With Olivia Chow in the race for Toronto mayor, how will her late husband’s legacy factor into the election?
From his election in 2010 through the first half of 2011, Mayor Rob Ford experienced a winning streak. On a rampage to “cut the gravy train,” Ford had repealed the vehicle registration tax, halted the Transit City LRT-building plans, and was in the process of contracting out part of Toronto’s garbage collection. Meanwhile, consultants hired by the city had proposed closing libraries, ending snowplow service on side streets, and stopping the practice of fluoridating the water.
For progressive Torontonians, the full implications of Ford Nation’s penny-pinching were sinking in: a grim dismantling of the municipal government. This was the civic backdrop on Aug. 22 of that year when federal New Democratic Party leader and former city councillor Jack Layton died of cancer. Only a few months earlier, he had led his party to its Orange Crush victory, making history as the NDP became the official opposition in Ottawa for the first time. When he died, Layton was at the peak of his career and was arguably the country’s most popular and beloved politician.
Deep sorrow was shared nationwide, but it was particularly evident here in Toronto, where mourners gathered in Nathan Phillips Square outside of City Hall. They chalked messages of grief on the ground and the concrete risers. “My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair,” read the most prominent orange letters, repeating Layton’s deathbed message. “So let us be loving, hopeful, and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.” In a city gripped by divisive fights and dour negativity, it seemed like more than a memorial. It was a rallying cry.
Back then many of us believed the shock and reflection following Layton’s death, felt so profoundly in the Toronto political circles he helped form, might inspire a new era in the city’s history. Today, almost three years later, Ford’s administration is in shambles and Toronto is a punchline on late-night television—and Olivia Chow, Layton’s widow and longtime political partner, is running for mayor. In March, she relinquished her MP’s seat and launched her campaign with a splash, following a book tour for her memoir, My Journey, and after months of will-she-or-won’t-she speculation. Though she’s had her own successful and separate career, much of her star power is derived from her role as one half of Canada’s premiere leftie duo. In a 2011 Globe and Mail story memorializing Layton and his marriage to Chow, Sandra Martin wrote: “It will be hard to think of one of them without the other, but if the past is any indication, his ideas will live on in her political career.” With Chow now in the mayoral race, that legacy is the unspoken elephant in the room.
Well, maybe not so unspoken. Those opposed to her run have been quick to invoke her late husband—at once aiming to tarnish his record while also suggesting that she isn’t as gifted a politician as he was. When rumours of her candidacy began to circulate in 2012 and polls suggested she could topple the mayor in the next election, Councillor Doug Ford told the press, “She’s no Jack Layton.” At Chow’s campaign launch, Sun News asked her a loaded question about human trafficking in illegal massage parlours, presumably an allusion to a 2011 Sun Media report that Layton was interviewed by police at a Chinatown massage parlour in 1996. On Twitter, school trustee Sam Sotiropoulos reacted to Chow’s promise to donate her MP’s pension to charity if she becomes mayor by asking, “What about Jack’s, will she donate that too? After all, he won’t be needing it.” Chow’s mayoral rival Karen Stintz revived the accusation, dating back to Layton’s 1990 run for mayor, that he and Chow had an unfair deal on their unit in a housing co-op.
As the campaign heats up, questions of how much Chow reflects and represents her husband’s values, work, and political record are bound to persist. So it seems natural now to wonder: How is Jack Layton’s memory a factor in this election? And how will Chow and her team walk the line between honouring her past with Layton and respectfully distancing herself from it?
