Q&A: Liberal leadership front-runner Sandra Pupatello on traffic, the TTC and marrying a Newfoundlander

Q&A: Liberal leadership front-runner Sandra Pupatello on traffic, the TTC and marrying a Newfoundlander

Sandra Pupatello was McGuinty’s pit bull for eight years before decamping to the private sector. Now she’s back, gunning for his seat, and fierce as ever

Q&A: is this our next premier?
You’re trying to take over the Liberal party at a perilous time. The province has a $14.4-billion deficit and a scandal around every corner. What on earth is possessing you
to run?

Politics is in my DNA. There were a number of galvanizing factors, too: the threat that the Liberals might lose the next election, the fact that Ontarians are afraid of losing their jobs and that university grads can’t find work in their fields.

You were an MPP for 16 years. A year and a half ago, when the Liberals were polling badly, you left to work at PricewaterhouseCooper. Suddenly McGuinty quits and you’re back. Are people wrong to see you as an opportunist?
I wasn’t considering a run until party members started calling me. Plus, leading the province won’t be easy. We’re in for some
tough times.

You were McGuinty’s pit bull—“a scrapper,” as you’ve put it. Where does that moxie come from?
When I started as an MPP in 1995, there weren’t very many women. If you didn’t stand up for yourself they shoved you out of the way, and I couldn’t let that happen. I’m a daughter of Italian immig­rants. I’m from Windsor, and people associate me with a tough city. I wear that like a badge of honour.

In your 20s, you were a cashier at A&P—
Damn straight. And I was good! My manager called me Speedy Gonzalez because I’d whip customers through. Later, when I was campaigning door to door, I knew lots of constituents from those days. I could usually recall their grocery lists, too.

You called Torontonians a “bunch of little babies” when they complained about the garbage strike. Do you plan to govern with that same temerity?
I was joking. Windsor was in its third month of a garbage strike; it was Toronto’s second day. We need to lighten up.

You’re gunning hard for the rural vote, but what’s your priority for Toronto?
Traffic. When I started at Queen’s Park, I’d drive from Windsor to Toronto on the 401, and I’d hit heavy traffic around Mississauga. Today, that happens before Milton. It’s unbelievable.

What’s the fix?
We need federal money. We are probably the only capital of a province like this that doesn’t have federal support for our transportation system. It’s appalling.

So you’ll arm-wrestle Harper into giving more cash?
No, but I will make an economic argument. Ottawa doesn’t realize the GTA produces more GDP than any other urban area in the country.

Do you take the TTC?
Almost every day. When I was working on York Street I’d take it to Union. I love the TTC and the
new trains.

So the TTC is fine as it is?
No. The first time I took the subway, the doors opened and I thought: Oh my god. There was a wall of people and somehow I was supposed to inject myself and get my briefcase in as well. It was too much.

What’s the solution?
I think we can do more and we deserve more. I went to New York City with my girlfriends recently, and I made them come with me on the subway. Four routes on the same track, and it goes all over the Greater New York area. Amazing. We can do that, but we need federal help.

How do you divide your time between Windsor and here?
It’s about 50-50, but I also spend time in Newfoundland, because my husband, Jim, lives there. Yep, I married a Newfoundlander—that keeps you real.

How did you meet?
He came to Windsor for law school, and we worked on an MP’s executive committee together.

Long-distance marriage must be lonely.
We both work a lot, so there isn’t a lot of time for loneliness. Thank god for good phone plans and FaceTime. We talk all the time.

Especially when you were weighing whether to run, I imagine.
Actually, I made the decision in Newfoundland. Jim and I hiked up a small mountain and talked. He had this orange hunting cap on, and I said, “Can you take off that hat and give me a kiss? If I’m doing this thing, I don’t want to remember this moment with you in that ugly hat.”

Did he comply?
He did. But you know what? Now, whenever I remember that moment, all I can think about is that
damn hat.