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Bonnie Crombie's next battle
She says she's bristled the Premier's feathers. Does Mississauga's mayor have what it takes to beat Doug Ford at the ballot box?
Bonnie Crombie is busy — but it's only getting busier for Mississauga's mayor.
A self described "workaholic," this last month has been no exception.
Crombie was at Queen's Park as legislation to kibosh Peel Region was tabled, paving the way for the Mississauga's independence — a major win for city's longtime mayor. "Today is so very important," said a cheerful, surprised Crombie.
Less than a week later, she was on to her next battle.
With word breaking in this newsletter over the May Two Four weekend of her plans to make a jump from City Hall to Queen's Park, Crombie was back in Toronto to launch an "exploratory bid" for the provincial Grit leadership, with her schedule chockfull with dozens of interviews and campaign huddles.
While Grit circles had long been buzzing about her possible candidacy, Crombie wouldn't blink.
Like a seasoned politician, she often sidestepped reporters' questions on whether she'd seek to lead the unrecognized Liberals, saying she's "entirely focused" on Mississauga, citing her love for the city and the gig at City Hall.
She's no stranger to the political world — it's been a big part of her life. "I've dedicated the better part of my life towards community service," she says. Crombie met her former husband in a leadership race — working on former captain David Peterson's team. Her eldest son was a staffer at Queen's Park.
"She got us all into politics," Alex says. "I can remember going with her all throughout Toronto and then in Mississauga, campaigning for different candidates. It just got us really intrigued in politics," her eldest adds.
Born in the Roncesvalles neighbourhood in downtown Toronto to Polish immigrants, Mississauga's mayor quips that the "most Scottish-sounding woman you've ever met is actually Polish — but I am."
She isn't shy of her roots — reflecting on her "very humble" upbringing. "We didn't have a car. We didn't have vacations. My mother took the Red Rocket to work at Massey Ferguson. We didn't go out for dinner, but life was wonderful. We made pickles and pierogies and sauerkraut and cabbage rolls. We had an enormous family around us. I never felt I wanted anything else," she explains.
"If we were lower middle class, I didn't know it."
At a young age, her parents separated. She and her mother lived in a rooming house with her grandparents — the janitor at the Globe and Mail and a seamstress. Her mother remarried when she was ten and Crombie's family settled in Etobicoke, where she attended high school.
"I like to tease the Premier that I'm also an Etobicoke girl," she says and laughs.
For the mother of three, it's all about family. The Crombies are close.
"We have a group chat. We talk to each other all day. We try to have Sunday dinners. I'm proud of each and every one of them," the mother of three says. "She'll make all of us come over for Sunday dinners at her house — and she'll force it upon the family whether we want to or not, have other obligations or not," Alex says.
"She's the type of mom that will always pick up my call," Natasha, her youngest, says, describing her "bestfriend" relationship with her mom. "I actually mean that in a hilarious sense that she'll pick up my FaceTime call when she's in the middle of a meeting and be like 'Natasha are you dying? Are you okay?'"
"I'm like, mom, don't pick up if you're busy," Natasha says, laughing. "She’s like 'I'm your mom, I always will pick up.'"
"Well, now I feel bad that I bothered," she quips.
"Having a mom that's been involved in politics, I think about it now, looking back at all the years, and it's crazy what we've all gone through," she later adds. "She's a women who does it all," Jonathan says.
Even her mother Veronica agrees.
"You're making me teary-eyed," Crombie says, whipping her eyes, when we ask about her mother, who she describes as her "strongest champion." "She has been very supportive of my career," Crombie reflects.
"She thinks I work too hard," Crombie adds. Veronica often complains that while her friends' daughters "take their mothers out each and every day on errands and outings," Bonnie doesn't.
"I say, well, you raised me too ambitious, I guess," Crombie jokes.
It was during her time in high school that Crombie got involved with Liberal politics. "I had a friend whose uncle was the Minister of Multiculturalism," Crombie says, reflecting on door-knocking and delivering flyers for Stanley Haidasz during the Pierre Trudeau era.
"I learned more about what the party was about and I thought this spoke to me," she says. "I joined and I've always been engaged. I've always been involved at the grassroots level."
Attending the University of Toronto, she graduated with a degree in political science and international relations. She later moved to Paris, where she studied French, before stepping foot into the corporate world as a public affairs consultant, with clients including McDonald's and Walt Disney.
She then launched her own firm and earned an MBA from York's Schulich School of Business. A woman of many degrees, she recalls being told "work hard, get a good education and I could succeed."
Crombie left the corporate world to run for a federal seat. "I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to be asked to run," she says. "The party came to me and said 'you're a woman with strong business experience and a long tenure in the party. It's time for you to put your name forward.' I did and I was successful."
Crombie defeated Tory Wajid Khan in Streetsville — a Liberal who had crossed the floor to join Stephen Harper's Conservatives. "I had the best job," she says, reflecting on how "majestic it is" to enter House of Commons.
