Loathed by the left, lauded by the right, Sue-Ann Levy, the self-described “shit disturber” covering City Hall for the Toronto Sun, has become one of the city’s most divisive voices. Notoriously antagonistic on Twitter, where she gleefully skewers the anti-Ford camp, Levy has made a living courting controversy. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
Sue-Ann Levy is a riddle wrapped in an enigma embedded in a tweet.
The Toronto Sun’s City Hall columnist has been called a dyke, a moron, a racist, a kike, a Twitter troll, and a pit bull, yet she is also described as a loyal friend, a fierce champion of underdogs, and a passionate advocate for gay rights, transparent governance, and Jewish causes. She picks fights in the virtual world with everyone from Margaret Atwood to firemen, hurling sarcastic epithets, but in person is warm, unpretentious, and quick to laugh.
It’s difficult to peg her. Even her enemies find her contradictions fascinating. What you can say with some certainty is that, in a municipal environment so polarized that it borders on cartoonish, Levy has become a mascot for divisiveness: Loathed and shunned, some councillors literally physically run away from her, while others echo the sentiment of councillor Frances Nunziata, who says “she’s the only journalist whose call I feel comfortable taking. You don’t know who you can trust anymore.”
In late October, Levy got into a Twitter brawl with fellow journos for using the hashtag #MuslimBS in reference to Obama’s stance on Israel. She was on vacation in Florida at the time, within spitting distance of the presidential debate. And spit she did. When Jonathan Kay of the National Post pushed her to clarify what she meant by her hashtag, she dodged him. “Not my beat. Wouldn’t want to tread on your turf,” she tweeted. Kay replied, “If u keep it up as a point of pride, you’ll look like a Birther.” Others chimed in. “Remember what your Mom told you when you saw a crazy person in the street,” tweeted the Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt. “Don’t make eye contact.”
The hashtag prompted the Toronto Sun to release a statement clarifying that it didn’t share Levy’s views. It was a somewhat simpler gesture than the one required last year, when editors published an official apology after she called TTC union chief Bob Kinnear “a mob boss.”
Last Tuesday at City Hall, she was already monitoring her BlackBerry for two brand-new shit storms. We met in the scuffed and sadly furnished no-man’s land that is the press gallery. Quebecor, owner of Sun Media, had just announced that it was laying off 500 employees, which theoretically might have included her. “We’re already operating on a shoe-string,” she muttered, “it’s so pathetic.” Meanwhile, Rob Ford was about to go on trial for libel, with Levy on stand-by as a subpoenaed witness to Ford’s allegedly libellous comments about Boardwalk Pub owner George Foulidis during a Toronto Sun editorial board meeting. (Foulidis, incensed by Levy’s coverage of the affair, has banned her from ever entering his premises.)
You might expect her to have been tense, but she wasn’t a bit. A pretty woman in her 50s wearing a simple black skirt and a coat that was a present from her mom, Levy showed me around her office, pointing out pictures of her two beloved dachshunds. She has no children, although she and her wife tried to adopt an Arab boy from an orphanage in Haifa, and were eventually thwarted by red tape.
We went to grab coffee in City Hall’s café, and she offered her take on the Foulidis case: “I think he’s very, very foolish to be doing what he’s doing. He’s trying to allege that in an editorial board at the Sun, Rob Ford said that his 20-year deal with the city stunk… I don’t know why you would go to court and bring out any more about that deal.”
She didn’t think she was really going to be called as a witness. It was a tactic “to keep me out of the courtroom so that I can’t write about it.”
Levy certainly sticks to her guns, which drives her detractors up the wall and yet draws supporters to her side. “She cares passionately about issues—rightly or wrongly,” says lawyer and filmmaker Martin Gladstone, whose campaign to keep the group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid out of last year’s Pride Parade was championed by Levy. “But she’s coming from a good place,” he insists. “People are very loyal to her because they trust her to raise the hard questions.”
Her friend and Sun colleague Moira MacDonald jokingly dubbed her Cruella after overhearing her telephone interview technique in the late ’90s. But that was when Levy was baring journalistic fangs at Mel Lastman and David Miller. Now that her side, so to speak, is in power, her critics believe that her hard questions have lost focus and become, instead, reactive suspicions amplified by the barroom brawl atmosphere of the Twittersphere.
“Thx to leftist blowhard for showing his true anti-semetic [sic] colours,” she tweeted last year when councillor Adam Vaughan objected to her lobbying City Hall to defund the Pride Parade. Journalist Jonathan Goldsbie replied to the tweet: “You know, I’m pretty sure labelling a public figure anti-Semitic is defamatory, even if you misspell it.”
City councillors find it as hard to resist Levy’s Twitter bait as everyone else. “Just be gone, before someone drops a house on you,” councillor Shelley Carroll, who was Miller’s budget chief, tweeted to Levy in September, prompting her to retort: “Got your back up again, did I Shells? Not a very mayoral comment.”
In a phone interview, Carroll was keen to explain why she took the bait: “I would never engage in that kind of back and forth with any other member of the media,” she said. “She’s regarded more as a Twitter troll than a genuine journalist, and not because she writes for the Sun. I want to be crystal clear about that. The other Sun journalists don’t get personal.” (Levy has called Carroll, variously, the Mistress of Double-Talk, Shelley “I Need a Nutrition Break” Carroll, and Fruit Cake in Crime. On the other hand, Carroll clearly implied in her tweet that Levy was a 1930s-era Hollywood witch. So, you see how Twitter is less an open forum than a downward spiral.)
Why the bait gets taken, for the councillor, is this: “There’s an almost animal quality, a rabid quality to her support for certain issues,” Carroll said, “and she certainly is that for Rob Ford. Sue-Ann gets very, very angry when others take Ford on.”
