'Premier Dad' offers advice to successor: 'Don't screw it up'

TORONTO - For a man who became one of Ontario's most successful premiers, Dalton McGuinty never seemed to be destined for the history books.

TORONTO – For a man who became one of Ontario’s most successful premiers, Dalton McGuinty never seemed to be destined for the history books.

When he first arrived at the Ontario legislature in 1990 as a Liberal MP, few took much notice of the lanky lawyer swimming in an ill-fitting double-breasted suit, much less peg him as a future leader of the province.

Over the years, McGuinty managed to beat the odds again and again, from his unlikely leadership victory in 1996 to winning his third consecutive election last year — a feat unmatched by his party since Sir Oliver Mowat more than a century ago.

Along the way, he crafted a political style that saw the Liberals through many of the obstacles they faced over the last nine years.

“Never too high, never too low” were the words McGuinty lived by, an extension of his straight-laced, father-knows-best image.

But the man dubbed “Premier Dad” decided to cash in his chips Monday, stepping down as premier amid a series of scandals that seemed insurmountable, even for him.

McGuinty bristled at the suggestion that he was getting out while he could, amid accusations of covering up the costs of cancelling two gas plants and a growing scandal over the province’s air ambulance service, which is under a criminal probe.

Throughout his political career, people have told him that it couldn’t be done — that he couldn’t win a seat as a Liberal, that he couldn’t win the leadership, that he couldn’t win the election.

“In 2003, in 2007, in 2011, we went into each of those elections behind,” McGuinty said Monday.

“So of course there’s still going to be a few people out there who are going to say, you can’t win. It has nothing to do with that.”

Politics wasn’t McGuinty’s first choice. The eldest son in a family of 10, he often helped his busy parents care for his younger siblings. His mother Elizabeth worked as a nurse, while his father Dalton Sr. was an English professor and provincial politician.

McGuinty worked odd jobs through high school to help out the family, from hospital orderly to a counsellor at his father’s summer camp.

As premier, McGuinty would often draw from his childhood in trying to impart a political lesson about the responsibilities of leadership.

He studied science before turning to law. In 1980, he married his high-school sweetheart Terri, an elementary school teacher. Together, they had four children: Carleen, Dalton Jr., Liam and Connor.

McGuinty jumped into politics in 1990 under tragic circumstances. His father died suddenly while shovelling snow and McGuinty was recruited to succeed him in Ottawa South.

He often joked that he was selected because the election signs already had his name on them.

McGuinty won the seat, bucking a New Democrat tide that washed the Liberals out of office.

Despite his public persona McGuinty managed to squeak out an upset victory in the 1996 Liberal leadership race.

He failed to win his first general election in 1999, with the Tories branding him as not ready for prime time.

He rallied in 2003 after some media grooming — by the same Chicago consulting firm that helped Barack Obama win the U.S. presidency — and rejigging of the party machinery.

He beat the beleaguered Tories, who were dragged down by a series of scandals over the fatal shooting of an aboriginal protester, tainted water and a massive blackout.

But his credibility took a hit shortly after he first became premier when he imposed a health-care premium of up to $900 per worker, despite signing a pledge during the campaign not to raise taxes.

He did another flip flop on taxes in 2009, combining the provincial sales tax with the federal goods and services tax after campaigning against the idea for years. But he insisted he changed his mind because it was the right thing to do for Ontario amid a global economic downturn.

There were other scandals involving Liberal grants to ethnic groups and a so-called “billion dollar boondoggle” at eHealth Ontario, both of which cost cabinet ministers their jobs. But McGuinty always bounced back.

He easily led the Liberals to a second straight majority in 2007 when then-PC leader John Tory made the unpopular promise of extending public funding to religious schools, effectively handing McGuinty the election victory.

The self-described “education premier” poured money into health care and education, more than doubling government spending and the province’s debt while racking up record deficits after the recession hit.

However, it wasn’t until this year’s scandal at the Ornge air ambulance service and the political decisions to cancel two power plants in Oakville and Mississauga that things started sticking to the “Teflon premier.”

Taxpayers are on the hook for at least $230 million for cancelling the gas plants — the opposition parties say it’s at least $650 million — and McGuinty seemed to recognize this time the public anger was being directed at him.

“To keep that kind of reputation as he’s kept over the years I think is tough,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

“But he was able to keep a very positive reign in government for a number of years, and I think that’s something he probably should be very proud of. Maybe not so much the last little while, but certainly for several years prior to that.”

McGuinty said he will stay on as the MPP for Ottawa-South until the next election, but wouldn’t comment on speculation he’s considering a run for the leadership of the federal Liberals.

“I am not making any plans whatsoever beyond my duties here at Queen’s Park,” he said.

Asked what advice he would give his successor, McGuinty characteristically kept it brief and to the point.

“Don’t screw it up.”