Kathleen Wynne can feel your pain

The Ontario premier is facing a hostile electorate that sees her as the root of all troubles. Why she’s happy to stand up and take it.

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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. (Photograph by Roberto Caruso).

Kathleen Wynne has an interesting theory about the job of a politician.

A few hours after dissolving the 41st Parliament of Ontario to launch her re-election campaign, she was discussing how she processes the public animosity toward her. She’s talked to thousands of people in her career, she says, and there are very few who don’t respond well when you simply listen to them.

And so the premier of Canada’s largest province conceives of her job, in part, as being the pillow into which the electorate can scream when they feel moved to do so.

“People want to be heard,” Wynne says. “They want to know that you’ve heard them, or they want to know that they’ve been able to say this vile thing to you and you’re still standing. People want political leaders to be able to handle their pain.”

There’s been a lot of barely-muffled howling of late in Ontario.

The outstanding election question at the moment does not appear to be whether Wynne and her party can win, but which of their rivals is going to defeat them.

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Polls show the Liberals in third place well behind the Progressive Conservatives and surging NDP, and they’re running out of time to bounce back. Wynne’s personal approval rating clocked in at 19 per cent earlier this spring, which is the lowest among Canadian premiers. A recent poll conducted for Maclean’s by Pollara Strategic Insights had Wynne ranked last among the three major provincial party leaders in perceptions such as “cares about people like you,” “has the most honesty and integrity” and “has the right priorities.”

Some of the anger Wynne inspires is inarguably self-inflicted damage: failure to pay attention to embers of public resentment that were ready to burst into flame, tough decisions poorly explained, expensive miscalculations (you could file hydro under all three of those headings). There is a sense that this government is prone to clucking its tongue and wagging its finger at its citizens. Midway through the campaign, for example, Wynne drew hoots of derision for a tweet criticizing Doug Ford’s “reckless” plan to put beer and wine on corner store shelves—as opposed to her government’s much more prudent grocery store sales.

And a lot of the anger is simply a by-product of a Liberal government that’s been in power for 15 years and accumulated plenty of scandals and dumb ideas that Wynne ends up wearing, even if she’s only been in charge for six of those years.

Still, it’s difficult to square the sheer heat of the antipathy toward Wynne with her political sins or even the broader winds of political change. Even critics like Rob Snow, a conservative talk radio host in Ottawa who can’t name a single thing he thinks the Wynne government has done well, and whose listeners await June 7 as the day Santa Claus arrives to cram the Liberals backwards up the nearest chimney, can’t make sense of it. “It’s vitriolic,” he says, in a flat, wondering tone. Something is out of whack.

And so it’s also necessary to take stock of the sexism, misogyny and homophobia that fuels a certain frothing subset of Wynne hatred, and likely sharpens broader perceptions of her political flaws, too. All you have to do is glance at her social media replies to see that something more than principled policy disagreement plays a role.

Whatever the source of the discontent, Wynne is now fighting against that tide to keep her job, salvage her legacy and remind voters why they hired her in the first place. She is acutely aware that there is a disconnect between her and Ontarians—one that almost amounts to a disconnect with herself. All public figures become Russian nesting doll versions of themselves, of course, with their true, private selves hidden within or existing alongside the concept of them that floats around in public.

But with Wynne, that duality seems more profound and more toxic. There is the Kathleen Wynne she and her supporters see: the unabashed progressive she traces back to a little girl whose physician grandfather accepted homemade baking in lieu of payment. And then there is the idea of Wynne that has taken hold—a cynical opportunist with the governmental version of a compulsive shopping habit—and become a sort of piñata for a weirdly keyed-up electoral frustration.

Now, Wynne is out on the campaign trail­—an environment where she shines and seems to genuinely enjoy herself—with both of those spectres along for the ride. Neither of those versions of her can be booted off the campaign bus, so she’s going to have to reconcile them somehow.

OTTAWA, ON. May 9, 2018 – Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks at a provincial election campaign rally in Ottawa. (Photo by: Sarah Dea)

A year ago, a group of influential women in Toronto, many of whom were not directly involved in politics, gathered at an apartment to talk about how they might support Wynne in the upcoming election campaign. Katherine Mitchell, a friend of Wynne’s ever since Mitchell was a teacher at war with former premier Mike Harris in the mid-1990s and Wynne was a parent organizing support for striking teachers, was there. Mitchell is fiercely loyal to Wynne on a personal level and genuinely impressed with what she’s accomplished politically; she is also given to blunt, colourful assessments of the state of things, delivered in a warm, Kathy Bates drawl.

