Poor Gerard Kennedy.
He is destined, it seems, to be forever cast as the tragic hero of Canadian politics.
Kennedy is currently in third place in the Ontario Liberal leadership race and barring a grand deal with rival candidate, Mississauga-Erindale MPP Harinder Takhar, third place is where Kennedy will ultimately finish. The Toronto politician, though, should be familiar with his spot outside the winner’s circle: when it comes to the big prize, he just can’t seem to shake also-ran status.
Kennedy began his improbable journey to provincial and federal politics in Edmonton, where he worked with a local food bank. After three years in Alberta, he continued his work in the non-profit sector- and further burnished his social activist credentials- at the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto, where he remained for a decade.
Kennedy then parlayed his heightened Toronto profile into a successful campaign in the 1996 Ontario provincial election. At just thirty-six years old, the young executive became MPP for York South.
Only a few short years later, Kennedy went head to head with an upstart Ottawa lawyer named Dalton McGuinty for the provincial Liberals’ leadership. Kennedy finished second to the future Premier, but was rewarded with the plum Education portfolio.
Jumping to National Politics
Sensing opportunity on the national stage, though, Kennedy left Queen’s Park and made the jump to federal politics in order to enter the 2006 Liberal leadership race. He didn’t come particularly close to winning the contest, but he did play kingmaker by throwing his support behind eventual winner Stéphane Dion. Dion, of course, went on to be politically obliterated by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in the next election, but Kennedy emerged unscathed. Indeed, in some quarters Kennedy was deemed ‘the Next One’ in the Liberals’ Big Red Machine.
In 2008, Kennedy unseated the NDP’s Peggy Nash and became MP for Parkdale-High Park. As the federal leadership landscape lay entirely unformed, the stage seemed set for another Kennedy run. But Nash defeated Kennedy in the 2011 election, and once again he became a leadership hopeful without anyone to lead.
Back to the provincial game
But despite being out of office, Kennedy saw the recent decision by McGuinty to step down as an opportunity to take over the reins of the provincial Liberals. It is difficult to understand how Kennedy thinks this is an effective strategy.
By all accounts thoughtful and certainly widely respected, Kennedy does not seem to have a political instinct that matches his ambition. He has twice attempted to parachute into a Liberal leadership race from one level of government to another (provincial to federal in 2006, and now federal to provincial in 2013).
It’s hard to believe that any outsider, no matter how well-connected or well-liked, could manage to build the popular support required among a party’s bureaucracy to put together a successful leadership bid. Unlike American politics in which a charismatic and connected individual can swoop in and woo primary voters into making her/him their party’s candidate for office, laying the groundwork for a successful leadership run in Canadian politics takes years of planning, flattery, and alliance-building.
Gerard Kennedy’s window of political opportunity is closing, at least in terms of being a realistic leadership candidate. If Kennedy really wants to lead a Liberal party- provincial or federal- he might consider sticking around one for more than a term or two.