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New Democrats really, really, really don't like Ross Romano

'I really hate Ross Romano.... Here's $630 of my money to just get rid of him' – Thunder Bay-Atikokan MPP Judith Monteith-Farrell

As Michele McCleave-Kennedy was acclaimed last week as Sault Ste. Marie's New Democratic Party candidate in the 2022 provincial election, a great deal was made of the number 413.

That, we were told repeatedly by John Vanthof, deputy leader of the Ontario NDP, was the number of votes by which McCleave-Kennedy lost to Conservative Ross Romano in the last general election in 2018.

In a provincial riding, a 413-vote victory is a squeaker.

Vanthof and other NDP officials are convinced Romano is politically vulnerable and McCleave-Kennedy can handily win back the riding.

"Michele, you will always remember 413," Vanthof told McCleave-Kennedy during the Feb. 25 Zoom meeting.

"Believe me, when you're sitting at Queen's Park, when we're actually a majority government and we're making decisions, you will always remember 413."

Party whip shows up late for meeting

Vanthof is a dairy farmer from Earlton in the prairie-like Lesser Clay Belt traversed by Highway 11 near the north end of Lake Timiskaming.

He's the MPP for Timiskaming-Cochrane, the NDP's agriculture critic and the party whip responsible for maintaining discipline among caucus members.

Vanthof is also a former NDP finance critic.

Last week, he was boasting to the Sault Ste. Marie Riding Association about his proficiency with numbers, then perplexingly apologizing for poor math skills.

"The Conservatives always go after me," he told the virtual nomination meeting.

"The Conservatives one day were talking that the NDP know nothing about finance. I said wait a minute – that's all changed because I'm finance critic now and we can even do decimals. Nine, nine and a half. They didn't think that was that funny. But I thought it was funny."

"I'm not very good at math," he said at another point in the meeting. "I can only go to nine and a half."

How to shake down a riding association

New Democrats are known for aggressive fundraising at nomination meetings.

Vanthof, the maybe-proficient numbers guy, was brought in specifically to extract donations from the Sault party faithful.

Vanthof, the party disciplinarian, showed up late for the meeting.

"I have an admission to make," he said.

"My uncle [Ernie Hardeman] is the minister of agriculture in Doug Ford's government. I have to fight my Conservative roots all the time. And this is one of the examples. I show up late and I ask for money. You show up late and shake people down."

Skill level: $630

So Vanthof started his Sault shakedown by fishing for big-spender donations of $630.

"In 2007, I lost my first election by 630 votes. I know what it feels like to come so close," he said.

"It would really warm my tiny blue, old Conservative heart if somebody would like to give 630 bucks."

"You'll get a big tax rebate. So actually, the government will pay you to get rid of Doug Ford. How good a deal is that?"

The average NDP supporter donates just $29, but Vanthof flushed out several donors at the $630 level.

One was Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Mike Mantha.

Another was Thunder Bay-Atikokan MPP Judith Monteith-Farrell, who made no secret of her intense dislike of Ross Romano.

"I really hate Ross Romano," she said. "Here's $630 of my money to just get rid of him."

Skill level: $413

Vanthof then pivoted to pitching for $413 donations to ensure McCleave-Kennedy's squeaker loss doesn't happen again.

"On that note, I'm not going to stop until I get somebody to pledge $413. That is going to be the lucky pledge that puts us over the stop."

At this level, he found so many takers he quipped: "That's the best funding spree I've ever seen."

But there was a slight problem.

Vanthof the numbers guy was wrong about both McCleave-Kennedy's 413-vote loss and his own 630-vote loss.

Skill Level: ?

A SooToday review of Elections Ontario records found McCleave-Kennedy actually lost by 414 votes and Vanthof lost by 634 votes.  

Some Sault supporters seemed aware of the McCleave-Kennedy discrepancy and tried to signal it to Vanthof by making $415 donations.

"I'll pledge $415," party stalwart Gayle Manley told him, placing a clear verbal emphasis on the 15.

"You're afraid of the 13?" Vanthof asked her.

"No, I just want to make sure it goes over," Manley said.

Just say NOPE

When someone mentioned the rival Northern Ontario Party, Vanthof launched into a surprising confession of political dirty trickery.

"I'm going to have to make an admission to you," he said.

"I'm usually a very upstanding guy. Usually."

"But I have to admit I was once in a parade with the Northern Ontario Party and they had, on their parade it had: NOP. And I had a magic marker and I put 'E' on the end."

"I hope this isn't being recorded. I will probably be disqualified for something. It was well worth the effort, anyway," Vanthof said, giggling almost uncontrollably.

Teachers' unions send in reinforcements

Numerical slips and dirty tricks aside, three unassailable facts emerged from last week's nomination meeting: a strong respect for McCleave-Kennedy, a profound dislike for Sault MPP Ross Romano, and iron determination from powerful teachers' unions to put boots on the ground here and cash in party coffers to remove Romano from office.

"Michele lost by 400 votes," said Sudbury MPP Jamie West.

"The way Romano acts," West said, you would think that he won by France Gélinas numbers. He barely slipped by. This is a winnable riding. He is a person who is not very popular. He has not done good work at Queen's Park." 

"We really need to work to get rid of Ross Romano. I feel sorry for the constituents that have him as your MPP," said Judith Monteith-Farrell, the Thunder Bay-Atikokan MPP.

"I would rather win by one vote instead of winning by 10,000, and making sure that both of us are over at Queen's Park," Algoma-Manitoulin's Mantha told McCleave-Kennedy, pledging considerable resources to ensure she's elected this time.

"Romano has been invisible. Continues to be invisible. The scandal at Laurentian University is entirely at his feet and he has been silent about it," said Jeff Arbus, Sault candidate in the 2007 provincial election.

"I'm very much in support of Michele, and I very much want to get rid of Ross Romano. I must admit, talking to him is like talking to a piece of board," said Bud Wildman, Algoma MPP from 1975 to 1999.

Added Darrell Czop, president of Huron-Superior Catholic Teachers Association: "Ross has never returned a call to our local unit, when we reached out to him."

For the people

"I even think that the Conservatives want to get rid of Ross," chortled Vanthof.

"When Ford got elected... every Conservative got a stupid little brass plaque on their desk that said: 'For the people.' If you need to have a brass plaque on your desk that says 'For the people' that's the first sign that you don't give a sh*t about the people.They've lost those brass plaques and they're going to lose their seats."

McCleave-Kennedy is president of Sault Ste. Marie District Labour Council, a vice-president at Ontario Federation of Labour and a provincial committee member of Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation.

She is employed by Algoma District School Board, working with special-needs students.

Other biographical facts:

  • committee member on the local immigration partnership
  • member of the Future SSM initiative
  • volunteer with United Way, Rotary Club, Kiwanis, St. Vincent’s Place and Pauline’s Place projects
  • has coached baseball and figure skating for past 25 years

"We will win this riding back," McCleave-Kennedy told her nomination meeting.

"We will make this riding orange and we will find Ross a different job somewhere else."