And so when it was her turn to speak at the meeting, she announced, “I want to know why people hate Kathleen.” She recalls a woman next to her reacting with pearl-clutching horror: “They don’t hate Kathleen!” And then Mitchell imitates everyone else in the room, turning to look at that woman like she had lobsters crawling out of her ears. The implication was clear: “Yes they do. We don’t hate her, but a lot of people hate her.’”

Someone else at the meeting read out some of the ugliest tweets directed at Wynne, until one woman protested, “Stop, stop, I can’t hear anymore of that,” Mitchell recalls. “Other people said, ‘You have to hear this,’” she says. “‘This is what she hears, and this is the attitude of society at this point, and whether it’s misogyny or just hateful people, it’s important that we know that it’s happening.’”

That meeting was the genesis of Women for Wynne, a volunteer advocacy group now connected through social media in support of female Liberal candidates. Those abusive tweets became a video the group released a year later, once the campaign had officially started, including the tagline, “Hate is not okay. Not now. Not ever. Not in Ontario.”

But those women never did sort out an answer to Mitchell’s question. “There was no consensus, after a lot of discussion around the room,” she says. “There was no good answer as to why people hate her.”

Indeed, by some measures, Ontario is humming along nicely. According to the most recent analysis from TD Bank economists, “Ontario’s economy clocked in an impressive 2.7 per cent rate of growth in 2017, capping the best four-year run since the late-nineties.” That growth rate ranked the province fourth in the country, behind Alberta, Quebec and British Columbia.

Since Wynne took over as premier from Dalton McGuinty in 2013, her government has revamped the Ontario Student Assistance Program so that students from families making less than $50,000 a year would get free tuition and an estimated 230,000 would graduate with less debt. They launched OHIP+, which provides free prescriptions for everyone under age 25, and shovelled money at infrastructure projects including public transit, roads, schools and hospitals. The government counts these among the shiniest successes of an ambitious progressive agenda.

Their critics basically nod in agreement until their heads almost pop off—as in, this agenda is way too ambitious and so stubbornly progressive that it shoves its fingers in its ears and hums loudly to drown out any dissent. That view holds that this government balanced the books for about 10 minutes in 2017 in order to meet the letter if not the spirit of an election promise, and then returned to abusing the public credit cards, which is why the province now sags under a $312-billion debt. (Ontario now spends an astounding $12 billion a year servicing the debt.)

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Hydro prices are both the single largest source of pragmatic rage for Ontario voters, and a perfect symbolic representation of what many see as the worst impulses of this Liberal government.

Wynne argues that the whole thing has been “badly misunderstood.” The way she explains it, her government inherited a decrepit hydro system, with coal-fired plants belching out smog days and asthma attacks galore, while the poorly maintained grid was prone to brownouts and blackouts. They simply had to spend big to fix things, she argues. So, beginning in 2015, she partially privatized the utility, bringing in $9 billion, of which $5 billion repaid debt and $4 billion went to new infrastructure.

What people saw, though, was their hydro bills shooting up faster than their blood pressure. And when their screams of protest finally penetrated the lead-paned windows up at Queen’s Park, they argue, all the Premier did was artificially lower rates by kicking the debt can down the road. “She only decided to fix it when it became a political problem for her,” says Snow, who hosts a call-in show on 580 CFRA.

There’s also the matter of the Green Energy Act, under which the province over-payed for electricity it didn’t end up needing and bankrolled deeply unpopular ventures like wind farms, which never led to the green economy jobs they’d promised. “Her explanation of why hydro bills were the way they were, people just didn’t believe it,” Snow says. “They felt, I think, like they were being lectured to by someone who didn’t really appreciate or understand just how much people are suffering.”

Wynne was also a member of McGuinty’s cabinet when his government cancelled construction of two gas power plants, which could cost the province $1 billion, though she has maintained she was not directly involved in the decision. It’s a separate issue, but it often gets conflated with hydro in the public mind.

OTTAWA, ON. May 9, 2018 – Premier Kathleen Wynne meets with supporters at a provincial election campaign rally in Ottawa. (Photo by: Sarah Dea)

Even now, Wynne does not think it was a mistake to sell off those Hydro One shares. But she concedes that they didn’t do a good job of explaining it. “I think the communication of it was not done well,” she says. “And I take responsibility for that.”

Through the fall and winter, she conducted seven town hall events across Ontario to make her case directly to voters, on this and a host of other issues. That the audience was not stage-managed for political friendliness was made clear by the volume of heckling and tough questions—of both the hinged and unhinged varieties—that Wynne faced.

At one event in Ottawa in January, a 30-ish man stood to tell Wynne that his girlfriend had just lost her job as a result of her government’s controversial minimum-wage hike. What started as a sensible question, however, soon cannonballed off the cliff of reason as the man declared Wynne’s basic income pilot programs were akin to the socialism that destroyed Russia under the Soviet Union and led to the deaths of millions. A handful of people sitting near the man applauded, but most of the crowd rippled with uncomfortable, derisive laughter.

