Confidence Man: how Glen Murray is positioning himself to grab the reins of political power

Confidence Man: how Glen Murray is positioning himself to grab the reins of political power

The famously gay former mayor of Winnipeg was lured to Toronto by a group of backroom nabobs and remade as an influential member of Dalton McGuinty’s inner circle

Glen Murray | Confidence Man
(Image: Markian Lozowchuk)

Glen Murray had never failed before. Here was a politician with an unblemished record of triumphs—elected three times as a city councillor in Winnipeg, twice as mayor. Then, in 2004, he lost his campaign for a seat as a Manitoba MP, a race he fully expected he’d win. The loss especially hurt because it was so close: by fewer than 1,000 votes.

That summer, happy to have the distraction, he agreed to travel across the U.S. and study regional economic development for the American State Department. The trip gave him time to work out his frustrations and reflect on the vagaries of political life.

Less than 24 hours after returning to Winnipeg, he took a call from the blue-chip Toronto architect Jack Diamond, who was busy building the city’s new opera house. What was Murray doing now, Diamond wanted to know, and would he like to come to Toronto? Diamond, along with the Ace Bakery founder and philanthropist Martin Connell, had pulled together an A-list of urban-issue-obsessed Torontonians who wanted Murray here. John Fraser, the master of Massey College, was on the list, as were Michael Goldbloom, then publisher of the Toronto Star, and George Baird, then dean of U of T’s faculty of architecture, landscape and design. Murray soon had a stack of job offers—a senior residency at Massey College, a fellowship in the faculty of architecture, a position at the Toronto Star writing an urban affairs column—all of which he’d accept. The city had rolled out the red carpet.

Murray moved to Toronto with Rick Neves, his partner of 17 years (a neurosurgery nurse, Neves had taken a job at Toronto Western). It was an easy transition. Murray had lived in Toronto briefly in the ’80s before moving to Winnipeg, and he had many friends here. He also found that his positions at Massey College and U of T put him in constant contact with smart, vivacious young people as well as the establishment types who had the resources and connections to back any political move he might make. After five years in the city, he launched a campaign to run as the MPP of Toronto Centre, and he won handily.

If you didn’t follow municipal politics outside Toronto (and what Torontonian does?), it would have seemed that Murray had come out of nowhere, but he was clearly going somewhere fast. The word most commonly used to describe him is “ambitious,” usually, but not always, spoken admiringly. He’s also described as “long-winded” or “full of himself.” (It’s often said that he speaks in paragraphs. That is not true. He speaks in chapters.) He either unsettles people or fires their enthusiasm. Whatever your interpretation, his career trajectory in Toronto has had the feel of a highly strategized campaign: work for the right people in the right jobs, step smartly up to the plate when an opportunity presents itself, and take it. This past fall, he won his MPP seat again by an even bigger margin. Though Murray’s still a rookie, Dalton McGuinty considers him a rising star. He promoted Murray in cabinet to minister of Training, Colleges and Universities. It’s a sprawling portfolio, the fourth largest after Health, Education and Community and Social Services, with a $7.1-billion budget.

What must have seemed like a devastating setback seven years ago—losing a safe Liberal seat to, of all things, a Tory—could now be seen as the defeat that launched a new career, one in which he could have the impact he’d always dreamed of. The man who served as the first openly gay mayor of a Canadian city appears to be readying himself for something much bigger.

Glen Murray | Confidence Man
Left: Murray at age 10; right: with former prime minister Jean Chrétien

If one were to devise a recipe to explain Glen Murray’s success, it might go something like this: four parts Pierre Trudeau, two parts Joan Crawford, two parts Oprah Winfrey, one part 10-year-old boy and one part Machiavelli (proportions may vary, depending on whether he’s campaigning). It’s a strange mix, but it might just represent the last great hope for the dying brand that is Canadian liberalism.

Last November, when I met Murray in the lobby of his condominium building in the Distillery District, he was fresh from a day at the legislature, trying somewhat ostentatiously to wean himself off an all too persistent cellphone caller, his assistant Kajananth Thirunavukkarasu straightening his tie for him as he continued talking on our way to the elevator. When we entered the apartment—a third-floor, glass-enclosed aerie—Murray led Thirunavukkarasu and me into the living room, sat us down, poured three glasses of red wine and joined us.

The condo, which he shares with Neves and Shadow, a rambunctious two-year-old Labrador and border collie mix, brings to mind the deck of an ocean liner, its ship-like prow jutting out over the street. The rooms are decorated to satisfy the rigours of high homosexual taste, with everything gleaming and white, hard-edged and certain, right down to the tall vase of calla lilies on the table and the slightly incongruous (and therefore decoratively perfect) calfskin rugs that alleviate the relentless pale grey of the concrete floor. A curved portion of a wall swings open to reveal a modernist bathtub, matte white and womb-like, a favourite winter refuge from which he can see the CN Tower and the bustling array of downtown skyscrapers. He can also see the southern half of his riding billowing out around him. He says he wants to be surrounded by the people whose lives he hopes to improve.

