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Rural Riding the Liberals Want to Win Back

Wynne Drops by Stratford to Rally Support for Farm Candidate Stewart Skinner

By Amanda Brodhagen,

In the final days the campaign, Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne made a stop in Stratford, Ont., in the rural riding of Perth-Wellington to provide support to Liberal candidate Stewart Skinner.

“You love all your candidates, but some of them just have a special place in your heart,” Wynne said.

Stewart, who is a pig farmer, has accompanied the Premier in her dual role as agriculture minister to several farm shows since he was announced as the Liberal candidate last year, including Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show in Woodstock, and the London Farm Show in London.

About 100 people gathered at the Monforte restaurant located in downtown Stratford on Wellington Street, for an exclusive supporters only event. The restaurant is an extension of Monforte Dairy, which makes artisan cheeses.

The owner of the restaurant, Ruth Klashsen, won a Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence in 2013. Klashsen plans to use the award to help establish a cheesmaking school that is expected to open in 2015.

Wynne took the opportunity to plug her party’s platform, specifically highlighting her pledge to establish a $40 million food-processing fund, with the intention of providing monies to support value-added ventures in the agri-food sector.

“If we are going to compete globally in our agri-food industry then we need to follow the lead of people like Ruth who are showing us how things are done,” she said.

The riding is a sore spot for the Liberals, who lost the seat in 2011 to Progressive Conservative newcomer Randy Pettapiece by a slim margin of about 200 votes.

Former cabinet minister John Wilkinson who held the riding previously, was elected in 2003 and served two terms before he got the boot in the last election. Interestingly, Wilkinson served as co-chair for Wynne’s leadership bid. And prior to his defeat, some party insiders suggested that Wilkinson planed to take a run at the leadership. But those dreams were dashed.

Why did Wilkinson lose?

It is thought that strong opposition to wind turbines from rural landowners in combination with a lower than anticipated Stratford voter turnout (the most urban area in the riding), were key factors that may have cost Wilkinson the election. While he is no longer a representative, Wilkinson still wields a significant amount of sway in the party and in the riding.

“There was a former Liberal member of Perth-Wellington who use to talk about this riding having the best agricultural land in the world,” said Wynne, her statement was followed by loud cheers from the crowd.

But the dynamics are different this time around. The PC incumbent has the advantage, like most incumbents do.  And if wind turbines were the issue for the Liberals in 2011, it will be hard to gain back those votes, especially since Pettapiece and his party have taken a strong stance against wind projects.

A few other things to consider - the Liberals have a different candidate, a farmer, who’s not from Stratford and not a cabinet minister. With those factors in mind, some would argue that Skinner is a weaker candidate than Wilkinson, making it more likely for the PCs to make gains rather than losing the riding back to the Liberals. And to top it all off, it’s unknown how the NDP vote will play into the mix.

Will the Liberal candidate be able to steal away traditional PC supporters (farmers) because of his agricultural background? If so, will it be enough to make a difference? The verdict will come on Election Day, June 12.