At times it seemed like a papal tour. In the sunlit outdoor garden of the Villa Columbo, a Toronto senior citizens’ home, elderly men and women in wheelchairs formed a row to greet Ontario Premier David Peterson. Italian music played in the background. Tanned and smiling, Peterson began moving down the row, shaking hands—and many of the residents cried tears of happiness. Giovanna Rodaro, 82, presented the 43year-old premier with a handmade red ceramic vase to autograph and told the Liberal leader that he could count on her vote. Later, when Rodaro was asked if she was impressed by the Liberal government’s achievements over the past two years, she simply said: “I will vote for David Peterson because he’s such a nice boy.”
Smooth: Last week’s election victory confirmed Peterson’s phenomenal popularity. Observers attribute his success as much to his smooth personal style as to his minority government’s record. During the campaign, Liberal strategists capitalized on their leader’s magnetism, drawing large crowds
across the province. On one occasion, traffic was tied up along Toronto’s busy St. Clair Avenue when crowds following Peterson spilled onto the road. Said campaign co-chairman David MacNaughton midway through the six-week race: “The fact of the matter is that Peterson is our strongest asset, and this campaign is about him.” Pudgy: The emergence of David Robert Peterson as a political star has been nothing short of remarkable. In his years as Ontario opposition leader, before the demise of the province’s Conservative dynasty in 1985, critics dismissed him as bland and ineffectual. “I’ve been called ugly, pudgy and inarticulate,” concedes the six-foot, two-inch Peterson. “Perceived success or failure is a very fleeting thing.”
Now, opponents say that Peterson has become a media darling. In a gushing profile in Saturday Night last June, the silver-haired premier was described as “beautiful.” The image is enhanced by his attractive family: three children (Benjamin, 10, Chloë, 8, and Adam, 5), and his actress wife, Shelley, the first working spouse of an Ontario premier.
Peterson, a millionaire businessman and lawyer from London, Ont., married his wife of 13 years within 2Vè months of meeting her over lunch in 1973. The daughter of Donald Matthews, a London businessman and former president of the federal Progressive Conservative party, Shelley, 35, did not campaign extensively in this election. She was performing in a CBC TV comedy series, Not My Department, a spoof on the Ottawa bureaucracy in which she plays an officious assistant deputy minister.
Test: Political life has not always been so kind to Peterson. After graduating from the University of Toronto’s law school in 1967, he spent six years working in the family electronics company, C.M. Peterson Co. Ltd., before abruptly plunging into politics. Within months of being elected to the Ontario legislature in 1975 from the riding of London Centre, Peterson ran for the party’s leadership, losing to psychiatrist Stuart Smith. By the time the leadership came open again in 1982, a more seasoned Peterson handily defeated four challengers, among them federal MP Sheila Copps, then an MPP from Hamilton. But
the Liberals were dealt a hard blow in 1984, when four members of the provincial caucus, including Copps, left to run in the federal election.
Peterson has described that time as “the worst year of my life.” In an interview with Maclean's, he recalled that while Shelley was acting in a small-town play, “I was looking after kids, cleaning diapers, making goddamn chicken soup on the stove while someone was phoning to say they were quitting.” But Peterson, a college boxer who still jogs six kilometres a day, is more philosophical about the experience now: “The tough times are the best test of character—how you fight back.”
Image: In 1982 Peterson gave his staff copies of a biography of Peter Lougheed that documented how the Alberta Tory leader reorganized his party and defeated a 32year-old Social Credit dynasty. Said Peterson’s press secretary, George Hutchison: “He told us, ‘This is what we are going to do’—and we believed him.”
But the pivotal point in Peterson’s recovery was the surprise resignation of Conservative premier William Davis on Oct. 8, 1984. During the next six months key advisers drew up a program of progressive policies. Meanwhile, Peterson worked with media consultant Gabor Apor to polish his image. He lost 20 lb., shed his thick-rimmed glasses for contact lenses and improved his television style. Said Hutchison: “It was a culmination of Shelley not liking his hair, discovering contacts and being convinced that he should leave his corduroys at home.” Then, Apor suggested that Peterson make red ties his personal emblem (he now owns more than 70). By the time he began campaigning against then-premier Frank Miller in March, 1985, voters had begun to notice.
Peterson’s colleagues insist that his personal transformation is less important than how he has changed the way Ontario is governed. To symbolize the change, Peterson hosted receptions in his office and invited schoolchildren to meet his cabinet. On one occasion he shocked a caucus meeting by showing up in his jogging suit. Peterson has also proven he is politically astute. During the toughest battle of his tenure, a 25day doctors’ strike in the summer of
1986, he attended a fund-raising party at the home of high-school friend Ted McGrath. When a group of 50 angry doctors picketed McGrath’s front lawn, Peterson coolly carried a tray of soft drinks out to the demonstrators.
Access: Peterson can be tough—his critics say ruthless—even with close associates. He fired his 1985 campaign
manager, Ross McGregor, when journalists uncovered a letter that McGregor had sent out to potential clients of his consulting firm boasting that he had special access to the premier. And despite his charm, the premier is also prone to making insensitive remarks. Even Liberals were stunned last spring when Peterson taunted an opposition MPP during a debate over rent con-
trois—suggesting that the MPP was having marital problems by asking him whether he had been thrown out of his house.
Roots: However they are deployed, Peterson’s political skills have long roots. In 1933 his father Clarence (Pete), a second-generation Norwegian salesman living in Saskatchewan, signed the Regina Manifesto, the document that defined the goals of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the forerunner of the NDP. But Peterson credits his mother, Marie, a retired schoolteacher, with teaching him the cardinal rule of politics: “not to make a decision you can’t live with.” Later, the couple built a million-dollar electronics company after settling in London in 1945, but, said Clarence: “We never lost sight of our socialist roots.”
All three Peterson sons—James, 46, a Bay Street lawyer and former federal MP from Toronto; David; and Timothy, 40, who owns an import company—were exposed to politics at an early age. David began delivering pamphlets at age 7 during his father’s campaigns for London city council. Said Clarence, 74: “Our children were subjected to politics at the dinner table and still are.”
Peterson still cherishes his family time. He spends virtually every weekend at his stone farmhouse in London, playing baseball and soccer, cutting trees and tending his pumpkin patch. According to Shelley’s sister, Debbie Nash, also co-chairman of the Liberal campaign, the Petersons can be found wearing torn sweatshirts and jeans and cooking dinner on the barbecue. “A gourmet dinner is when the hotdogs aren’t burnt,” Nash said. Financial security allows the couple to hire a nanny and rent a second home in Toronto’s posh Forest Hill. Peterson and his wife have a pact: at least one of them must be home six nights a week to tuck in the children.
Peterson says that his devotion to his family is one reason he does not want to be prime minister. For now Peterson is enjoying his success and taking nothing for granted. “Don’t ever judge your life by a poll or an election,” he said. “The only real judge is history.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.