Needless to say, what all the left-leaning and centrist councillors perceive as rabid, the right-leaning councillors view as passionate, even maternal, à la Sarah Palin in Mama Grizzly mode. Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday, a friend of Levy’s who was the first person she came out of the closet to at City Hall, maintains that she’s simply “a good investigator who gets behind the scenes for information that others miss. She takes it all very seriously.”
Not in a glum way, mind you. She told me that she’d jokingly threatened to toss a fellow passenger off a gay cruise in Puerto Vallarta two weeks ago for supporting Obama. (Not that that makes her a Tea Party Republican. Hell no. She’s an avid fan of Hillary Clinton. But Mama Grizzly is going to defend Israel.)
In her 23 years at the Sun, Levy has pushed relentlessly against corruption and mismanagement, but a couple of factors may be threatening to turn her, now, into a battery-operated toy banging directionlessly against a wall. “I’d argue strenuously,” says her former Toronto Sun editor Rob Granatstein, “that one of her biggest strengths is her ability to fight for the little guy at City Hall—something she accomplished with better results when she was ‘in opposition’ against Miller. I think her effectiveness is muted with Ford in there now. Columnists have found themselves out of jobs because they were too agreeable to those in power, and it makes for weak reading. Wearing the Ford colours has hurt Sue-Ann.” So has the acrimony, he says, that has caused at least four councillors to refuse to talk to her. “That means she struggles to get the other side of the story sometimes. People don’t feel she gives them a fair shake.”
Levy, of course, sees things differently. “I think I get a lot more attention now because I am encouraging the agenda,” she says, as the City Hall café begins to fill up for lunch. “It’s actually happening, now, these things I’ve been writing about for years, like getting control of the unions, streamlining the budget. There’s so much more that can be done… I think all the pushback around Rob Ford is that he’s actually getting stuff done. I find the sideshow very disturbing.” That she is the shiniest act in the sideshow somehow, almost inexplicably, eludes her.
For a time, it appeared that Levy would quit the clamorous world of City Hall to become an MPP. She was tapped by Tim Hudak “out of the blue” to run in a 2009 by-election in St. Paul’s, against current Liberal leadership hopeful Eric Hoskins. But the Tories seemed ambivalent about their candidate. “Hudak went on vacation during my campaign,” she recalls. “There were cabinet ministers who would not be seen with me because I was gay.” She feels the party wanted to appear progressive by fielding a Jewish lesbian, but weren’t actually that interested in supporting her run. (Mel Lastman canvassed for her, though, even though he swore he’d never speak to Levy again when he left office. According to Levy, they’ve since kissed and made up.)
She didn’t win, but she loved the experience. For one thing, it taught her that provincial conservatives were old-style conservatives, and not as progressive and urban as even the most conservative folks at City Hall. “I don’t think Rob Ford’s a homophobe,” she says. “I’ve never thought he was. I know that he has gay people in his life.”
She does feel, as virtually everyone else in the GTA does, that the Ford regime has sparked a bonfire of incivility, whether you blame that on the left or the right, or both. “I’ve grown a very tough skin,” she says. “If you want to be controversial, then you gotta be able to take it. I give, I should receive. The thing that’s devolved over the last couple of years is the sense of professional decency between colleagues. I always felt you shouldn’t go after your colleagues, and I always made it my business not to. I’m appalled, in the last six months, by the way some of my colleagues have taken really personal shots at me.”
When I mention Levy’s sense of dismay about City Hall decorum to National Post freelancer Jonathan Goldsbie, he more or less sprays coffee out his nose. “When I met her, she made fun of my acne. I was stunned. What kind of person does that? She’s a ridiculous hypocrite. She calls one writer and activist a ‘tubby twerp.’ She calls Margaret Atwood ‘La Poodle.’ How does someone like that exist in real life? She’s like an internet troll but in real life!”
Several journalists have been so startled by Levy’s personal attacks that they refuse to discuss her when I request interviews. One, reportedly, chased her across Nathan Phillips Square in a rage. Another emailed me: “I wish to have nothing to do with that person.”
Levy does concede that social media, and Twitter in particular, promotes a certain…impulsivity. “And I got caught up in that,” she allows, referring particularly to the Obama hashtag. Some City Hall journalists were convinced that Levy had destroyed her career with that one tweet, but there’s no evidence of that. Far from being one of the 500 Quebecor employees to lose their gigs, there is chatter online that she will be placed behind a pay wall along with Ezra Levant, two commentators that Sun Media consumers might be willing to fork over cash for.
“She is doing exactly what her bosses want,” says Granatstein. “She is one of the few writers that have carried the Sun as it cut more and more staff. She is delivering what she’s being asked to deliver.”
Nevertheless, her tweeting has been notably subdued in the past few weeks, and she went silent entirely during the U.S. election. “It was interpreted all wrong,” she says, of her Twitter smackdown about Obama. “I mean, I take full responsibility for what I did, and it was unfortunate, but I think it was misunderstood, and it was blown out of all proportion.”
“So, you were thinking more of…”
“His ties, to the Muslim world. It’s hard to express what you think in 140 characters.”
We talk about that a little, about the weirdness of Twitter, about how much her job has changed since she started and was merely expected to write columns, about the pressures now to be public, to be present even when you’re on vacation. “I should never have taken my BlackBerry that night,” she says. “I still pride myself on being a shit disturber, but I am going to be a little bit more careful. You want to keep your name out there, for sure, but I didn’t need that kind of attention, believe me.”
And at this, she laughs merrily.
Next Page: A brief history of Sue-Ann Levy’s Twitter spats