THUNDER BAY -- Michael Gravelle will be returning to Queen's Park, though he won't have much company on the Liberal benches.
Gravelle on Thursday secured his seventh-straight term in the provincial legislature, withstanding the toughest challenge of his career from the New Democrats' Lise Vaugeois to prevail by 819 votes, the slimmest margin of his 23 years he has been in elected office.
The Thunder Bay-Superior North riding had been claimed by the long-time Liberal incumbent in every election since its inception prior to the 1999 vote. Gravelle had first been elected to the former Port Arthur riding in 1995.
"There's no question this was the toughest campaign I've ever been a part of, of all seven of them, and I could feel it during the campaign," Gravelle said, initially reluctant to declare victory despite the race being called by some national media outlets, as well as Tbnewswatch.com.
"The thousands of people I met at the doors and all across the riding were certainly telling me they wanted to see some change and they still supported me strongly, which was great."
Through the majority of returns Gravelle had narrow leads that held steadily between 500 and 700, though it briefly dropped to below 400 votes with about 15 polls remaining before rebounding and finishing with the biggest edge he held all night.
The anxiety felt by Gravelle and his supporters was similarly experienced over at the NDP camp by Vaugeois and her team.
"It's been like a roller coaster emotionally," Vaugeois said. "Really, I've felt so positive about this campaign and having a fabulous team, about all the people I've met along the way. There's nothing to regret here. We put up a really good fight. It was an excellent campaign and I'm proud of what we've accomplished."
Vaugeois, in her debut entrance in the political ring, was the first challenger to get within 1,000 votes of Gravelle.
"This was the first opportunity many people have had to get to know me. There are many people that I wasn't able to reach during this particular campaign," Vaugeois said. "I'm game to try again and I think we could very well be successful."
The latest victory brings Gravelle back to where he started his tenure in the provincial legislature -- as a member of opposition in a Progressive Conservative majority government. With seven seats, the Liberals will lose official party status in the legislature. Thunder Bay-Atikokan's Bill Mauro was among the many long-time incumbents to suffer defeat.
The overwhelming unanimity of pre-election day polls showing an upcoming Liberal decimation prompted party leader Kathleen Wynne last weekend to publicly concede that her party was not going to form government and her tenure as premier was over.
"I'm truly not sure what impact it had," Gravelle said of how Wynne's declaration might have been received in Thunder Bay-Superior North. "Certainly people had varying reactions to it. I just continued to go and work hard based on the fact that I knew I wanted to continue to represent my constituents as strongly as I can."
The now former minister of northern development and mines said we'll likely find out very quickly what kind of impact premier-elect Doug Ford might have on many of the initiatives the Liberals were developing and implementing in Northwestern Ontario.
"There's many projects obviously that are hugely important to me as they are to my constituents, whether it's the four-laning of the highway or it's the building of all-season road access to the Ring of Fire, whether it's health care or education, there's lots of issues that we have to focus on," Gravelle said.
"I'm going to be working with (the new government) to try to see these projects move forward. I've got experience in opposition so I feel like that will be helpful to me and my constituents."
PC candidate Derek Parks finished third in the riding for the second time in as many elections but nearly tripled his number of votes. He said he was jubilant and grateful the party secured a majority, despite him coming up short in joining them in Queen's Park.
“I think I’ll be active in whatever way Doug and the team feels I can be an asset," Parks said. "It was great experience and I’m happy to lead a team out of the current mess we’ve been in.”
Green Party candidate Amanda Moddejonge finished fourth with 838 votes, followed by the Northern Ontario Party's Andy Wolff, the Trillium Party's Louise Ewen and the Libertarian's Tony Gallo.
Gravelle, a 69-year-old cancer survivor who last year took a five-month leave of absence as he battled depression, quickly shot down the possibility that this could be his final run and said he takes each campaign one at a time.
With files from Michael Charlebois.