Months after provincial loss, Steven Del Duca makes a political comeback

For the second time in months, Steven Del Duca anxiously awaited the news of his political fate.

As results poured in for the mayoral race in Vaughan, Ont., on Monday, he was neck and neck with five-term city councillor Sandra Yeung Racco for much of the night.

"It was a bit emotional ... there was a 'catch your breath' moment at the beginning when one of my opponents was moving out in front," he said in an interview.

"I learned a long time ago that when results are coming in, you have to take the ebb and the flow, the ups and the downs of those results in stride."

It's a fitting metaphor for Del Duca's attempt at political redemption, which proved successful this week with a narrow victory of just 851 votes. But for the former leader of the Ontario Liberals, who suffered a magnificent blow to his political career back in June, a win is a win -- and a much-needed one at that.

Once seen as the Liberals’ ticket to rebranding after the party’s historic defeat under Kathleen Wynne in 2018, Del Duca – a former Wynne-era cabinet minister – failed to captivate voters in the province with his campaign, which centred on affordability.

On June 3, the Liberals failed to secure official party status and Del Duca was unable to win his own seat for the second straight election. He resigned that night.

In the weeks that followed, re-entering politics was the last thing on Del Duca’s mind as he underwent what he calls a "political grieving process."

He reconnected with family and friends -- something his political responsibilities had got in the way of. He also spent a lot of time alone, thinking about his achievements as Liberal leader as well as where he had fallen short. He pondered what he wanted to do next, and whether he had the appetite to continue to seek elected office.

"The election result provincially in June was a pretty tough one for me personally, and for my family. So, I didn't jump into this next opportunity very quickly," he said.

In July, he started to mull over the idea of running for mayor in the city he's lived in for 36 years with his family and close political allies. After a "thoughtful and deliberate" process, he decided he had more to give as a public servant and threw his hat in the ring.

The stars also aligned when outgoing mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua announced in June that he wouldn't seek re-election and later endorsed Del Duca for the job.

"When he made the decision to retire ... it opened an opportunity to bring me back to where at all started for me, at the local level," Del Duca said.

His first foray into politics was in Vaughan's 2010 municipal election, where he was beat out for a position on city council by a few hundred votes. He said it means a lot that his community is giving him another chance to serve.

"That's all I can ask for," he said.

As mayor-elect of Vaughan's fast-growing community, Del Duca said he'll prioritize issues like clogged roads, spikes in auto theft and gun crime, and keeping property taxes low for seniors and other vulnerable residents living through an affordability crisis.

There are also a number of leftover projects from Bevilacqua's tenure that he wants to see through, like a potential medical school at York University and developments around the city's North Maple Regional Park.

It's also possible Del Duca will have to decide whether to use the province's so-called strong mayor powers if they are expanded to Vaughan.

The province recently passed legislation giving mayors of Toronto and Ottawa veto power over bylaws that conflict with provincial priorities, such as building housing, and Premier Doug Ford has said those powers could be expanded to other cities next year.

While Del Duca said it would be unwise and "unhealthy for democracy" for any mayor to weaponize those powers, he gives merit to the idea of equipping them with "the tools to get the job done."

He hopes to first work with his council colleagues to achieve their goals, but he won't hesitate to use strong mayor powers – just on a case-by-case basis and not regularly.

"I believe in a collaborative and collegial way we're going to be able to get things delivered," said Del Duca. "But I don't want to be the guy who goes back to the people of Vaughan in four years and blames procedure for why I couldn't make their life better."

Del Duca knows from experience that public trust is not earned absolutely in an election period. His time in provincial politics showed him that he has to hit the ground running, keep an open line with constituents and advocate on their behalf, whether that looks like fighting traffic gridlock, improving service at city hall or simply returning their phone calls.

"You have to nurture and grow that sense of trust and confidence," Del Duca said. "In politics, like in life, tomorrow is never guaranteed."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 29, 2022.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Tyler Griffin, The Canadian Press