This Man Would Like Your Attention
Steven Del Duca has spent decades plotting to become premier. He’s finally got his shot, but is anyone listening?
On a Saturday in early April, Steven Del Duca stopped by Vici, one of his favourite cafés in Woodbridge. It’s a small, sunny place, located in a strip mall on Weston Road, beloved for its breads and pastries. That morning, it was crowded, especially around the coffee bar, where a throng of middle-aged men, most of them Italian-Canadian, stood around gabbing and sipping espresso. Del Duca, who is 48 years old and of Italian and Scottish descent, ordered an espresso of his own, and took a table near the front door. He spotted four or five customers he knew—guys from the construction industry, he said—and chatted briefly with one of them. He told me that he feels comfortable at this café, that it’s a particularly meaningful place for him—he had coffee with his younger brother, Michael, at Vici on the day in 2018 that Michael, then just 33, died in a car crash.
Soon after Del Duca took his seat, one of the café’s co-owners sat down at an adjoining table. Del Duca said hello. No response. Del Duca tried again. “Oh,” the guy finally said. “Sorry, I didn’t recognize you.” Del Duca smiled slightly and said, “I changed my hair.”
It wasn’t a bad joke, but the exchange was instantly and inescapably deflating. For those who, like Vici’s co-owner, need reminding, Del Duca is the leader of the Ontario Liberal Party. Just four years ago, he was the riding’s MPP and a cabinet minister. Earlier this year, he began his campaign to topple Doug Ford and become Ontario’s 27th premier, promising, among other things, to give the people of this province better wages, better benefits and a better quality of life. But if the Italian guy running a small business in Del Duca’s backyard was only kinda, sorta familiar with the candidate, what hope does Del Duca have of reaching voters in Sudbury or Sarnia?
This has been a problem for Del Duca from day one. For the first year of his leadership, I thought his last name was Del Luca. When I told my mother-in-law, the kind of voter that Del Duca ought to be wooing, that I was writing this profile, she said, “Steven who?” She’s not exactly a political junkie, but she does live just a riding over from Del Duca, in Richmond Hill, where her father was once mayor. In early March, a more informed friend, who works for a private sector union, told me, “I wouldn’t know Steven Del Duca if he were asleep on my couch.”
Some of this is not Del Duca’s fault. As you may recall, Doug Ford’s decisive win in the 2018 general election all but wiped out the Ontario Liberal Party: it lost official party status, Kathleen Wynne was compelled to resign as leader, and Del Duca, like all but seven of his fellow Grits, lost his seat. While he easily won the subsequent race to replace Wynne in 2020, he was still just the leader of the third party, with no place in the legislature. Then, to make matters worse—much worse—days after the leadership convention, the world changed. Del Duca, like many of us, was forced to do his job from his home computer. How does a politician introduce himself to the party and the public in a pandemic? On Zoom, there are no hands to shake, no ribbons to cut, no babies to kiss.
Del Duca is also somewhat out of step with the current political climate. After years of drain-the-swamp rhetoric in the U.S., and elite-bashing by the Fords, experience in government is often seen as a bad thing. Even political insiders like Pierre Poilievre have branded themselves as authentic agitators who are, at heart, men of the people. Del Duca, meanwhile, is a consummate centre-of-the-road career politician, which might be good for making policy, but not so much for generating headlines.
That morning at Vici was two months before the provincial election. As you read this, it’ll be closer to two weeks. Del Duca didn’t have much time to show or tell voters who he is. There are plenty of people who believe that Doug Ford has done a lot of damage to public education, to health care, to the environment. But that disaffection won’t necessarily translate into votes for Del Duca, who is, in many ways, the anti-Ford. Where Ford is bombastic, Del Duca is self-effacing. While Ford makes decisions based on his gut, Del Duca loves data. Ford inspires fear and invites ridicule; Del Duca commands a mild respect, at least from the people who know him. And yet Del Duca has consistently trailed Ford. Voters, it seems, prefer the devil they know to the wonk they don’t.
