The big endorsement, Part 1: Kate Graham

She’s not a former cabinet minister. She hasn’t got decades of backroom party experience. Here’s how she won the backing of the Liberals’ first-ever female leader for her own leadership bid
By Steve Paikin - Published on Dec 03, 2019
Liberal leadership candidate Kate Graham with Lyn McLeod, the first-ever female leader of the Ontario Liberals. (Kate Graham)

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This is Part 1 in a series that provides a behind-the-scenes look at how candidates in the Liberal leadership race are lining up their key endorsements.

If you had a vote for the next leader of the Ontario Liberals, would it matter to you what a former leader of the party thought? Would you be influenced by a former cabinet minister telling you she was endorsing Candidate A over Candidate B? 

Next March, the Liberals will pick a new permanent leader to replace Kathleen Wynne, but, until then, there are precious few ways for the rest of us to determine who’s winning, who’s competitive, and who’s already out of it.

At this stage of the game, there are really only three main ways to answer those questions: Who’s raising the most money? Who’s collecting the most and the highest-profile endorsements? And who's signing up the most new members? This series will look at how the leadership candidates managed to convince some of the party’s biggest names to back them.

Kate Graham knows she’s a big underdog in the race for Liberal leader.

She’s not a former cabinet minister. She hasn’t got decades of backroom experience in the party. In fact, the only time she ran to become an MPP — in the 2018 election — she came third in London North Centre.

But Graham is hoping that Liberals are looking for something different this time: a young outsider as opposed to a seasoned veteran. At the same time, she needs to demonstrate to people who’ve been around the party for a while that she should be taken seriously.

A big-name endorsement might do just that. And, so, Graham reached out to Lyn McLeod, the first-ever female leader of the Ontario Liberals, who won a thrilling five-ballot marathon convention of her own in 1992 by just nine votes.

McLeod invited Graham over to her home in Alliston for tea and scones. In front of a roaring fire, the candidate began to tell the former leader all about herself: “Who I am, what I’m about,” Graham tells me, recalling the meeting two Wednesdays ago. “I also wanted her advice as the first woman leader of the party.”

After the initial back-and-forth, McLeod then said, “Okay, now I have some questions for you.” And she let ‘er rip.

“Why are you running? Why do you want to be premier of Ontario? Are you prepared for this? Do you understand the impact this would have on the rest of your life?” That last question was apparently the first thing that went through McLeod’s mind when she reached the stage of Copps Coliseum, in Hamilton, after winning the leadership at one o’clock in the morning.

The former leader, now in her late 70s, had apparently done her research and devoured Graham’s website in preparation for the meeting. Being from northern Ontario originally, McLeod liked Graham’s notion that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to decision-making at Queen’s Park, that local communities must feel informed and empowered as well, that it can’t always just be about what’s good for Toronto or decided in Toronto. The pair went issue-by-issue, and McLeod gave her views.

“Then she asked me if I had any questions for her,” Graham says. “And I had about 800!” At a certain point, Graham began to ask herself, “How do I turn this into the Big Question — as in, will you publicly endorse me?”

Eventually, she didn’t mince words. She just went for it.

“I need you more than any of the others do,” Graham told McLeod. “I’m young, I’m a woman, and I’d love your support.”

It was at this point that McLeod, having done her homework and watched numerous videos of Graham speak, confessed that she had been 90 per cent of the way to a public endorsement before the candidate even stepped foot in her home.

“Okay,” McLeod said, “I’m going to endorse you.”

“I was just over the moon,” Graham told me over breakfast last week. “I knew how excited the whole team would be. But now we had to figure out how to communicate it.”

Graham and her 24-year-old political assistant left the meeting (but not before the former leader and present candidate took a selfie). While the assistant drove, the candidate scribbled down a first draft of an endorsement press release. After another staffer wordsmithed it a bit, the campaign got a final signoff from McLeod, and off it went, e-blasted out to Graham’s supporters, with hopes that the media would give the announcement further play.

“She has such a kind, gracious way about her,” Graham says of McLeod. “I’d like to see more of that in politics.”

What impact will the McLeod endorsement have? That question hovers over every endorsement of every candidate. Clearly, McLeod no longer sits atop a major political machine that she could mobilize for Graham. The one election she did lead the Liberals into, in 1995, saw her bested by Mike Harris. But she is still highly respected among the party faithful, and her place in history as the party’s first female leader can’t be taken away. McLeod continues to have impact as the chancellor of Lakehead University in her native Thunder Bay and works in the community to improve children’s mental health. At the very least, the endorsement would make party members sit up, take notice, and give the Graham campaign some momentum.

That’s a nice boost for the professor from London, who still teaches her three-hour political science course every Thursday night at King’s University College and marks papers in the car between campaign stops.

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