Wynne rejects the notion that those town halls must have been a series of cross-province public root canals. “I have to tell you that I enjoy them. I honestly enjoy them,” she says, her tone seeming to acknowledge that this might sound incredible. “I honestly enjoy hearing what people think. I love town halls. Even if they’re very angry. Anger is part of the process. And when someone is that angry, what I know is they’re having a really hard time.”

READ MORE: Kathleen Wynne will be in trouble if Doug Ford fails to live up to her expectations

She would far rather stand up in a setting like that and listen to people blast their anger to her real-life face than read “anonymous nonsense” online, she says. At least in person, she can listen properly and respond, in hopes of making a connection or getting a chance to explain herself.

Wynne reads social media much less now than she used to. She relies on her staff to let her know what people are talking about, but it was getting too hard not to internalize the ugliness flung from the darkest corners of the internet.

“It makes you feel tired,” she says. A glance at her Twitter replies on a recent day during the campaign illustrates why. “Hi I’m Kathleen wynne, I pocket all the money and I think I’m cool because I’m a lesbian woman running for the retard party to fight for things we already have or that we want,” one person wrote. “Kathleen wynne more like Kathleen lose. You stinky old bitch,” another said.

Asked whether it’s hard having so many people angry at her, Wynne concedes, “It is,” but her voice lilts upwards, like she’s reluctant to admit it, or maybe still puzzling it out for herself.

The way she sees it, there are two halves to processing the resentment directed at her: there’s how she makes sense of it, and then there’s how it makes her feel. That last part, Wynne argues, is beside the point. “I mean, nobody wants to have horrible things said about them and nobody wants to believe there is that much hatred coming at them. But I have to say, when I’m walking around in my life, I don’t feel that,” she says. “If the numbers were accurate, I would have virtually everyone coming up to me on the street and telling me how much they hate me.”

It’s not that she disputes all the poll results, exactly, but she wonders what it really means. “Does it mean that as a human being, people see me as loathsome, or does it mean that there’s an idea of me that has taken hold for whatever reason?” she asks. Do people not like her policies? Is it because she’s part of a government that’s been around for so many years? “Are there people who don’t like me because I’m a lesbian or because I’m a woman? I don’t know,” Wynne continues. Her voice carries a mix of exasperation, forebearance and bewilderment. “Maybe they don’t like me because I’m a grandmother. I don’t know the answer to that.”

“Human beings want to be liked. Nobody wants to be loathed,” she says. “But if I let that get in the way of doing my job, then I wouldn’t be able to continue. It would be debilitating, and I’m not prepared to let that happen. There’s too much to do.”

OTTAWA, ON. May 9, 2018 – Frank Healey, president of the Independent School Bus Operators Association, protests outside a provincial election campaign rally headed by Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne in Ottawa. (Photo by: Sarah Dea)

During the 2016 presidential election campaign, Peter Beinart wrote a piece for The Atlantic entitled “Fear of a Female President,”  examining the research that helped explain some of the formless, toxic opposition to Hillary Clinton. The picture was ugly.

One study found that people experienced feelings of “moral outrage” such as contempt, anger and disgust when presented with a fictional female politician they were told was ambitious (they didn’t care if a hypothetical male politician exhibited the same trait). And entrenched views about traditional values play a role: Americans who said they “completely agree” that society is becoming “too soft and feminine” were more than four times more likely to have a “very unfavourable” view of Clinton than those who rejected that notion, Beinart reported.

Wynne emits exactly half a laugh when asked how she makes peace with reactions that have nothing to do with what she’s done, but rather with who she is. “I’ve been a girl since 1953,” she says. “So I’ve had a lot of practice.”

The way she tells it, her past was a lesson in navigating two versions of herself, too. She grew up the oldest of four girls, which meant she believed she could do anything, she says. But from the moment she stepped outside her family, there were people crossing possibilities off the list because she was a girl.

Wynne didn’t come out as a lesbian until she was 37, after a long marriage to a man with whom she had three children, and when she came out, she found herself indignant that people might discount her because of that. It even took some adjustment to realize that people might recognize her new public identity on their own. Shortly after she and her partner, Jane Rounthwaite, got together, they went on vacation to rainbow flag-festooned Provincetown, Ma. One evening a man walking by shoved a flyer for a lesbian nightclub into Wynne’s hands. She was taken aback, at once pleased to be included in a community she’d begin to claim as her own, but also shocked that an outsider would recognize her as a member. When she recalls that story now, Wynne re-enacts the look Rounthwaite gave her when she asked incredulously how the man knew they were his target market: eyebrows up, smartass grin.

