Politics

Kate Graham's surprising, long-shot campaign to lead the Ontario Liberals

There are a lot of reasons why the young outsider's campaign should have tanked. She's spun them all into positives.

With just five days to go before the Ontario Liberal leadership convention, candidate Kate Graham has convened a group of 16 pretty unconventional advisors. She places a plate of homemade zucchini, pecan & cranberry loaf on the boardroom table, along with a tumble of napkins and tangerines, and requests unvarnished honesty on three topics: Her experience level. Her pregnancy. Her toughness. 

These have all been self-described “barriers” for Graham in the race to run and rebuild a party that was so badly decimated in the June 2018 election that it lost party status and control of the province to the Progressive Conservatives led by Doug Ford. 

Graham listens intently as they hash out whether she should toe the line with more traditionally-minded delegates not used to seeing such a young, ambitious woman reach for power or whether she should lean in and upend outdated notions of what it means to be a political fighter.

“You should just say “Yes, I am tough,” suggests 22-year-old Hadia Fiaz, who just came off a tenure as president of King’s University College Students’ Council. “I don’t think that question is a hill you should die on.”

Graham’s surprising and meteoric rise in this leadership race has been supported by people with deep roots in the Liberal party—former cabinet ministers Deb Matthews and Eleanor McMahon, legendary campaign strategist Patricia Sorbara—and mobilized by newer faces like campaign manager George Roter, the Director of Open Innovation Programs at Mozilla

But what sets her apart is the way she gives equal, serious weight to the advice given by these 16 young women, some of whom are past political science students of hers at the University of Western Ontario, some of whom are helping on her campaign and all of whom are inspired by her decision to run for leader.

There are many on-paper reasons the Graham campaign should’ve tanked: At age 35, she is the youngest person on the ballot. She entered the race late, on Sept. 7, 2019. She’s a relative outsider from Southwestern Ontario with a team of mostly outsiders, her only political experience working in the halls of London City Hall and losing the longtime Liberal stronghold badly to the NDP in the Ontario 2018 election. She’s a vocal, unapologetic feminist—now a pregnant one, to boot, making her the very first woman in Ontario history to run for party leadership with a bun in the oven. 

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But she’s spun them all as positives in her pitch to rebuild the Liberals— like *actually* rebuild them, by forcing the party to look in the mirror and eschew partisan politics, and empower policymakers and voters in regions outside of the GTA. Her plans for running Ontario include  shooting to become carbon neutral, improving affordability, and putting a focus on well-being when generating good “meaningful” jobs. 

This vision, along with a healthy dose of enthusiasm, charisma and doggedness has made her a real contender—albeit an idealistic one.

According to delegate numbers, this weekend’s convention is shaping up to be a coronation of lead candidate and longtime Liberal cabinet minister Steven Del Duca. If the vote goes to second ballot, she could have a shot, which is why Graham was “obsessively phoning” the few uncommitted ex-officio and super-delegates (former and current Liberal MPPs, past Ontario Liberal party candidates, executives, university club presidents) after her meeting with the young women this week, hopping on the horn to essentially ask them this: Do they want to rebuild the party for the next generation? Or do they want more of the same?

***

That the Ontario Liberal leadership race was set against a backdrop of striking teachers is fitting for Graham. Her first memory of political involvement was seeing her parents, both teachers, walk the picket line in 1997 during Mike Harris’s self-described “Common Sense Revolution.” She wanted to follow in their footsteps and be an art teacher, but her path shifted when she got a summer job at London City Hall before university as a constituency assistant. “Every single day, there’d be people coming in with something that mattered to them, that they were willing to just go to the wall for,” she says in an interview at her home in London, Ont. at a dining room table littered with thank you notes for campaign volunteers. 

That appealed to her, so she shifted into a political science major at the University of Western Ontario and got her Masters’ in Public Administration, quickly rising to director level at London City Hall to become the youngest senior staff. It was in that role, which included government relations, that she got her first exposure to the gate-keeper culture of Queen’s Park by heading there for a meeting to try to secure transit funding for the city.

“I had memorized every turning lane, every bit of criteria that they use provincially to establish how much money communities can get,” she says. Then-transportation minister Del Duca sent a junior minister in instead, whom it was clear did not know the transit realities in Ontario’s sixth largest city. Graham and her team were turned down then and multiple times after and it was only on the eve of the Ontario election that they got some cash.

“My personal interest in provincial politics was definitely sparked in that moment,” she says. “I was thinking ‘If ever I get the opportunity to be in a position of influence, that is what I want to change, that attitude of ‘we know best.’”

In that role, she also met then-deputy premier Matthews who became a close friend and mentor. When Matthews decided not to run again in London North Centre, she urged Graham to take up the torch. She did, knowing full well the Liberals were going to lose. As Graham gave her “victory” speech the night of June 7, past Liberal Party of Canada president Doug Ferguson leaned in the ear of Graham’s partner, London deputy mayor Jesse Helmer, and whispered “Kate for Leader.” 

“Jesse kind of laughed and he told me that and when we got home that night I had a hard laugh about it too,” she says. “And then we had cry about losing an election and life went on.”

But the ugliness directed at outgoing premier Kathleen Wynne really bothered Graham. 

“Time and again at the door, voters would say “You seem great but I can’t support your leader.” And I would say, “Okay, what is it?” They couldn’t name it…[but then said] “Oh, it’s just her face.” Or, “It’s just her voice.” And I’m like, “But you like Doug Ford’s face or his voice? What? Help me understand, that cannot be the reason.”

To help her understand, she launched the Canada 2020 podcast project No Second Chances, in which she interviewed all 12 women first ministers (11 premiers and Canada’s only woman prime minister, Kim Campbell) about their experiences which included vicious sexism, sky high expectations, and in most of their cases, the dreaded glass cliff. 