Del Duca is desperately trying to change that, of course. The way he tells it, Ford is incompetent and cruel, and he’s gravely mishandled the worst health and economic crises Ontario has ever faced. In contrast, Del Duca portrays himself as a savvy, level-headed grownup, the perfect candidate to lead the province out of this mess. And after four years of Ford’s off-the-cuff decrees and U-turn policies, the Liberal leader is banking on his particular brand of bland catching on. Even in the face of Covid delays, he’s made progress. The gap between him and Ford has shrunk. But the question keeping him up at night—as well as his band of fresh-faced candidates, war-room lieutenants, staffers and door-knocking volunteers—is the same one that plagues every party that trails in the polls: do they have enough time?
Etobicoke is generally regarded as the heart of Ford Nation, but it’s also, in a way, Del Duca country. He was born there in 1973, spending the first half of his childhood living on Wellesworth Drive, a 10-minute drive from Scarlett Heights, where Doug and Rob went to high school. The Fords and Del Ducas led very different lives. Politics and high drama were in the Ford DNA—dad was a PC backbencher, and drugs were a leitmotif of their younger days. Del Duca’s youth was one of relentless normalcy and suburban, middle-class prosperity. His parents were both recent immigrants, his father, Benny, from Italy, and his mother, Margaret, from Scotland. Benny worked in construction management, usually as a project superintendent on high-rise residential buildings. Margaret stayed home with the kids when they were young, then worked for Sears and as a legal assistant. Later, she opened a pasta shop and café in the basement of the St. Lawrence Market that she ran for six years. The couple had four kids: Lorraine, Mark, then Steven, who was the baby until Michael came along 12 years later. Margaret’s parents lived around the corner, and Steven spent long, happy hours at their place.
The Del Duca house backed onto Wellesworth Park, and there was a hole in their cedar hedge so that the kids could go straight from their backyard to the park’s baseball diamonds and soccer fields. In the winter, the boys played hockey; summers, they worked construction. When Steven was 13, the family moved to Kleinberg, seeking more space. He stayed there until he went to U of T to study political science.
The household was loving and supportive, but it was also competitive. Both Margaret and Benny were hardworking strivers, born during World War II, and they instilled in their kids a simultaneous sense of opportunity and duty. “We weren’t rich,” says Del Duca. “We weren’t handed gazillions of dollars. But we were given a great education, a fantastic home life and parents who worked their butts off. So there was an expectation that you do your best and you compete to win. You were set up to succeed, so your obligation is to do your best to succeed.” Del Duca metabolized this lesson easily; he worked hard, did well in school, kept his nose clean. “Straight arrow is a good description,” says his brother, Mark, an IT executive.
Growing up, Del Duca was an unabashed history nerd. As a teenager, he also became obsessed with politics. For Christmas, when he was 14, his sister gave him a copy of The Rainmaker, a memoir by the veteran Liberal organizer and senator Keith Davey. Del Duca read the book so many times it fell apart (he still owns the battered copy). A couple months after that, one of Benny’s cousins asked Del Duca if he wanted to help out at a federal Liberal nomination meeting. Del Duca leapt at the opportunity, only to find out that he’d been recruited for grunt work—he spent his time at the convention setting up and taking down chairs and tables. The nomination was hotly contested and divisive—Joe Volpe was challenging sitting MP Roland de Corneille—and there were more than 4,000 eligible voters on hand. National media were there. It was loud and dramatic. Del Duca was enthralled with the spectacle of it all. After Volpe won the nomination, Del Duca, then 15, volunteered on his campaign. Volpe won that election too, and Del Duca was hooked. While Benny felt his son should be paid for his work, Del Duca would happily volunteer for the Liberals for the next several years.
By the time he was 18, he had resolved to run for office. The only question was which one, and how soon he would get started. Anthony Martin, an old friend who was best man at Del Duca’s wedding, recalled that Del Duca once aspired to be prime minister, downgrading that dream to premier because, in Martin’s words, “the province has more influence on people’s day-to-day lives.”
People enter politics for all kinds of reasons. To fix something they think is broken in government or society. To assert control or gain power. To sate an insatiable ego. Ask Del Duca’s friends and family, and you get a more highfalutin rationale: that this is a calling for him, a way to make a real difference in people’s lives. Ask Del Duca himself, and he reaches for an even more earnest cliché: politics provided him with a second family, he says. The Liberal party, especially, gave him an identity, a home. It was a network of smart, interesting people who shared his values—primarily, a belief that progress never stops—and who loved the messy, often tedious work of figuring out ways a government can express those values. Whether you consider his devotion to the party a sign of unremitting loyalty or a lack of imagination probably depends on your own support for the Grits.
