TORONTO—Former cabinet minister Steven Del Duca has emerged as the clear front-runner in the Ontario Liberal leadership race, according to new data released by the party.
Del Duca has secured the support of 1,173 delegates out of the 2,724 who will select the party's replacement for former premier Kathleen Wynne at a convention on March 7.
The numbers suggest Del Duca, who served in the economic development and transportation minister roles under Wynne, is close to achieving more than the 50 per cent vote he needs to secure a first ballot victory.
In a brief statement on social media Wednesday, he said he is close to nailing down support from uncommitted “ex-officio” voters who consist largely of party heavyweights and appear to hold the balance of power.
“I'm humbled to learn today that (1,173) grassroots Ontarians have been elected to attend the leadership convention as part of my team," he said. "I'm also thrilled that we are closing in on support from 200 ex-officio delegates.”
Approximately 640 ex-officio delegates will be able to vote at the convention, including former and current Liberal legislators, riding association presidents and other party officials. There are also an additional 42 independent delegates set to attend.
With some of their support, Del Duca could cruise to a victory at the convention and avoid the horse-trading that could see other challengers pool their supporters to stop him.
His total thus far outpaces his nearest rival, former social services minister Michael Coteau, who was selected by 371 delegates during riding association votes held last weekend.
The Liberals also said Wednesday that former party candidate Kate Graham came third in the delegate selection process with 273, while former education minister Mitzie Hunter finished fourth with 130 delegates.
Another former candidate, Alvin Tedjo, received the support of 72 delegates, while Ottawa-based lawyer Brenda Hollingsworth won support from 25.
The new Liberal leader will face the daunting tasks of rebuilding party support and replenishing its depleted coffers in the months ahead.
The Ontario Liberal party suffered the worst defeat in its history during the June 2018 election, being toppled from power and ultimately not winning enough seats to maintain official party status.
The party also finds itself deep in the red after taking on $10 million in debt to help fund their election campaign. Last year, the Liberals reported $9.3 million of that amount had yet to be paid off.
Del Duca was the first declared candidate for the leadership, launching his campaign last spring before the race officially began.
He has stressed that the party needs an experienced leader who can help select candidates, raise money and develop a comprehensive platform before the next election in 2022.