Steven Del Duca says voters now tuning in to his party’s message

Trailing Doug Ford in the polls with just two weeks until Ontario’s June 2 election, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca insists time is on his side.

“This campaign is literally half over. It’s not over,” the former transportation minister told the Star’s editorial board on Wednesday during a one-hour stop between events in Toronto and London.

Buoyed by a leaders’ debate Monday where he pitched his Liberals as a better alternative to Ford’s Progressive Conservatives than the NDP, Del Duca said voters will now be paying closer attention to his promises, like axing provincial taxes on prepared foods under $20 to ease the pains of skyrocketing inflation.

“You’re going to gather this weekend. It’s Victoria Day. You’re going to go out there and people will be talking,” he added at a meeting in the newsroom with editors and reporters attending in person and via Zoom.

“They’re going to be talking about an optional Grade 13 because their kids are hurting … They’re going to be talking about buck-a-ride (public transit) provincewide because they know that’s going to be saving them thousands of dollars a year, potentially.”

Del Duca was asked to boil down the key reason why voters seeking to topple Ford should vote for Liberals over Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats or Mike Schreiner’s Green Party. The Star’s latest poll of polls had the PCs in majority government territory with 36.2 per cent support, while the Liberals were at 27.3, the NDP was at 23.7 and the Greens were at 4.9 per cent.

“After the last four years of cuts and chaos and having come from the circus that is the Ford Conservatives and how they’ve governed this province, I just don’t think we can afford to take another risk at this moment in Ontario,” he replied, touting Liberal experience in government.

“I don’t want in this province for us to go out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

In contrast, Horwath has been using the Liberals’ 15 years in power as an argument why voters should steer clear of them, citing the gas plants scandal and the partial sell-off of Hydro One as reasons they can’t be trusted.

Del Duca defended his dollar transit promise, which has prompted concerns from Schreiner and others that GO trains and suburban subway stops could be swamped with crowds, leaving longtime riders in the lurch.

“We need cars off the roads,” said the Liberal leader, anticipating 400,000 people will leave their automobiles at home and pledging to increase funding past the almost $2 billion budgeted until the end of 2023 if more trains and buses are needed to meet demand.

The money would come out of a larger-than-usual contingency fund of about $4 billion a year, which he also said can be drawn upon for public sector wage settlements, such as with teachers and nurses, given salary demands are expected to rise with inflation that hit almost seven per cent in April.

Del Duca repeated a pledge to continue running annual deficits “a year or two” longer than his proposed four-year timetable for balancing the budget if promises like capping class sizes at 20 students are not met.

He vowed “no other tax measures or tax increases” beyond what the Liberals propose, which includes a one per cent surtax on corporate profits above $1 billion and an increase of two percentage points to 15.16 per cent on individuals earning more than $500,000 annually.

Del Duca scoffed at taunts from Ford earlier in the day that he won’t win back the Vaughan-Woodbridge riding he represented for six years until losing it in the 2018 PC sweep that reduced the Liberals to seven seats in the legislature.

“I get the game that they’re playing,” said Del Duca, who repeatedly bills his party as the “new Liberal team” in a bid to shed political baggage from its years in power under Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne.

His tenure as leader would be in jeopardy absent a victory over Progressive Conservative incumbent Michael Tibollo in the former Liberal stronghold.

In Hamilton, Ford told a news conference Del Duca won’t win the seat.

“I’m confident because people … want lower taxes and Steven Del Duca, they know what he has done over 15 years. He hiked up the taxes. He hiked up the toll roads,” said Ford, inflating Del Duca’s years as an MPP.

“Michael Tibollo is one of our greatest ministers, especially when it comes to mental health and addiction,” he boasted of Tibollo, a junior minister who has been demoted twice in cabinet shuffles.

“He’s done an incredible job for the people. I’m confident that he’ll win his riding.”

Del Duca said he has lived in the riding for 30 years. Campaign volunteers, his wife, business consultant Utilia Amaral, and their two school-age daughters have been out knocking on doors in Vaughan-Woodbridge when he’s busy on his leader’s tour.

The tour — ironically in a Ford Motor Co. van decorated with Liberal emblems and a slogan, “the choice” — has concentrated on the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area, where the party hopes to regain a number of seats lost to the PCs and NDP in the 2018 rout that left the Liberals without official party status.

“People know that over the six years that I served for them that I worked hard and fought hard for the community,” Del Duca said.

“The people who live in Vaughan-Woodbridge recognize that I’ve lived in the community for more than three decades,” he added, citing funding from the previous Liberal government for a new hospital, the Vaughan subway extension, a hospice and the Highway 427 extension.

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