Del Duca was strategic, though, and he counted on his commitment paying off. While in his 20s, he helped Greg Sorbara—a popular Vaughan MPP who had taken Del Duca under his wing—win the party presidency and then a 2001 by-election that would lead to Sorbara becoming Dalton McGuinty’s finance minister. Over dinner at Swiss Chalet, Sorbara asked Del Duca what his ambitions were. “I’m going to succeed you,” he responded. Sorbara laughed; he wasn’t going anywhere soon. But he admired Del Duca’s work ethic and political insight. “Steven, you have a deal,” Sorbara said. “Let’s make that happen.”
Del Duca took a break from politics and went to law school when he was 30. Instead of taking the bar exam—he knew too many unhappy lawyers, he said—he went to work at the Ontario office of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. Del Duca stayed there for five years as the director of public affairs. But politics were never far from his mind. And it didn’t hurt to have a public-facing job with a massive union headquartered in Vaughan, plus all the connections and clout that came with it. Del Duca failed to win a municipal council seat in 2010, but two years later, Sorbara stepped down as MPP and Del Duca seized the opportunity, winning the by-election to replace him. Two years after that, he won again, joining Kathleen Wynne’s majority government. Wynne appointed him minister of transportation that June. While historically considered an entry-level cabinet post, transportation was big in Wynne’s government—she’d been in the job herself under McGuinty, and, as premier, planned to pump billions into transit expansion.
It was as smooth a political trajectory as you could ask for. Del Duca had paid his dues many times over and was accordingly rewarded. He developed a reputation for diligence, integrity and doggedness. Michael Harris, who served as transportation critic for the opposition Conservatives, routinely got into it with Del Duca during question period. Harris considered him a bit of an oddball and “rabidly partisan,” but also a formidable foe. “He’d go after us as aggressively as I’d go after him,” Harris says. “He’s all in, he’s elbows up.”
Del Duca was also able to resist strong political pressure. A large part of a transportation minister’s job is building roads. Vaughan is home to a number of powerful developers who want those roads built, and labour unions love to build them. Yet, in 2018, Del Duca stopped the construction of Highway 413, a proposed artery that would allow drivers to bypass much of the GTA on trips north. The highway was intended to alleviate traffic, but it was condemned by environmental groups and municipalities for rewarding sprawl. After commissioning his own study from a group of independent experts (the Sun spun it as a “secret panel”), Del Duca killed the project. “There was a lot of push to build a highway and to encroach into the Greenbelt,” says Deb Schulte, the former Liberal MP for King–Vaughan. “To surmount that, and actually in his term come down against the road and put it on the shelf, that was a big thing.”
But Del Duca was tied to the fate of his party, and Wynne’s Liberals were in a tailspin. From the outset, they were caught up in wave after wave of controversy: the costly cancellation of gas plants, the partial privatization of Hydro One, a new sex ed curriculum. The first female and openly gay premier in the province’s history, Wynne was dogged by misogyny and homophobia. Del Duca, for his part, was accused of bending the rules to suit his own purposes. In 2018, the auditor general found that he unduly influenced Metrolinx to override its planning process and build a new GO station on Kirby Road, in Del Duca’s riding, where density and, therefore, expected ridership, were low. Del Duca still disputes this criticism, arguing for a build-it-and-they-will-come approach and reframing the debate in terms more flattering to him: “Look, I said this all the way through. I don’t think our transit plans are anywhere ambitious enough in this region or this province. We need to build transit as communities are growing, not after they exist.”
That same year, with Del Duca now minister of economic development and growth, the Liberals passed changes to the Labour Relations Act that arguably gave the carpenters’ union—Del Duca’s old employer—more power over its arch-rival, the Labourers’ International Union of North America, which has feuded with Carpenters’ for years over members and contracts. Labour wasn’t Del Duca’s file, but LiUNA boss Joseph Mancinelli nevertheless smelled a rat and publicly, angrily, urged LiUNA members to vote for the NDP or Conservatives in that summer’s election. (Mancinelli did not respond to interview requests.)
