TORONTO - Ontario Liberals have selected Bonnie Crombie, a three-term big city mayor and former MP who boasts that she gets under the skin of Premier Doug Ford, as their next leader to go head to head with the premier in the next provincial election.

Crombie was voted to the top job as the legislature's third party looks to rebuild following two successive electoral drubbings, and she said there is a lot of hard work ahead between now and the 2026 campaign.

“We have built this big, strong Liberal team and now, I hate to break it to you, but we have to dig a little deeper,” she told the leadership convention crowd in her victory speech Saturday.

“You know why, because Doug Ford and his Conservatives, they will be coming after us any minute now, so we have to be ready. We have to be ready to work even harder, but together...Ford and his cronies have been the opponents in our sights for this entire campaign.”

The mayor of Mississauga, Ont., beat Liberal MP Nate Erskine-Smith, Liberal MP and former provincial cabinet minister Yasir Naqvi, and former Liberal MP and current provincial caucus member Ted Hsu at an Ontario Liberal leadership convention that went through three rounds of ballot counting.

Crombie said she wants to see through the Mississauga and Peel Region budgets, then plans to resign as mayor “early in the new year.” She is so far undecided on whether she will seek a seat in the legislature, or if she will just travel the province to introduce herself to voters and drum up support for the party.

The Liberals had boasted that the leadership race saw the candidates sign up a record number of members, with more than 100,000 people eligible to vote for the new leader - up from 44,000 and 38,000 in the two previous contests.

But only a fraction of those members cast ballots last weekend, with 22,827 people voting. The party noted the turnout was higher than the 12,988 Ontario Liberals who cast ballots in the 2020 leadership race and more than the 19,438 in 2013.

Crombie, as Mississauga mayor, has been a vocal opponent of Ford's changes to how municipalities collect certain fees from developers that help the cities fund infrastructure - the Association of Municipalities of Ontario has said the move shortchanged municipalities by $5 billion - and has pushed hard for the dissolution of Peel Region where her Toronto-area city is located.

“I've had the opportunity to go toe to toe with Doug Ford on many occasions, and I know that I rankle him,” she said during the party's first official debate. “And I think that's a pretty good thing.”

Polling suggests that of all the Liberal leadership candidates, the party stands to perform best against the Progressive Conservatives in the next election with Crombie at the helm.

The Tories are trying to portray her as an elitist who will increase taxes, while the NDP are suggesting she is similar to Ford.

“Sounds to me like they're very concerned,” Crombie said of the PCs. “I think they should be concerned.”

Crombie was elected mayor of Mississauga in 2014. Prior to that she was a city councillor, and before that she served as a Mississauga-area Liberal MP.

The mother of three rattled off a brief biography for the convention attendees. Her mother was born in Poland and the family moved to France just before war broke out. Her grandfather fought against the Nazis and was captured, but when he was liberated the family moved to Ontario, she said.

Crombie's biological father struggled with addiction and mental illness and her parents split up when she was three. She then lived with her mother in a rooming house in Toronto.

“I want to tell you this because it shaped who I am today,” Crombie said. “My mom taught me resilience. She instilled in me the values of education, hard work, saving your pennies, never taking anything for granted.”

Her campaign garnered strong support despite a few early missteps, including suggesting the idea of doing more Greenbelt land swaps in a Globe and Mail interview before reversing her stance. She also suggested to TVO that she would govern from the right of centre, then walked the statement back.

Other candidates were also critical of her fundraising. The Trillium looked at fundraising data and reported that Crombie's campaign received more donations from developers and builders, prompting comparisons to Ford.

As perceived front-runner she became target of much of the other candidates' criticism, and she largely refrained from hitting back, except when she perceived a remark from Erskine-Smith to be ageist.

He had raised her age - 63 - in the context of suggesting he, in his late 30s, had more longevity as a party leader if the Liberals' path back to victory takes more than one more election cycle.

Crombie wrote an op-ed in the Toronto Star saying she had considered staying quiet about the slight, but she thought of all women in politics and particularly of her mentor, Hazel McCallion, who retired as mayor of Mississauga at age 93.

“And I thought screw it,” she wrote.

“Direct or veiled, any suggestion that a woman's age has a negative impact on her ability to contribute, to make a difference or make a long-term commitment to her work, isn't just plain wrong - it's harmful.”

Party members voted using ranked ballots and points were awarded on a weighted system.

Hsu secured the fewest points in the first round of voting and fell off the ballot for the second round.

Naqvi then dropped off the ballot for the third round, leaving the final contenders down to Crombie and Erskine-Smith. Naqvi and Erskine-Smith had urged their supporters to rank the other second, and the final tally was close: 6,911 for Crombie to Erskine-Smith's 6,029.

Erskine-Smith said it was a tough race.

“I always thought it would be close,” he said. “(Crombie's) team was everywhere. They obviously showed real strength and that's a testament to the ability to build the kind of team we need to be competitive.”

Former premiers Kathleen Wynne and Dalton McGuinty spoke at the convention Saturday, urging members to unite now.

“Our job beginning today is to rally behind the new leader and give them that support,” McGuinty told the crowd.

“Then in the days and years that follow, our job is essentially threefold: encourage our leader, support our leader, defend our leader. All this demands...that we come together and stay together, and it's important to understand - we don't just owe our unity to our leader and to our party, we owe it to our province.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2023.