Wynne points out that she didn’t become an MPP until she was 50, so by the time she landed in the turbulance of public life, she had mature life experience to steady her.

Mitchell started at Queen’s Park at the same time, hired as an advisor to Education Minister Gerard Kennedy after she retired from teaching. When they worked together, Wynne would occasionally call her down to her office when she was frustrated, close the door, curse up a storm for a minute or two and then say, “Okay, I just needed a witness for that” and send her on her way again.

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The fact that Wynne will just keep showing up, letting people scream at her and calmly making her case is, finally, one thing Snow can find to praise her for. “To put up with the stuff that she puts up with, every day being called a crook and a criminal and a liar and a thief and a scoundrel, you have to have a lot of scar tissue and a very thick skin,” he says. “Even though my politics don’t align with her politics, you have to admire someone who can go out there every single day and fight. This may be the end of the Liberal party ruling Ontario, and it might be the end for a long time, but it’s not like she’s going to wave the white flag and give up. She’s going to fight.”

The day after she dissolved the legislature, on May 8, Wynne wound up her first official day of that re-election fight at a rally in the friendly Liberal territory of Ottawa-Vanier, where Nathalie Des Rosiers is hoping to be re-elected. The setting for the rally was arrestingly beautiful: a deconsecrated Anglican church turned event venue, with huge expanses of jewel-box stained glass windows, gleaming wooden beams soaring overhead and creaking, whitewashed hardwood floors underfoot.

Campaign staff had hung an enormous Ontario flag high above where the altar would once have stood, and a stage was set up just in front of the sanctuary, with the massive pipe organ off to one side. The largest stained glass window, at the opposite end of the building, faced west, so that by the time Wynne was set to arrive at 6 p.m., the stage was on fire with late-day sun pouring through the gold-tinted panes. But because gilding the lily is not a thing in campaign planning, there were also blazing stage lights perched on gangly stands alongside the TV cameras, facing the stage.

The room was busy, but not packed, with perhaps 200 people in attendance. Seemingly every one of them was wearing bright Crayola red, with volunteers hauling more t-shirts out of boxes on the sidewalk outside. After Wynne bounded onto the stage, she squinted through the rapture-ready light into the crowd, looking genuinely delighted and awed. “Wow! Wow, what a room!” she gushed. “Oh my goodness, thank you!”

OTTAWA, ON. May 9, 2018 – Premier Kathleen Wynne meets with supporters at a provincial election campaign rally in Ottawa. (Photo by: Sarah Dea)

Wynne is at her best in campaign mode, deft on policy details—occasionally to the point of eye-glazing wonkishness—confident, warm and personable, picking out familiar faces in the crowd from the stage and finding her way to them for a hug or private word after the microphone has been switched off. She interweaves airtight campaign messaging with personal anecdotes and asides in a way that manages to feel intimate rather than canned, all while looking like she is having the time of her life. This rally was no exception.

She ran through a few of her government’s greatest hits since she took office, earning big cheers for the light rail network that would begin running in Ottawa in the fall, and another for full-day kindergarten. The previous day, she told the rally crowd, she had made her final speech in the 41st Parliament of Ontario—not, she added with low and slow comical emphasis, her final speech, just her final speech of that session—explaining why she is in politics. “It’s about what we know government exists to do, which is to do the things and step up and help people with the things they can’t do themselves,” she said.

The rally crowd booed on cue when when Wynne invoked Mike Harris as the foe who drove her into politics in the first place, and they booed again when she cast Ford as the second coming of Harris. Wynne exhorted her supporters and volunteers to knock on every single door they could reach, and then knock on just one more before they called it quits each day. She lost her first election by just 72 votes, she told them, and she recently met someone who lost a city council election by a single vote. “One. Vote,” she groaned. The crowd collectively howled like they’d just watched a missed penalty shot.

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A month or so earlier, Ford held a rally in Ottawa at which the man himself was—as he often is—oddly glib and disconnected in tone, but the heat thrown off by the motivated rage of his audience could have lit up a city block.

Here, though, at Wynne’s rally, the crowd was bouncy enough and the setting was like something out of the crescendo scene of a hammy-but-winsome political movie. But the real energy wattage came from the candidate on stage. Wynne looked joyous and purposeful, in that humming mode people take on when they’re doing the thing they’re good at.

The polls may be correct in predicting that Wynne’s time in the premier’s office is over because there are few people left in this province who think like the red-clad crowd surrounding her right now. But before that reckoning comes, she will get a few more moments in friendly rooms like this one, presenting her vision to supporters who still see her as that first version of herself, the person she argues she’s never stopped being.

For the moment, that second version of Kathleen Wynne—the living embodiment of a craven-politician caricature—is stowed away in the cargo hold of the campaign bus waiting outside. She’ll have to be dealt with again before long.