Family dynasties are nothing new in Canadian politics—especially not at Toronto City Hall. The current mayor regularly mentions his late father, a Mike Harris–era Conservative backbencher. His brother Doug rode into city council on Rob’s coattails—a feat the mayor’s teenaged nephew may attempt in the coming election. In addition to the Fords, there is Josh Colle (son of former councillor and MPP Mike Colle), Frances Nunziata (sister of former MP and mayoral candidate John Nunziata), Adam Vaughan (son of former councillor Colin Vaughan), Michelle Berardinetti (wife of provincial MPP Lorenzo Berardinetti), David Shiner (son of former North York deputy mayor Esther Shiner), and, of course, Mike Layton, son of Jack. Federally and provincially, there are the Trudeaus (Justin following Pierre), the Martins (Paul Jr. following Paul), the McGuintys (Dalton and David following Dalton Sr.) and the Lewises (Stephen following David). Jack Layton was himself the son of one of Brian Mulroney’s cabinet ministers.
In each of these political families, the valuable currencies of name recognition, political connections, and know-how passes from kin to kin. Many voters will seamlessly transpose the good feelings they have for one family member to another, assuming shared policy ideas and values.
But for candidates grabbing the baton from more famous family members, there are downsides, too. As Justin Trudeau has found as leader of the federal Liberals, one may suffer in comparison (in Trudeau’s case, critics wonder if he has his father’s intellect and gravitas) while still being expected to answer for their relation’s less popular actions (for Trudeau, his father’s disastrous 1970s fiscal policy and a tense relationship with the west).
Of course, Chow’s situation is different. “It’s important to acknowledge that she’s had her own career,” says John Moore, who follows local politics on his Newstalk 1010 radio show (disclosure: I’m also a host on 1010). “It’s not like she slipped into the mantle he left behind.”
Indeed, Hillary Clinton—a woman who had an active political partnership with her husband, such as handling the healthcare file while he was president—is a closer analogue. During his 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton liked to promise voters they would get “two for the price of one.” Chow, it should be noted, was an elected official prior to her marriage to Layton. She was a school-board trustee when they met and later worked as a councillor, a member of the budget committee, and the city’s children’s advocate. As an NDP MP, she was the party’s transit critic.
It is equally true, though, that her marriage helped define Chow’s identity and profile as a politician (as it did for Layton). When he became leader of the federal NDP and she followed him to Ottawa, her visibility increased. Tellingly, much of the speculation leading up to her mayoral run mentioned the goodwill she’d built up in the days after Layton’s death.
“The strongest image…was Chow, dry-eyed, her face immobile, like wax, standing by her husband’s coffin in Ottawa, in Toronto, and at the state funeral at Roy Thomson Hall,” wrote Toronto Star reporter Linda Diebel in June 2013. She quoted former Layton advisor Anne McGrath on the “special bond” Chow formed with Torontonians in that moment. “She was so calm, serene, almost regal, and yet, at the same time, broken-hearted,” McGrath said. “People couldn’t help forming an emotional connection with her.”
I’ve encountered this goodwill myself. Last fall, I spoke with a self-proclaimed member of Ford Nation, a cab driver from Scarborough named Naser Kaid, who told me he intended to vote for Rob Ford in the 2014 election. The only other candidate he’d consider was Olivia Chow. When I asked him why—I mean, Ford and Chow couldn’t be more politically opposed—Kaid said he had met Layton and liked him, and believed he had spent his career defending the little guy. Kaid thought Chow, as Layton’s widow, likely shared those values.
Mark Towhey, who was a policy advisor to Rob Ford’s 2010 campaign and later his chief of staff, says Chow’s association with Layton’s memory gives her a leg up now, though it may not be a factor throughout the campaign. “That certainly increased her profile, and it surrounded her with a cushion of goodwill and sympathy, and that’s good for her…. I think the danger is if her supporters carry it too far, and try to paint it as ‘Jack Layton lives on.’ That could backfire.”
Chow’s people are aware of the peril of overplaying the Jack Layton card—or of playing it at all. Though her team includes former members of Layton’s inner circle such as Brian Topp (who is volunteering for the campaign as an advisor on policy issues) and Jamey Heath (Layton’s communications director from 2002 to 2006, now filling the same role for Chow) you won’t find any photos of Layton on her website, or see his inspirational words on her campaign signs.
