The Inside Agenda Blog

Why Sandra Pupatello Lost the Race She Should Have Won

by Steve Paikin Monday January 28, 2013

In the end, it wasn't close. Kathleen Wynne defeated Sandra Pupatello on the third ballot by 284 votes. The outgoing and incoming premier share a victory lap here. (Image credit: Reuters/Mark Blinch.)

Once the race to replace Dalton McGuinty as premier and Ontario Liberal leader was on, something quickly became apparent: Canada's most populous province, like five other Canadian jurisdictions, would almost certainly be getting a female premier.

Most Queen's Park observers thought that premier would be Sandra Pupatello, the so-called "Warrior Princess" from Windsor. Pupatello had just the right mix of brass, brawn, opposition and governing experience, while being a "people person" who could light up any room she went into. She charmed the editorial boards of both The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star, earning their endorsements.

Conversely, the other female candidate, Kathleen Wynne, was demonstrating excellent skills as a policy wonk, but just wasn't making that personal connection with her audiences in the same way Pupatello was.

Wynne, the pundits said, was suffering from "ministeritis." She was all about process and policy, but demonstrated little of the third "p" -- people skills -- which are so crucial in politics. 

But as the campaign wore on, something changed. Wynne began to rediscover that authentic voice of hers. She stopped sounding like a technocratic deputy minister and started connecting better with people.

I don't know why, but for some reason, we seem to expect leadership candidates to be perfect on day one, then improve after that. The fact is, candidates are almost never at their best on day one. The process of putting a team together, campaigning, and coming up with new policy makes them better. And that's what happened to Kathleen Wynne. As the campaign wore on, the better she got.

Conversely, Sandra Pupatello made what, in hindsight, turned out to be several serious mistakes. And, ironically, it was the very qualities Liberals loved about Pupatello that undid her.

Pupatello frequently reminded Liberals that her time spent in opposition (1995-2003) would be a crucial asset for the next leader in a minority parliament. Her rat-a-tat style was something Liberals would need to take on Tim Hudak's PCs and Andrea Horwath's NDP.

But at this past weekend's convention, I heard from numerous delegates who said that Pupatello's attack-dog style might be fine when aimed at political opponents, but thoroughly fell flat when directed at fellow Liberals.

Her over-aggressiveness in raising money, trying to make deals with other candidates, and trying to secure second and third ballot support was a big turn-off. Delegates saw a distinction between Pupatello's remarkably positive energy, and an overly edgy mean streak when crossed. And there was that assertiveness bordering on arrogance that turned some people off. ("When I stand back and look at the cast of candidates, even I would pick me. I have to be plain about that," Pupatello told the Toronto Star editorial board.)

The Pupatello candidacy had other problems. Not having a seat in parliament is usually not a big deal. Brian Mulroney, John Turner, Ernie Eves, and John Tory all won their party leaderships without having a seat. But this time was different. And Pupatello miscalculated the consequences of that. The Ontario legislature was in a state of prorogation, which no one liked. And Pupatello handed her opponents a gift by saying she wouldn't recall the legislature until she had a seat in it. Yes, that would likely result in a delay of only another couple of weeks before bringing the House back. But it gave delegates pause. It was another consideration.

Furthermore, the notion of having an all-out war with the NDP in a Windsor byelection, then burying the hatchet and trying to find common cause with that same NDP sounded improbable. Not to mention the fact that one of the Liberals' main jobs now is to repair relations with the teacher unions, all of whom would have descended on Windsor to try to beat Pupatello. Again, it was a tough sell.

But I suspect the final nails in Pupatello's coffin came during the January 26 convention at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Sandra Pupatello's speech at the convention couldn't compare to the one Wynne gave 30 minutes earlier.

1. The Speeches:

To put it bluntly, Kathleen Wynne gave one of the great speeches in the history of leadership conventions. She spoke with an authenticity rarely seen in politics, shining the spotlight on her sexual orientation and, in essence, daring delegates to come to an impossible conclusion: that in 2013 in modern Ontario, someone should be disqualified from high office because of her race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. It was a masterpiece. Wynne set an impossibly high bar for Sandra Pupatello to jump over. And the woman from Windsor couldn't. Her speech, which came just half an hour after Wynne's, was simply inferior. Ex-officio delegates, who hadn't yet publicly committed to any candidate, were watching. And they overwhelmingly went to Wynne, who found herself only two votes behind Pupatello after the first ballot, despite speculation that she ought to be at least 50 votes behind.

