Steven Del Duca is no stranger to Queen's Park, but his first months as Liberal leader have been unlike any other period in Ontario politics.
Del Duca was elected on March 7, four days before the NBA suspended its season and actor Tom Hanks announced he had COVID-19 — and it began to sink in that this was not going to go away anytime soon.
The new Liberal leader hasn't been able to tour the province as planned, and rebuilding the depleted party coffers has been much harder than it normally would be.
But in many ways, 2020 has been politics as usual.
The arrival of Del Duca, a former cabinet minister in the Kathleen Wynne administration, has been in some ways a gift to Premier Doug Ford, who won power by capitalizing on the previous government's record.
When Ford rises in question period it's often to taunt the Grits. Recently, when his government was facing heat for changes to conservation authorities, he thundered about the pool Del Duca built for himself without required permits, and how the Liberal leader was now "doing the backstroke with those development buddies."
And when confronted with concerns about the Tories' handling of the long-term care sector during the pandemic, the premier and his MPPs often turn the conversation back to the Liberals, saying they neglected the system, and that there's only so much the Progressive Conservatives could have done since 2018.
His party made mistakes, Del Duca said — but Ford has made things worse.
"It is true that the challenges that exist in long-term care date back many, many years," he said in a year-end interview with QP Briefing.
Music: "Private Eye" by Kevin McLeod. From the Free Music Archive. CC BY.
But it's the Ford government that cut comprehensive inspections of the sector before the pandemic, and has failed to promptly implement many of the calls for reform from advocates within the industry, he said.
"I still hear, to this day, heartbreaking stories from personal support workers who struggle to access personal protective equipment on a regular basis from their employers," he said.
Del Duca said he understood the impulse to blame the previous government when one is "feeling the heat." He also said the problems in long-term care predate the Liberals.
"Back to the Mike Harris years, when the first steps towards excessive privatization kind of started, and the deregulation, if I can call it that, started," he said.
Though the fiery debates end up in the headlines, internal party matters have taken on an increased importance for Del Duca, who made some key promises when running for leader — including a move to free party membership, and that 30 of the party's 124 candidates for 2022 would be under the age of 30, and half would be women.
"I was nervous that we wouldn't have all of the rules in place to start nominations by July the first. I was worried that fundraising would be really tough in the midst of the pandemic. I was worried that we would get nowhere with the consultations around, as I mentioned earlier, free membership. I've been extraordinarily pleased with how Liberals managed to transition, and so we were able to hit all of those marks and more. That's been a surprise," he said.
The party has started nominating candidates for the 2022 election. Incumbents like John Fraser and Michael Coteau will run, as well as newcomers such as vaccine advocate Jill Promoli and Milton councillor Sameera Ali.
Del Duca said he's still looking to have half the Liberal candidates be women, though he walked back the "30 under 30" promise, noting that he can't personally ensure enough young people win nomination battles.
So far, of the 20 Liberal candidates nominated, 10 are women, about 12 are Black, Indigenous or people of colour, and three are under 30, he said.
"So more than ever before, in my history in the party, young women and men are coming forward to run, which is great. I think three-out-of-20's not bad so far, which is great. Will we absolutely hit 30? I hope so. We're pushing for it. I think it might happen. I'd be thrilled if it did happen, and I feel really good about where we are now," he said.
Finding candidates is of course only part of the preparation for the battered Grits — the party must also replenish its war chest, which also took a beating in 2018 when the PCs swept the 15-year government out of office.
The Liberals paused fundraising, which was primarily being done through emails, in the middle of March, as asking people for money as they were losing their jobs didn't feel right, Del Duca said.
That was restarted in the summer.
"It's going OK," he said, noting that the party will have to re-engage its traditional donors and find some new ones by putting forward a positive message and putting in the work — making calls and sending emails, as door knocking is out for the time being.
"And so I think, on balance, given the circumstances of the pandemic, it's going well, but we still have a lot of work to do. There's no doubt about that. We still have a lot of work to do," he said.
To that end, Del Duca has resumed touring the province, which he suspended during the first wave, but restarted during the summer. He said he was focused on talking to Ontarians about long-term care, education and small business supports.
Those talking points haven't changed, he said.
"The priorities will remain the same. They are very close, they are aligned with traditional Ontario Liberal principles and values," he said.
Looking to next year, Del Duca said he's most looking forward to building the Liberals' election platform for 2022. A new "grassroots-driven" development process for that platform will launch in January, he said.
"I think there's a huge appetite within the party to put some really bold ideas forward about what a new normal in Ontario can look like, on the other side of the pandemic," he said.
Correction: This article originally stated that Tyler Watt is a nominated candidate, but he is vying for a nomination.