Ontario Liberal leadership candidate Sandra Pupatello speaks to sold out crowd at the Toronto Board of Trade on Friday January 18 2013.
Credits: Antonella Artuso/Toronto Sun
WINDSOR, Ont. -- It's a busy Sunday afternoon at Spago, a restaurant in the heart of this city's Little Italy.
There's a group celebrating a baptism at one table. Families heading home from church are gathered at others.
Everyone pauses, though, as Sandra Pupatello walks in.
She's tall and elegant, with a big smile for everyone.
This is a close-knit community -- and she's everyone's favourite daughter.
"She's like a movie star here," restaurant owner Peter Vitti said as he set up a table for us in a prime location.
Pupatello's so popular, it takes her a few minutes to do the rounds of the diners. They all want to give her a hug and wish her well in her bid to become the province's next premier.
Pupatello, 50, is the youngest of the candidates and the frontrunner to replace Dalton McGuinty.
She's the only one from outside the Greater Toronto Area -- a quality she's quick to brag about.
Pupatello never stops telling folk where she's from and what that means.
This city has suffered hard economic woes with the near-collapse of the auto industry. But with two powerful ministers from Windsor -- Finance Minister Dwight Duncan and Pupatello -- the McGuinty government put billions into the auto bailout.
"My city's been through some tough times and we've always come out stronger," Pupatello said. "For the last 16 years that I've been a leader in this community, I've helped us do that.
"My party needs someone who is going to get us through tough times," she said, adding she's that person.
Pupatello spent the first 18 years of her life within a few blocks of the Italian neighbourhood around Erie St. She taught catechism at nearby St. Angela's church. She went to school here and was an avid athlete, playing volleyball, basketball, track and field.
Her dad Mario worked for an auto parts company. Her mom Ada was one of the few Italian-Canadian women in the workforce. She worked her way through the ranks of Immigration Canada to become a counsellor and was something of an inspiration to younger women in the community, Pupatello said.
Her childhood was typical of many Italian youngsters.
"I was forced, like many Italian children, to play music," she recalls. "I had to play the accordion for eight years, but I always wanted to play piano."
She brought her love of Italian culture to Queen's Park.
When she was Minister of Economic Development, selling this province to the world, she'd make her guests espresso in a machine she bought herself. It's a tough world and you have to compete, she explained.
She also brought her love of the Canadian auto industry -- unabashedly showing up in a big Lincoln when other politicians were driving trendy imports or hybrids.
So why did she come back after a year out of politics to run for the top job?
She thinks she's the person who can lead the Liberals to victory in the next election.
"I realized that I had to do it. If I don't run and win, my party's going to lose the next election, and I can't have that," she said.
"The idea that I'm going to sit back and let Tim Hudak talk to my community about a right-to-work state -- are you kidding me?" she said.
She and hubby Jim Bennett have a long-distance relationship. He's a provincial Liberal politician in Newfoundland.
They make the best of their time together, she said, and keep in touch through e-mail, phone and FaceTime.
"My husband has a lot of layers, a lot of interests and that's a good thing.
"He doesn't need me 24/7 and I don't need him 24/7," she said.
So is this province ready for a woman premier? Four other provinces already have women at their helm.
"I hope they're ready for an Italian-Canadian woman from Windsor," she laughed. It's more about her style, she said.
"It's a plain-speaking, up-front style that's more important now than being a woman."
I asked Vitti about Pupatello and what she'd done for the city.
Vitti, who works during the week for an auto manufacturer doesn't hesitate.
"Without the bailout, we'd be Flint, Michigan," he says.
So, will it be espressos all round in the premier's office, Jan. 27?