“Jack is a part of Olivia’s life—both her political experience and also her personal life,” Heath says. “The way that we deal with that is factual. If there is a personal example, then it would be appropriate to use it, in the same way that Mr. Ford would discuss his own father. If there is a political example…if Jack and Olivia worked together on something at City Hall or in Parliament, then it would be perfectly appropriate to mention that, because they did have a political partnership.”
Heath stresses that he’s not talking about “political advantage.” And therein lies the danger in what could be a political asset. As much as Chow may benefit from her marriage to a man who has been elevated to a position of civic sainthood next to William Lyon MacKenzie and Jane Jacobs, her team is careful to avoid the appearance of exploiting Layton’s death for political gain. It’s a strange bind: Chow did, after all, help create that legacy.
Of course, her opponents face a similar minefield. Doug Ford’s crack about Chow being “no Jack Layton,” is the kind of tone-deaf statement her opponents need to avoid. In one crass sound-bite, Ford diminished the memory of Layton, insulted a still-grieving widow (whose grief, furthermore, is widely shared), and made a sexist supposition that Chow, an accomplished politician in her own right, is nothing more than a wife.
Then there’s Stintz, who raised the 24-year-old co-op rental controversy. The same story, as well as negative chatter about Layton and Chow’s travel expenses while he was NDP leader, has been trotted out by conservative pundits, as well as some enthusiastic supporters of the John Tory campaign.
Tory’s official mayoral campaign team, though, has consciously steered clear of mentioning Layton. They have settled on something subtler: branding Chow the “NDP candidate” in the nominally non-partisan world of municipal politics. However odd it may be for a former Ontario Conservative party leader to be pitching himself as the non-partisan in this race, Chow’s own recent past as an NDP MP and especially her strong association with its most successful leader makes his charge that she is too much of a socialist to lead Toronto a potentially more effective criticism.
In the end, the Layton Effect may simply be, as Heath puts it, “factual.” Her husband’s death may have set Chow on the path to the mayoral race—can anyone imagine she’d be running to lead the city if Layton were still alive and aiming to become prime minister?—but as a political conundrum, it may be less of an issue as the campaign continues.
CTV News political analyst Scott Reid tells me that Chow entered the race as “a powerhouse candidate”: “She’s a potent political force for all of the years she spent building this political partnership with Jack Layton, and now after his passing, that aura, that brand, that quality has only been amplified.”
That gave her chops, he says. “But from this point forward, she’ll be evaluated as candidate Chow, not the hyphenated candidate Chow-Layton.” Like everyone I spoke to, Reid made a point of noting that he was reluctant to talk strategy about the death of a human being and that he believed Chow to be a formidable politician.
Chow said in the Star interview with Diebel that her memoir, released earlier this year, was an attempt to close the chapter of her life she shared with Layton and to “think more of the future.” Chow’s real, post-Layton political future begins now.
While some people I spoke to say she lacks his populist bonhomie and easy salesmanship, others have argued that she has her own appealing qualities. She is an immigrant and an Asian woman—providing a perspective that is attractive to many who wish the city’s politicians better reflected its diversity. Unlike Layton, she is a pragmatist known for digging into the details instead of discussing big dreams; she is more apt to negotiate and work through back channels than to make flamboyant speeches.
All of which indicates that the candidate presumed to represent the “together we’ll change the world” spirit may actually wind up talking more about how together we can change the bus schedule. But in a race where the other big-name candidates are either named Rob Ford or running on a smarter, more functional, less drug-scandal-prone version of his austere political mantra, the ground Layton’s inspiring memory occupies has been ceded to his natural inheritor. Chow may not offer the lofty rhetoric we might have expected from Layton Nation in those painful but optimistic days of August 2011, but she is as close as we will get in this race.
Perhaps her approach will be more appropriate to the mood of the electorate in 2014. Loving and hopeful and optimistic, sure, but not in so many words, and in a style that will come to be seen as all her own.