TORONTO -- Anyone who has heard Steven Del Duca speak during this election campaign likely knows he has two daughters in public school, two elderly parents who want to age at home, and that his Saturday mornings include grocery shopping for his family.
Weaving in personal touches to speeches is a tried and true political tactic, but the Ontario Liberal leader says his politics come from his personal life.
“Family is really the centre of everything...so it's just a very natural, I guess, lens for me to view those issues,” he said in a recent interview.
Del Duca's focus on home care comes not only from his 83-year-old Italian-born father and his 80-year-old Scottish-born mother, but also his grandparents, all of whom lived past 80 - one to 97 - and stayed in their own homes.
Education policy is important to Del Duca as the father to two daughters, Talia, 14, and Grace, 11, but he also mentions a teacher who kept him on track as he was drifting in his final year of high school.
By that time, he was already actively engaged in politics and didn't have much interest in what the school curriculum had to offer in social sciences, and the teacher worried that his grades wouldn't be able to get him into university.
So she developed two large research projects that he could do as independent studies and got the principal to sign off on it.
“I loved it because it gave me a chance to actually take what I was doing in reality, fuse it to with what I was reading and learning about and kind of taking a run with it,” Del Duca says.
“I don't know how it would have worked out otherwise.”
Thirty years later, he's taking a run at much bigger projects: the premiership and rebuilding the Ontario Liberals four years after their walloping that saw them lose official party status.
One of Del Duca's oldest friends, Anthony Martin, has known him since the two were in Grade 3, and is not surprised to see him running for the province's top job. Martin says his friend was always well informed about current events for his age, but once he was bitten by the political bug, that was it.
“He said he wanted to be premier, because, he thought that was where you could do the most good and make the most change in people's lives,” Martin said.
Del Duca's interest in politics was first sparked at age 14, when his older sister gave him “The Rainmaker,” the autobiography of legendary Liberal organizer Keith Davey, for Christmas.
He has since asked his sister why she settled on that present, a peculiar selection for a young teen, and “she can't remember what possessed her to get that specific book.”
Regardless, Del Duca was hooked. He was then reeled in a few months later when a cousin invited him to a nomination meeting. It turned out to be a hotly contested race, with an incumbent being challenged for a federal Liberal nomination.
“I felt the electricity in the room,” he says.
Later that year was the 1988 election and Del Duca volunteered for the Liberals, knocking on the doors of voters who found a 15-year-old wanting to talk to them about free trade on the other side.
At age 48, Del Duca still likes talking, and he has developed a particular style. On the campaign trail he looks straight into the camera, delivering his words with a measured cadence that generally comes from reading prepared remarks.
Except there is no teleprompter in sight.
Del Duca says it's partly due to him being quite hands on with platform development, but the seed was planted at his own nomination meeting in 2012.
He was being acclaimed to replace Greg Sorbara, who was retiring. Del Duca had actually written speeches for Sorbara, though he eschewed speaking notes.
“(It) used to drive me crazy,” Del Duca says. “He'd say, 'Steven, this is such a beautifully written speech. I'm not using it.”'
Ahead of the nomination meeting, Sorbara told Del Duca not to use a written speech, but rather a single page of bullet points to “frame the mind.”
He was unsure about speaking off the cuff in front of so many people, and brought both his speech and his page of bullet points to the banquet hall. But after sitting in the parking lot and mulling it over, he left his speech in the car.
“It went fine,” Del Duca says. “That was really good advice Greg gave me...Even if you get back in the car afterwards, or you're back at the office and think, 'Oh shoot, I was gonna say those two things, but I didn't,' it's OK. You connect with the audience far, far better.”
He would go on to spend nearly four years as transportation minister and a few months as economic development minister.
Liberal MP Yasir Naqvi, who served in cabinet with Del Duca, says he is someone who was always prepared, and can disagree with others cordially. The two have known each other since they were in the Liberals' youth wing together, and Naqvi says personally Del Duca is a devoted family man.
Del Duca's younger brother was killed in a car crash in 2018, and Naqvi says he was impressed by how Del Duca faced the tragedy.
“There were times of course he was fragile, but then he was also there for his parents, who lost their son,” Naqvi says.
“He was there for his sister-in-law, who lost her husband. He was there for his niece and nephews, who lost their father and of course, provide support for his family as well. Really, I was incredibly impressed by his strength, his calmness and his resiliency.”
Del Duca was chosen as party leader just days before the first COVID-19 lockdown.
March 7, 2020 was, in hindsight, not the best time for a mass gathering, and the timing was especially poor for Del Duca, who needed to spend the next two years both rebuilding the party from its disastrous 2018 election showing and introducing himself to voters.
But the new Liberal leader was one of the last things on voters' minds as they dealt with devastating effects of the pandemic, and it has left Del Duca still fairly unknown, said Chris Cochrane, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto Scarborough.
“It's made life difficult for (him),” he said.
During last week's debate, Del Duca came across as someone who had a good grasp of policy, but when it comes to a unique and easily identifiable charisma, Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford has him beat, Cochrane said.
“Doug Ford has a presence, a way of speaking, mannerisms, everything about him, that sends a message automatically, no matter what he says to the people he wants to vote for (him) that he's one of them,” he said.
“As soon as you see (Ford) and you hear him speak, it's unique to him...Jean Chretien, for example, also had that, in the past. Del Duca doesn't have that.”
But those who know him say he has a good sense of humour, trading dad jokes and offering up self-deprecating remarks.
He has also tried to cultivate a relatable image, often appearing in public wearing a suit with sneakers and ditching his signature black-rimmed glasses after getting laser eye surgery just before the campaign.
“I figured it was easier than trying to grow my hair,” he quips.