Then she was defeated.
"I took the early retirement package," she says, with the Tories surging to a majority government. Crombie, looking back on one of her biggest upsets, describes feeling "like I let down the party and my team." "I lost a very safe seat. It still gives me grief that somehow I could have done more to make a difference."
"They told me defeat would make me stronger. I didn't believe it at the time but I think it sure has."
On the night of her federal defeat, Hazel McCallion showed up. The late Hurricane Hazel urged Crombie to jump to municipal politics with a vacancy in the ward Eve Adams — a new federal rep — held locally. "I'll be honest with you, I hadn't considered it," Crombie recalls. "I didn't know a lot about roads, bridges and municipal planning and zoning but I learned pretty quick."
"I found municipal politics is where the rubber hits the road," she says.
With McCallion set to retire, the city's matriarch summoned Crombie to her office, encouraging her to run for mayor.
"I never thought I'd overcome walking in the footsteps of Hazel McCallion, filling those big shoes," she recalls. "I struck my own path and my own stride and people said: well, she's not Hazel but she does okay, we like her too."
But as Mississauga's mayor, her relationship with Premier Doug Ford soured. An irked Ford told Crombie during a presser in December to "get on board" and "stop whining," over her criticism of legislation that would quash municipalities' developer fees.
Crombie fired back.
"I’m not whining, I’m simply doing my job as mayor to stand up for our residents and taxpayers," Crombie said in a lengthy statement on Ford's tirade.
"I have a certain style where I'm very direct, very forthright," Crombie says looking back on the spat, laughing it off, calling it "unintentional." "I think it was my style of being very direct that made him bristle. I found that my input was very constructive, he thought it was very critical," she added.
"And I will say that there were other mayors — Mayor John Tory for example — that had the same key messaging. But yeah, it was me that made him bristle."
Privately, Crombie says she and Ford later cleared the air. "He did apologize to me," she says. "I told the Premier 'you can criticize me anytime, that's your job.' I will say I had all kinds of people defend me that I'd never met before so I said 'I think you only elevated my profile.'"
Her last battle with the province was won days before she made official her jump from the Mayor's Office to the Pink Palace. The Ford government tabled legislation to dissolve Peel Region — paving the way for Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon to become their own standalone municipalities.
"I never imagined that [Ford] would actually move on it this quickly," Crombie recalls, a decision she said "fulfilled" Hazel McCallion's legacy. "I assumed that I would have to put my name in the race and become successful to make it a reality," she adds. "Suddenly, there was an announcement."
"I was over the moon when it happened. I still didn't believe it, that it would happen."
Now, it's all steam ahead for Crombie's next battle.
She's seeking the provincial Liberal leadership — a long rumoured bid by the heavyweight Liberal. "I still believe politics is a noble calling," the fourth Grit to enter the fray says of her bid. "I feel called."
"Having served at two levels of government, I'm the only one with the long consecutive record in governing with a four billion dollar budget. I think that what I bring is not only my passion for the community but also strong, experienced leadership," she laid out.
"If I wrestle the feathers of the Premier, even better," she laughs.
"We lost our direction," she says when asked about what went wrong for the Grits in their last bid for power. "I think we tried to be all things to all people and you can't do that. I think we need to be focused on providing the best care for the common good. We need to take our roots back to the center and be that centrist party. I think the party went too far to the left and we were attempting to deliver programs better funded by the feds." she explains.
It was her comment — "we govern from right of centre" — that had Crombie under hot water less than a day into her unofficial launch.
Looking back, a remorseful Crombie has her regrets.
"I had stopped short of saying that when they said give me an example on where we went too far and I said 'dental care and child care.' I should have finished the sentence by saying those would be better funded by the federal government in partnership, let the province deliver it," she says.
For leader Crombie, rebuilding the unrecognized Grits is an effort from the bottom up. "I think it takes reinvigorating the brand, building back trust with people. It takes someone who can attract good candidates and put together a policy platform with the grassroots that will resonate with people. Someone who can build a war chest to fight this government," she spells out.
But for some Liberal insiders, the question often asked is why Crombie, the popular mayor in Canada's sixth largest, would leave City Hall for Queen's Park.
On her part, the answer is simple.
"Because I care," she quickly responds. "I care about the people and I care about the province. If people feel that I'm the person that can make a change and make the difference then I have that calling. I need to step up and do so," she adds.
"I never signed up for a job that was comfortable, that I earned a large paycheck. I have a very comfortable paycheck — I'm not saying that. But I signed up to be a politician because I could make change, positive change in people's lives."
"Will you regret this?" we ask.
"No! Gosh no," she quickly says.
"Every road is a new adventure," Crombie concedes.
"When you give it your heart — what was the song? Life is a Highway? This is a new challenge and a new adventure but you have to put your heart and soul in it because it's a big challenge."