Perhaps the most electrifying leadership convention speech I've ever heard was delivered by Kathleen Wynne.

As soon as the first ballot results were announced, the convention, in essence, was over.

2. Ideological sympatico is vastly overrated:

It was the worst-kept secret in the hall that Charles Sousa would support Pupatello after dropping off the ballot. After all, they were both centre-right candidates -- ideologically sympatico.

But sources told me that was never a significant consideration for the Sousa campaign; that personal friendship, loyalty, and an increasing level of comfort between Sousa and Wynne during the course of the campaign spoke far more loudly than any ideological similarities Sousa may have had with Pupatello. And, in the end, personal relationships won out: Sousa crossed to Wynne and brought the vast majority of his delegates with him.

Charles Sousa's move to Kathleen Wynne ensured the victory for the Toronto MPP.

3. Harinder Takhar did Pupatello no favours:

After the first ballot results were announced, Eric Hoskins was responsible for the first big momentum shift, dropping off the ballot and moving to Wynne. He brought nearly all of his 150 supporters with him. But Harinder Takhar then made a move that should have blunted the impact of Hoskins' support: Takhar crossed the floor to Pupatello's section of the Gardens, but failed to do so within the 20-minute period after each ballot to drop out. So the effect was blunted. Takhar brought most of his delegates with him, but his name stayed on the ballot for the second vote, confusing the situation. (And, in fact, Takhar received 18 votes on the second ballot even though he had already dropped out.)

But the biggest impact of Takhar's move wouldn't be felt until after the second ballot. With the Mississauga-based Takhar already in the Pupatello camp, it meant there was no likelihood of the Mississauga-based Sousa making the same move. There was only room for one Mississauga-based candidate in Pupatello's camp, and that essentially ensured Sousa would move to Wynne, which he did.

Add it all up, and it's only after the fact that Wynne's overwhelming victory now seems a shock. In fact, it was built, brick-by-brick, over the past three-and-a-half months, by Wynne's improving as a candidate, and Pupatello's having too many fires, both before and on convention day to put out.

And so Pupatello lost, big time: 1,150 to 866. (Coincidentally, in 1967 at the same Maple Leaf Gardens, Robert Stanfield won the PC Party leadership with the exact same number of delegate supporters on the fifth and final ballot: 1,150.)

Gerard Kennedy tried for a third time for a party leadership. Again, without success.

Having said all this, I've never seen a classier second-place-finisher speech than the one Pupatello gave. Despite the heartbreak of seeing almost every one of her competitors cross the floor to her chief opponent (Gerard Kennedy, Charles Sousa, Eric Hoskins, and let's not forget Glen Murray, who left the race and backed Wynne before the convention began), Pupatello gave an upbeat, energetic, and enthusiastic round of "props" to Wynne.

The classiest concession speech I've ever seen at a Canadian leadership convention.

There is no harder speech to give in politics. Leaders can at least see election night defeat speeches coming, often days in advance, thanks to polling. Delegated leadership conventions offer no such prep time. Three-and-a-half months of 18-hour days, all in the quest of making history, comes crashingly to a halt in just a few hours. And yet, you've got to pretend you're chipper and content with the convention's decision. How hard that must be.

Pupatello did that like no one's ever done it before: like a real champion. And if that's the last thing people remember about her in the 2013 Ontario Liberal leadership race, well then, that's not so bad at all.

What now for Sandra Pupatello?

Kathleen Wynne asked all Liberal MPPs onto the stage in a show of party unity. Let's see how long it lasts.

And so ends another leadership convention, one of the last delegated conventions ever to be held in Canada. Too bad. They're awfully exciting.

For more of The Agenda's coverage of Ontario politics, visit our Ontario politics feature page

Slideshow image credit: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/Toronto Star.