Anger at the Liberals had boiled over. And by then, Doug Ford had become leader of the PCs. Name recognition is everything in politics, and he was arguably the biggest political name in the province. When Del Duca canvassed, he’d meet people who were from his dad’s hometown in Italy, who knew his grandparents, who were pleased with what he’d done in the community, who would have supported him if he was running municipally or for any other party. “They’d say, ‘We love you, but we’re not voting for you,’ ” Del Duca recalled. The party, for a while anyway, was over.
I first saw Del Duca in the flesh at a Liberal rally at the downtown DoubleTree Hilton in late March. It was the first time the party had gathered in person since 2020, and hundreds of volunteers and staffers squeezed into a lower-level ballroom. Party president Brian Johns and campaign director Christine McMillan hung at the back of the room, mingling with the press. Del Duca entered the room to the strains of the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights.” I couldn’t imagine him intentionally listening to the Weeknd—he’s more of a Blue Rodeo guy—but the anthem gave the room the exuberance of an NBA playoff game. The crowd chanted “Steven! Steven!” and there was a chorus of “Shame!” whenever Ford’s name was mentioned. It was mentioned often. For the next half-hour or so, Del Duca spoke about the Ontario that he envisioned, where the minimum wage would be $16, where every worker had benefits and sick days. He talked about temporarily eliminating corporate taxes for small businesses that had been hurt by the pandemic. He floated the idea of a four-day work week.
At the core of Del Duca’s speech were stock stories about his parents and grandparents, how their hard work paid off because of a strong social safety net. In the moment, it all felt a bit quaint, a little too familiar. We’ve all heard the stories of European immigrant families, risking and sacrificing to make a better life for themselves and their children in Canada. But Del Duca was making a larger point. The country that his family first moved to doesn’t exist anymore. The safety net’s so tattered, the economy so inequitable, the world so confusing. Government had stopped providing the opportunity and security it’s supposed to. You can work three jobs and still not be able to afford a house. You can get sick and lose those three jobs. Your kids may study hard but their schools are falling apart. He returned to this subject—what he calls the Grand Bargain—with me in conversation a couple of weeks later. “People have to show up,” he said, “do their part, work hard. When they do that, there has to be the other half of this partnership. The fundamental public systems that we all rely on need to be there, and they need to be secure and strong enough to withstand challenges.”
Arrayed behind Del Duca on stage were 83 of the 124 candidates that the Liberals are fielding across the province. After the devastation of 2018, the party had to work hard to rebuild; 90 per cent of the candidates are new. It was a diverse bunch, with a number of local boldfaces: the flu-shot activist Jill Promoli, doctor Nathan Stall, lawyer (and I Met the Walrus author) Jerry Levitan, former Toronto councillors Mary Fragedakis and Mary-Margaret McMahon. More than 30 of the candidates were under the age of 40. Del Duca had made a point of making the nominations in 26 ridings open only to women, and over half of his roster is female.
The party was willing to overlook Del Duca’s flaws because they thought he was the only one tough enough to take on Ford
By then, the Liberals said, Del Duca had paid off the $10–million debt the party had incurred during the last election, by tightening internal spending and bringing in donations from grassroots donors. Despite the old-fashioned image he projected, he had made efforts to modernize the party and wasn’t beyond accepting help from rivals. Alvin Tedjo, a Toronto Metropolitan University communications director who also ran for the leadership, suggested a number of ideas during that campaign, including online voting and making memberships free. Del Duca implemented both those things, and party membership quadrupled. In February, still unable to really get out into the world to discuss his platform, he instead brought voters to those policies, launching a six-week Zoom campaign called #TaketheMic in which people could debate climate change, education and housing.
