With two days left to go before last week’s Ontario election, Liberal Leader David Peterson embarked on a final round of main-streeting in Toronto. Accompanied by his actress wife, Shelley, and
sporting a bright red tie, Peterson greeted commuters at a downtown subway station, shook hands with shoppers in suburban plazas and lunched on hot dogs with the party faithful at a takeout restaurant. Then, during a visit to Liberal candidate Alvin Curling’s Scarborough North headquarters, Peterson performed one of the few spontaneous
actions in a methodical and carefully planned campaign. Inspired perhaps by the sunny skies—and by party polls that predicted a crumbling of the Conservatives’ political domination of the province—Peterson took off his jacket and tried his hand at playing a steel drum with a West Indian band.
When the campaign for last week’s provincial election began, the 41-year-old former businessman from London, Ont., who took over the party leadership three years ago was not rated highly as a political contender. Viewed as an uninspiring performer in the legislature, Peterson as recently as last Christmas faced unrest over his leadership within the Liberal caucus—and an alarming desertion rate as seven sitting Grits quit the 33-member party caucus in 1984. But Peterson doggedly built up the party’s organization and prepared for the election that was expected this spring. As a result, he explained last week, “when the Tories finally called the election, we were quick out of the starting gate.”
Armed with a campaign strategy that concentrated on building the party’s strength in the province’s cities while holding onto established rural support, Peterson energetically crisscrossed Ontario —his aides christened it “the Roadrunner Campaign” — with a platform aimed at winning support from a wide cross section of the electorate. “In the past,” said Peterson, “the electorate perceived the Liberals as either right wing or a party without policies or unity. I have worked hard to alter
that image.” As a result, the Liberals told farmers that they would reduce interest rates on outstanding debts, and they appealed to low-income apartment dwellers by pledging $100 million for the building of co-operative and nonprofit housing. At the same time, they offered northern Ontarians a system of tax credits to offset their higher living expenses.
Indeed, one of the few problems in Peterson’s campaign arose when he charged—without putting forward any proof—that provincial liquor board officials exerted “subtle and implied pressure” to make restaurant and tavern owners contribute money to the Conservative party. But the damage may have been offset by the assured and appealing style that the Liberal leader demonstrated. Peterson has worked for several years to improve his political image by trimming excess weight from his sixfoot, two-inch frame, replacing his spectacles with contact lenses, taking media training to improve his performance on television and improving his proficiency in French to the point where he is now fluent. On the campaign trail Peterson also showed a new effectiveness in attacking his political opponents. Campaigning in the final week, Peterson attacked Premier Frank Miller’s suggestion that ridings which elected Conservatives would receive preferential treatment. Miller, Peterson told voters, “is making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s going to find out who’s naughty or nice.”
But the most important support that Peterson received came from Miller. “When we became aware that Miller was a major negative issue,” said Peterson’s campaign manager, Ross McGregor, “it became one of our challenges to communicate his poor leadership.” In the cities and in rural meeting halls, Peterson, a lawyer who won the party leadership in 1982, relentlessly criticized Miller for his low-profile,
“peek-a-boo” campaign and for his refusal to join the opposition leaders in a debate. He also claimed that the government had to assume responsibility for last month’s spill of
toxic PCBs near Kenora, Ont. Peterson conceded that Miller’s poor performance made campaigning easier. He added, “If Bill Davis had been running I would have been 30 yards behind in a 100-yard dash. But the untested new premier opened up a void that we were able to step into.”
Peterson, who has held the London Centre seat since he entered the legislature in 1975, comes from a political family. He is the second son of Marie and Clarence Peterson, a onetime socialist who became a Liberal, ran unsuccessfully twice for the federal Liberals and later set up a successful electronics firm. Peterson, whose brother Jim is a former Liberal MP, grew up in a comfortable home where political passions were never in short supply. His mother fondly recalls that David was “politically precocious. At the age of 5,1 remember him asking visitors at the door if they were Liberals. If they answered yes, he let them in.”
At the University of Toronto, where he took a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and political science, Peterson was a member of the boxing and debating teams, and later as a student at Toronto’s Osgoode Hall law school he did legal aid work among young drug users in Toronto (Peterson was called to the Ontario bar in 1969 but has never practised as a lawyer). He returned to London to run his father’s business and in 1974 Peterson married actress Shelley Christine Matthews, daughter of Don Matthews, former national president of the Conservative party, after a whirlwind courtship. Ten years later, and with three children —Benjamin, 7, Chloë, 5, and Adam, 3—Peterson describes his marriage as “unmitigated bliss.” Currently, the Petersons divide their time between a home in London and a rented house in Toronto. Because of the demands of politics and family Peterson says there is little time for other pursuits. He added, “I jog every day and read when I can, but that is it.”
After the jarring setback that he helped to administer to Miller’s Conservatives, a triumphant Peterson undoubtedly has his sights set on the premiership. “I am prepared to work with the Tories,” he declared last week, “but I will not allow Frank Miller to take Ontario back 20 years. I do not wish to humiliate the government, but, yes, I would I like to beat them out. Ob£ viously I want to stand as I boss.”
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