Two Liberal candidate hopefuls drop out of St. Paul’s nomination race

By Sabrina Nanji February 4, 2021

On paper, Vonny Sweetland seemed like the star candidate the Ontario Liberals are looking for: he’s Black, 30 and LGBTQ — checking all the right boxes for so-called underrepresented groups that the party says it’s ramping up its search for.

But on the ground, Sweetland said he felt unwelcome and discouraged from running as a nomination contestant, and after getting an inside glimpse into the party’s machinations and politicking, he’s no longer seeking the nod to run in Toronto—St. Paul’s and has ripped up his Liberal membership card.

Now, he’s eyeing a potential bid for Toronto City Council instead, not least because there are no political party barriers at that level.

“It was very much my feeling that I wasn’t maybe what they were looking for,” Sweetland said. “It’s a small circle and invites are limited.”

Sweetland, a longtime community advocate, spent the last seven months or so hitting the pavement, signing up Liberal members and (virtually) glad-handing constituents who could support his campaign.

On the party side, however, the vetting process was moving slowly.

Sweetland claims he was at times stonewalled by the local riding association president, who ignored emails or took an unusually long time to respond to his questions about becoming a nomination contestant. He alleges that’s a breach of the Liberals’ new diversity mandate; the party’s nomination rules state that the riding association must show a “demonstrable” effort to seek out prospective contestants from typically underrepresented groups, including women, people under 30, and those from BIPOC and LGBTQ communities. Leader Steven Del Duca has also promised open nominations.

Party said to prefer would-be candidate in Winnipeg
Sweetland got the impression that party brass preferred another contender: Jess Spindler, the 2018 candidate for the riding who lost to the current NDP MPP Jill Andrew by a slim margin of roughly 1,300 votes. Spindler says she’s “seriously considering” a bid after speaking with people in the riding who encouraged her to run.

Meanwhile, on a Christmas call that included members and other potential candidates, the riding association’s treasurer reportedly announced he would be stepping down to help Spindler win the nomination. “This was a shot at dissuading anyone from running against her so folks would see that she has the internal support,” Sweetland contends.

At a virtual conference put on by OLP’s Women’s Commission in July, Spindler was referred to as “the next MPP” for St. Paul’s by commission president Cristina Taglione, according to Sweetland.

Spindler currently resides in Winnipeg where she works at Red River College.

“Right now, I am in Winnipeg supporting my husband’s career, but my husband knows I am deeply committed to my home community and a dedicated Ontario Liberal,” Spindler told Queen’s Park Today. “Like all couples, we make decisions together, and we have had conversations about supporting each other’s future plans.”

Spindler, who grew up in St. Paul’s, added that she wants to help the small business community and improve access to child care. Per Ontario’s Election Act, candidates must reside in the province six months prior to the vote.

Ex-environment commissioner says she also got the runaround in St. Paul’s
Meanwhile, another potential star candidate’s application fell by the wayside and she eventually jumped to the Greens: ex-environmental watchdog Dianne Saxe. Saxe says Del Duca “strongly encouraged” her to submit a nomination package for St. Paul’s, which she “spent a lot of time putting together,” but then it sat on the shelf for months.

“The Liberals kept telling me that they had a process and the process was still being determined, and with Covid, it was all very uncertain, and they would get back to me — and then they never got back to me,” Saxe said. “Other than this conversation with Mr. Del Duca, I was certainly not treated by them with any eagerness.”

Sources say there was also talk about potentially appointing Saxe, but nothing came of it (Saxe did not confirm or deny). Eventually, the former environmental watchdog decided to join the Greens; she was named deputy leader and was acclaimed to fly the party’s banner in University—Rosedale.

“After the federal throne speech, I reached the conclusion that I was not, during my lifetime, going to see serious climate action from the Liberals,” Saxe said, so she withdrew her application and requested a refund.

Diversity in winnable ridings
Operation Black Vote Canada and other democracy advocacy groups have urged political parties to run diverse candidates in so-called winnable ridings, like St. Paul’s, which was a provincial Grit bastion from 1999 up until they lost it to the NDP in 2018. Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett has represented it federally for more than two decades.

“If it’s not so much about if they want you, it’s more about where they want you. I am an upstart, politically speaking, running in what is pretty much the safest seat in the country. And this is a riding where the Liberals normally seat ministers and highly educated, wealthy individuals with a high capacity to fundraise,” Sweetland said.

Advocates have also pushed for tangible incentives to encourage diverse candidates. While OLP now offers a discount on registration fees for would-be women contestants and those under 30, there are no financial breaks specifically for BIPOC and LGBTQ contenders.

The Liberal Party is facing a litany of accusations about shepherding in preferred candidates despite promising open nominations for non-incumbent seats and stronger recruitment of diverse candidates.

“Democracy is dead in the Ontario Liberal Party,” charged one senior Liberal with knowledge of the nomination process. “It is no longer a case of will the nominations be corrupt, but how corrupt they will be. It is shameful Del Duca is exploiting a pandemic to hand select favourites.”

OLP spokesperson Will Wuehr did not acknowledge repeated requests for comment on this story; Leader Steven Del Duca was available for media questions this week, but this reporter was blocked from those calls, while others were allowed to participate.