Kathleen Wynne exudes a certain confidence as she leaves a Tuesday morning debate at York Mills Collegiate where she and Green party candidate Phil Hawkins were grilled for more than an hour on election issues by about 100 high school students. Hawkins could probably spare the time to explain his platform to a youthful crowd that won't get the chance to cast ballots in next week's vote. He'll be lucky if a few hundred people mark an X next to his name.
But Wynne is the Liberal hopeful in Don Valley West. The general consensus is that the well-known community activist has a very good shot at knocking off incumbent Tory MPP David Turnbull in the riding that stretches south of Highway 401 to the Don River and ranges east from Yonge and Bayview to a line drawn along Don Mills Road, the CN Rail line and the east branch of the Don.
Wynne has a long history of challenging the Conservatives. She was the linchpin in the Citizens for Local Democracy coalition that fiercely resisted the forced amalgamation of Toronto seven years ago. She founded what's now the Toronto Parent Network to oppose Tory education cutbacks. And as a school trustee, Wynne joined the dissident faction that refused to pass a balanced budget that would have required cuts to classroom spending.
Even Turnbull - the associate minister of Enterprise, Opportunity and Innovation in Ernie Eves's government - concedes he's in a fight that could well be lost. "It's going to be a tough election," he says.
While Wynne is at the school explaining Grit policy to underage kids, Turnbull is knocking on doors in the riding. He was at the school the rainy night before to make the Tory pitch to parents for private school tax credits and a ban on teachers strikes.
But the beleaguered incumbent clearly figures the daylight hours can be better spent on the hustings telling more voters about the "wanton waste" his tormentor supported as a member of the Toronto District School Board.
So Wynne ends up with the York Mills scholars pretty much to herself. "Political discourse takes place on a number of levels," Wynne says once the last student has left the assembly hall. "I don't care if they are a couple of years from voting. We have a responsibility to listen to them." Besides, you never know what they might say to their folks at the dinner table.
"This is a tough riding," says Wynne. "But I believe every thinking person is struggling with this decision. If they voted Tory, they don't necessarily like what they see right now.'
This confidence may help explain why Turnbull's attacks have gone perosnal. He's made his policy differences with Wynne the crux of his campaign brochures, even featuring a photo of the enemy. "She's not one of us," Turnbull says in an interview. "She doesn't live in the riding. She doesn't represent the values of Don Valley West."
In terms of family income, the riding is considered one of the most affluent in the province. Almost 30 per cent of its residents have university degrees, and nearly half the workforce are professionals or hold managerial positions. But there's a dramatic demographic imbalance between Turnbull's traditional stronghold in the Bridle Path-style communities north of Eglinton and the heavily ethnic Flemington Park and Thorncliffe Park neighbourhoods to the south, where Wynne has established a strong base.
"The voting power there should not be underestimated or ignored," says Jane Pitfield, who represents the area on city council. While there are about 4,000 privately owned homes in and around Leaside, Pitfield says about 80 per cent of her constituents live in high-rises, most of them rental units.
"The Tory platform is not going to have a big impact in my part of the riding," the councillor says. "We've got highly educated people living in this part of Don Valley West, but they're driving cabs and delivering pizzas because they can't get work here in the professions they were trained for."
Pitfield says housing, public education, the lack of social agencies and underemployment are the issues that resonate in the area. And if campaign signs are any indication, Wynne has caught people's attention.
Joanne Flint was the municipal rep for the northern reaches of Don Valley West until she called it quits recently to accept a Tory appointment to the Ontario Municipal Board. "There's a history of conservatism in the area, and David Turnbull has the advantage of living there," the 15-year council veteran says.
Turnbull was first elected in 1990, and won re-election five years later. He was appointed transportation minister after winning a third term in 1999. But Turnbull only held on to the seat by 3,160 votes against a little-known Liberal. The NDP got less than 5 per cent of the nearly 46,000 ballots cast then and aren't expected to make any gains this time. In fact, it's speculated that socialist votes could bleed to the Grits.
"This is a difficult one to call," says Flint.