“There were tears involved in almost all the interviews, on both sides,” she says. “[And when I asked them] ‘If you could go back when you were 25 or 30 or 40, whenever the journey started, would you do it all again?’ And every one of them, without missing a beat, said ‘Yes.’”

Graham swears she wasn’t considering the leadership during those interviews, but it turned out to be pretty useful research. 

She and Helmer got married in June 2019 on the roof of London City Hall and she didn’t decide to run until they were on their honeymoon, riding the train through Europe, thinking about their future life together. Graham didn’t find the existing (all male) Ontario Liberal leadership candidates very inspiring, and with the words of those first ministers ringing in her ear, she thought “Well, this moment is going to come exactly one time in your life.”

Graham had already decided to run when she met Patricia Sorbara (who sat out the 2018 campaign after being acquitted in the Sudbury by-election trial the year before) for lunch. 

“I thought she was brave,” Sorbara says. Particularly because Graham was unmoved by the veteran campaign strategist’s many warnings.

“I cautioned her on how tough it was going to be,” she says. “I said it’s going to be a hugely uphill battle and you’re going to need some organizers around you pretty darn fast.” 

Graham asked Sorbara to join her team and Sorbara said no. But by January, Sorbara was at the campaign’s Toronto headquarters doing a riding-by-riding review ahead of the delegate elections. “I ended up going back in because I wanted a woman to finish strong.”

In the meantime, Graham was keeping some personal news close to her vest. In late November, the newlywed found out she was pregnant. “I was upstairs in the bathroom with the test, just ecstatic and elated and couldn’t believe our good fortune. But then also immediately in my head was, “What have I done?”” 

Graham wanted to have the child but didn’t want to let anyone on the campaign down. And people did indeed ask if continuing the campaign was what was “best for the baby,” yet nobody asked that of her extremely busy political husband. She remembered Niki Ashton ran for federal NDP leader in 2017 while pregnant with twins and thought, “If we want to see more women in politics, sometimes women have babies.” Onward.

Graham and Helmer announced on Family Day, after she cleared the first trimester mark, having travelled across the province, knocked on thousands of doors, gathered supporters, participated in debates while quietly battling fatigue and nausea. When people raised questions about whether she can govern with an infant, Graham and her team just point to New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern and others in Scandinavia. If they can do it, why can’t she?

***

While Sorbara sees Graham as brave, she also thinks she’s a little naïve. “I think she’s been surprised, as her team has, about how some of this actually works behind the scenes.” 

She’s talking about the game of buying memberships, navigating the party voting rules, letting candidates remotely run delegates in ridings which can have the effect of shutting out local voices. If the party made membership free and delegates could vote remotely, Sorbara feels like this would be a very different race for Graham, particularly if she entered sooner. 

Dan Moulton, a vice president at Crestview Strategy, who has worked as an advisor for the Liberals while in government but has remained neutral throughout the campaign, noticed Graham, “brought to the table a completely different way of looking at politics and looking at the party”—urging the Liberals to address their shortcomings which includes their GTA-centrism, their unwillingness to be collaborative, the way they seemed to stop listening to their constituents and base. She talked less about beating Doug Ford in 2022 and more about sparking generational change by introducing policies she feels would set the party up for long-term success: Affordable green transit. A new green economy plan. A cross-partisan health care plan. A homelessness and affordable housing plan, plus designs on planning a “stronger, more inclusive Ontario Liberal Party.” 

Build a new, strong foundation first, Sorbara says, and the Ford stuff will take care of itself. One delegate I spoke with said she was surprised Graham wasn’t more progressive in her policy ideas—while she’s in favour of basic income she doesn’t, for example, believe in free public transit, likely because of her background in municipal politics, Sorbara says.

And Graham has presented some polarizing ideas, Moulton points out—particularly promising a discussion on electoral reform. This idea, famously turfed by the federal Liberals, could give rise to proportional representation, which, research shows helps bring more women and people of colour into government but might pose a threat to the party faithful. 

“I don’t believe someone who says we’re going to blow up the way we do party politics is [actually] going to do it,” says Colin MacDonald, a Graham supporter and principal at Navigator. “It’s an old partisan institution. Let’s not pretend it’s something it’s not.” But both Moulton and MacDonald were impressed by the energy and new ideas Graham brought to the table. “She came in third [in terms of delegates] in a race she should’ve come in fifth or sixth in. It actually is an impressive feat,” MacDonald says. 

When a slew of committed delegates descend on Mississauga Friday, they’ll automatically vote for their candidate and those as-yet undecided ex-officios and super-delegates in attendance will also cast a ballot. Saturday morning, all the candidates will give speeches and then by early afternoon, they’ll learn the first ballot results. If Del Duca doesn’t clear 50 per cent, it’ll go to a second ballot. Here’s where Graham could have a chance — and if she doesn’t win, MacDonald says, Del Duca (or potentially second place finisher in terms of delegates, another former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister Michael Coteau) would be wise to draw her into the fold.

The lasting impact of Graham’s campaign, Sorbara believes, is the one it will have on young, politically engaged women like the group Graham convened this week.

“Can I just say something?” student Anne Campbell says as the group of 16 women packs up. “Your kid is going to be the luckiest to have a mother like you.” Tears spring to Graham’s eyes and a smile stretches across her face. After they leave, she sits down and takes a breath. “If these women, who are already remarkable, take even a little bit of motivation away from this conversation, away from seeing this campaign, I have already won.”

And of course, she adds “my [2018] campaign signs are still in storage.”

CORRECTION, March 6, 2020: An earlier version of this story misstated Doug Ferguson‘s past role with the Liberals. He was president of the Liberal Party of Canada.

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