With his clean-shaven head, thin lips and stocky frame, there’s a somewhat cartoonish aspect to Del Duca’s physical presence. Comparisons to Daddy Warbucks or Muppet scientist Dr. Bunsen Honeydew are common, unkind and, unfortunately, accurate. He recently got laser eye surgery and ditched the heavy-framed black glasses he once wore, but that did little to change his look. While he’s been on stages for over a decade, and he’s capable of an eloquent, teleprompter-free speech, there’s an awkwardness to his public persona. Folksiness does not come naturally to him. Bad jokes, alas, do. “People ask me, ‘Del Duca, what gets you up in the morning?’” he said at one point. “Well, I’m half-Scottish and half-Italian. So it’s haggis and espresso.” At the end of the rally, he brought up on stage his wife, Utilia Amaral, a consultant in the energy industry, and their two young daughters, Talia and Grace. The kids looked miserable in the spotlight, and, while Del Duca obviously accepts that public attention is part of the job, I had the impression he too would rather have been somewhere else, perhaps curled up next to the fire with a briefing book.
This perception has haunted him since the leadership race. Yet he surprised some observers by handily beating more charismatic rivals like Mitzie Hunter and Michael Coteau. Laryssa Waler, a conservative strategist who formerly served as Ford’s executive director of communications, was thrilled Del Duca won. “The Liberals did themselves a great disservice by picking Steven Del Duca as their leader,” she says. She describes him as “forgettable” and incapable of connecting to voters. “I thought, my god, this is who we have to beat?” Michael Harris, who figured Coteau had the leadership in the bag, saw Del Duca’s victory differently: “It just shows you how aggressive, determined and ambitious he is to have won that.” To his mind, the party was willing to overlook Del Duca’s flaws because they thought he was the only candidate tough enough to take on Ford. “I don’t think Del Duca’s going to win this election,” Harris says. “But he’ll have the party in a pretty good position for the next one.”
It’s often said, and I’m inclined to agree, that Del Duca is not the most exciting hang. His single-minded adherence to the party and the relative monotony of his resumé confirm this. Almost every friend and colleague of Del Duca’s I spoke to confirmed this. Even Del Duca himself sort of confirmed this. When I first spoke to his handlers about this story, I asked if I could meet with him at some point, off the clock. To see him with his hair down, so to speak. If he golfed, maybe we could play a round; if he liked basketball, a little one-on-one. Given how little known he was, it seemed like a perfect opportunity for him to show the public a more adventurous or compelling side. A couple of weeks later, they came back to me. Del Duca and I, they said, could go grocery shopping together. Grocery shopping? He didn’t want to go sky-diving or split a cup of ayahuasca? No. Every Saturday morning, unless he’s doing a rare overnighter in, say, Windsor or Thunder Bay, Del Duca gets into his Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivan, drives seven minutes to the local Fortinos, and does his weekly grocery shopping. He did it as an MPP, he did it as minister of transportation, he did it as minister of economic development and growth. This would be an opportunity to see him in his element.
Given the maelstrom we’ve endured over the last few years, boring might not be the worst trait in a premier
We met therefore at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning in early April. Del Duca usually gets to the store as early as possible, right when it opens. There are fewer people then and he likes to get the chore out of the way before other family and work obligations start to pile up. He doesn’t normally bring a list because he doesn’t normally need one. He knows the store intimately, and week in, week out, buys more or less the same stuff. This particular Saturday was no different, and dressed in a navy zip-up sweater, jeans, tan leather sneakers and Fitbit, he made his way briskly and efficiently through the aisles. It was a pretty basic shop: chicken breasts, salmon, organic greens, cream cheese, eggs, bread, paper towels, Nutella, a couple of pre-made Greek salads for Talia and Grace’s school lunches. His girls used to accompany him on these trips, but they’re 14 and 11 now and have better things to do. This didn’t stop them from putting in requests, however, for things like dragon fruit and vanilla almond milk. Del Duca passed on the former—too pricey—but grabbed a carton of the latter. As a treat for both girls, he added a large box of chocolate-covered granola bars. For himself, a case of Diet Coke and several packs of gum. “Oh, they don’t always have this flavour,” he said, with actual excitement, dumping fistfuls of peppermint Dentyne Ice into the cart.
