then Kathleen Wynne as premier. The 2018 election wasn’t just a defeat, it was a purge: the Wynne Liberals were reduced from 55 seats in the legislature to seven, their share of the popular vote cut in half to just under 20%. It was the party’s worst election result since Confederation.

In the wake of that wipeout, Del Duca is, approximately, what the cat dragged in. He was transport minister under Wynne. He lost his seat in Vaughan-Woodbridge, north of Toronto. “I got my butt kicked. Thousands of votes.” He was going to run for chair of York Regional Council, a position previously appointed by the provincial government. Wynne implemented regional chair elections, Ford abolished them. Del Duca had to find another ambition. Against five other candidates who also needn’t worry about being bothered in coffee shops, he won the provincial Liberal leadership on the first ballot.

Why did he want the job? “I’ve literally grown up in the Liberal party, federally and provincially.” He’ll be 49 in July. In 1988 when John Turner lost a second time to Brian Mulroney, 15-year-old Del Duca was a campaign volunteer for the first time. “I still very much do believe that the Liberal Party is a phenomenal vehicle for progress.”

His father was from Italy, his mother from Scotland. They got married at St. Peter’s Church at Bathurst and Bloor. “Ontario and Canada gave them a ton of opportunity. I grew up believing — watching them and how hard they worked and how hard my grandparents worked — that that’s kind of the deal here, right? That is literally what’s supposed to occur.

“You have to do your part. You have to be dedicated, sacrifice, all those really important things. But the other half of the bargain is that this province, this country are supposed to give you real opportunity. Good publicly-funded education, good health care, a clean, safe, and healthy environment, and a chance to actually earn that economic dignity.”

And that’s not even his best folksy anecdote. His grandfather Alfonso came from Italy in 1951 — “little tiny guy, not that you’d believe that looking at me, right?” — and worked on construction sites until a platform collapsed under him two years later, breaking his hip and most of his ribs. That was the end of construction work, but the owner of the company made Alfonso a handyman in the office. “He was able to support himself and my grandmother and their family. But that was by a stroke of luck. Economic dignity in our province shouldn’t be based on luck, right? We should be able to do better than that.”

Del Duca is what you might imagine if you were told the Liberals had been walloped by a Doug Ford and had gone out to get one of their own. Suburban. Stocky. Unpretentious. Not burdened with excessive hair. I asked Del Duca who his political heroes are. He named Jean Chrétien. “The best example in recent times of a moderate, pragmatic, passionate person who believes in progress.” Favourite book? David McCullough’s biography of Harry S. Truman. “Just such an unlikely story. Failed haberdasher, nothing really to write home about…”

Look, somebody’s got to win this election. Del Duca is the new guy. Ford will be leading the Conservatives for his second campaign. For Andrea Horwath, the New Democrat, it will be her fourth. The polling aggregator 338Canada.com had the NDP and Liberals tied in early March at 27% of popular vote. Neither would be likely to win 30 seats with those kinds of numbers. At 38% of the vote, Ford looks set to win a second majority, 338Canada says.

Anything can change. Campaigns are chaotic events. If Ford stumbles, one of the other parties gets to benefit. There’s room for Ford to stumble. Because he enforced public-health measures like masks and vaccines during the lockdown, he’s lost support and a few caucus members on his populist right. Because his government hasn’t been coherent or fun to be in, he’s losing cabinet ministers on his reassuring managerial centrist “left:” Christine Elliott and Rod Phillips won’t run again. The Ford voter coalition, fairly broad in 2018, now looks clipped on both wings.

But the Ontarians who are angriest at Ford were already never going to vote Conservative. And they still have to choose between Horwath, who didn’t get close to winning on her first three tries, and Del Duca, who so far has not had greater success searing himself into the public consciousness than he had with the rush crowd at Second Cup.

It’s reasonable to imagine the campaign will serve as a kind of anti-Ford primary, with the most impressive not-Ford taking a lion’s share of the not-Conservative vote. That happened in 2018, when voters were damned sure they weren’t voting for the Wynne Liberals. Conservatives and NDP feasted on Liberal brains and had their best election in years. Unsurprisingly, they started running ads against Del Duca in October. “Kathleen Wynne’s Right-Hand Man,” the ads called him. The line appears in both the Conservatives’ ads and the NDP’s.

For most of his career, Del Duca would have cheerfully sniped back. Ontario Liberal leaders often have designated attack dogs, unlovely but effective. McGuinty had George Smitherman. Wynne had Steven Del Duca. Del Duca swears he doesn’t want the job any more and won’t contract it out. “I don’t want anyone on my team to waste their energy on attacking Ford or attacking anyone else.” He’ll run on “Four pillars: publicly funded education; public health care; a clean and healthy environment; and economic recovery, where real dignity is achieved.”

His middle name is Alfonso, after his grandfather. Did he inherit a knack for blue-collar work? “I am exceptionally good at what I like to call unskilled labor. So if you need anything moved or demolished or cleaned up, I can do that. Anything that requires a degree of technical skill, I am not your guy.” Demolition and cleanup experience is, as it happens, a qualification for his current job.

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Paul Wells

Very late blooming freelancer, formerly at Maclean’s, Toronto Star, National Post, Montreal Gazette. This is for personal stuff, posted very occasionally.