As at Vici, no one seemed to recognize him. He was just another dad doing his thing. When we got to the cash, we talked about other dad things. He used to golf, he said, but since having kids he never has the time. There’s always gymnastics to take the girls to, dance recitals, birthday parties. He spoke with great fondness and pride about his daughters and about how much he embarrasses them with his jokes and his singing (he likes to croon in the car). When he does have downtime, he disappears into Seinfeld and Law & Order reruns. His dearest pastime, though, is reading biographies of American presidents. He winced at the cliché of it but grew animated talking about his favourites. By the time we were loading up the Pacifica, he was waxing rhapsodic about What It Takes, Richard Ben Cramer’s classic account of the 1988 U.S. presidential race. Del Duca’s favourites are books about Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, whose tales of adversity and triumph (over polio and poverty, respectively) he reads and re-reads, just like, when he was a teenager, he did with Keith Davey’s memoir. “What I like so much about them is the unlikeliness of their stories,” he said, as though his own rise had been similarly improbable.
From JFK to PET, modern politics has always loved a charmer. But political charm comes in a variety of hues. There’s downhome charm (Bill Clinton) and improbable charm (Boris Johnson) and sociopathic charm (Trump). Some Canadian politicians, some of our most successful ones, in fact, have wielded what might be called negative charm. Bill Davis, still considered Ontario’s greatest premier, famously said, “bland works.” Stephen Harper seemed to intentionally neutralize whatever charisma he could summon. John Tory projects dull, paternal competence. Dalton McGuinty somehow ran the province for a full decade while exhibiting all the appeal of a Jesuit priest.
Del Duca is a somewhat different case. Many of our conversations came around to this subject of charisma, and each time, he looked like he’d just touched a hot stove. When I asked him what he learned from Greg Sorbara—an effortless, old-school charmer—he described Sorbara as “magnetic,” someone who radiates positive vibes. Later, when we talked about his late brother, Michael, Del Duca used similar language. Michael was athletic, beloved, a natural networker. More than a thousand people showed up to the visitation at the funeral home. “Thank god he didn’t run against me for anything,” Del Duca joked.
I had the sense that Del Duca was apologizing for his own personality. That he knew charisma was expected of contemporary politicians, and that his opponent—a larger-than-life, self-proclaimed populist—has his own share of it. (Let’s call it roguish charm.) But Del Duca claimed to have other qualities, ones that he felt were far more important: perseverance, a deep sense of responsibility, decency. He recalled, with undisguised contempt, the way Ford vowed to protect long-term care homes during the first wave. “Reading someone else’s speech, that a staffer has written for you, on a television screen in front of you—that’s the easy part of the job,” Del Duca said. “The tough part is actually leaning in, rolling up your sleeves and doing the work to make those words real.” Or, as Sorbara put it, “Steven’s here to build a stronger province. He’s not here to impress you with the sparkle in his eye.”
I did catch some sparkle here and there. He was witty and thoughtful, and, despite his stiffness in public, he was capable of surprising emotional depth one on one. When he talked about Michael’s death, he unleashed understandable sadness and anger. “It was shit,” he said. “It’s still shit.” Discussing Ford and Covid, he was pointed and convincing. “It’s really hard to lead a government, especially during a crisis, when you don’t believe in the power of public service to do good things. And Doug Ford doesn’t believe in the power of public service. He doesn’t believe it can be harnessed for good.”
Given the maelstrom of events we’ve endured over the last few years, boring might not be the worst trait in a premier. We’re still hobbled by the economic and emotional fallout of the pandemic. The shadow of the climate crisis grows darker every day. Housing is a catastrophe. Ukraine is in flames. Around the world, authoritarianism is on the rise, and closer to home it can feel like the government is either ghosting or trolling us.
There will always be people who are anti-government, who feel the government is, at best, an obstacle, and at worst, an institution that seeks to control, even attack, us. People who think, rightly or wrongly, that politics has long been divorced from public service. But most of us want leaders who make sure that we’re safe. We’re willing to tolerate some interference and some paternalism in exchange for that security. By the end of McGuinty’s second term, he was referred to as Premier Dad. While the media applied the nickname critically, assailing him for overreaching bans on pesticides and pit bulls, it also perfectly summed up his character. Del Duca, the devoted family man and moderate public servant, is cut from a similar cloth. I asked him, in one of our last conversations, how he’d feel about a similar moniker. He smiled, hesitating for just for a second. “I think I’d be okay if people called me Premier Dad Joke,” he said. His kids weren’t there, but I could hear them groaning from miles away.
This story appears in the June 2022 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $24.99 a year, click here.
A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Laryssa Waler as Doug Ford's former press secretary. She was in fact his executive director of communications.