To spend time with Murray is to alternate between wanting to slap him repeatedly and wanting to have his baby. He’s such a smarty-pants—a show-off, really—but you end up tolerating it because that’s the attention-seeking 10-year-old boy coming out, and there’s something endearing about a 54-year-old who can’t moderate his enthusiasms down to the august level expected of cabinet ministers.

He’s gently physical in ways that speak loudly to constituents and voters—he’ll touch your hand or shoulder when he’s making a point (he decided a hug was more appropriate than a handshake when we parted after our last interview). Still, the urge to slap comes back when he won’t shut up, especially when he’s made his point repeatedly and from almost every conceivable angle. One prominent Toronto host would see his spouse leave the dinner table and not return when it became clear that Glen Murray had only one topic of conversation: Glen Murray. Murray appeared not to notice the defection.

He’s such a show-off, but you end up tolerating it because there’s something endearing about a 54-year-old who can’t moderate his enthusiasms

Every good politician has a self-aggrandizing myth. Murray’s is that he’s always first. He assured me that everything he’s done with his life since he was a 10-year-old, raised by adoptive parents in Montreal, would have once been considered impossible, that most of it would not even have been on anyone’s agenda, and that he broke through many a glass ceiling. His move to Manitoba, however, began prosaically enough. He left Concordia University three credits short of a degree in urban affairs, lived in Toronto and Ottawa, then relocated in 1986 to work as a communications officer for Canada Post in Winnipeg. The city already had a long history of gay activism and at least two gay bars, but the scene was, in many respects, very small-town. Murray—smart, articulate, passionate and boyishly good-looking (not unimportant when you’re a new face)—was soon a significant presence. He became a founding member of the Village Clinic, a treatment centre for people with HIV. He was instrumental in the founding of the Canadian AIDS Society. In 1989, bolstered by a campaign team who sniffed victory for him in an affluent neighbourhood, he became Winnipeg’s first out gay city councillor. He would be victorious in that ward twice more and then become the country’s first out gay mayor, grabbing, in 1998, over 50 per cent of the vote.

Glen Murray | Confidence Man
Left: Murray with urbanism advocates Richard Florida and Jane Jacobs; right: with former British prime minister Tony Blair at a 2008 Toronto speaking engagement

Another first: he fostered an extremely troubled teenage boy at a time when putting a youth into a gay man’s care would have been seen as the equivalent of delivering him into the hands of a predator. His experiences as a parent helped fuel his fervent social justice streak. Michael Curtis was 11 years old when he and Murray met. He was from a broken home, had been forced at gunpoint to perform oral sex on one of his mother’s boyfriends, spent much of his time on the streets, became hooked on injection drugs, became a gay-for-pay hustler, became HIV-positive and ended up meeting Murray because Murray, too, was part of the late-night street culture, handing out condoms on behalf of the Village Clinic. They made unlikely friends. Curtis, after four years as a ward of the province, asked Murray to be his father. Murray said yes.

In 1992, the National Film Board made a documentary about their relationship. Curtis was 17 that year, Murray 35. When the NFB first proposed the film, Murray was reluctant to participate because he thought his son was too young to go public about his HIV status, but Curtis wanted to do it. “I’ll never have a voice if we don’t,” he said. “People like me never have a voice.” Called A Kind of Family, it’s as harrowing as it is touching. Murray and Curtis have serious father-son talks during a walk on a beach. They have pillow fights. They wrestle on the couch. And then you see Curtis getting into cars with men who will pay him for sex (some scenes were recreated for the film). Curtis gets drunk and drugged out and trashes the apartment. He steals Murray’s VCR. He disappears for months at a time, Murray frantically scouring his son’s hangouts, following leads, trying to find him. Curtis is a charmer, too. Clearly smart, tender under all that bravado, funny, trying his best to make a go of a life that seemed cursed almost from inception. The film ends with the two of them walking happily down a tree-lined avenue, temporarily at peace with each other (Murray reports that Curtis, now nearing 40, lives in Calgary and continues to struggle but takes care of himself and is in good health.)

When people talk about what makes Murray a natural leader, they usually only mention his first four-year term as mayor. In a city accustomed to staid, business-as-usual and largely invisible politicians, Murray was in your face. He immediately signalled a new civic regime by inviting Jewish, Catholic, First Nations and Sikh leaders to participate in the opening ceremonies of the new city council. Murray was also heard to joke, while wearing the mayor’s chain of office, “Now I just need earrings to match.”

“He was a 24/7 mayor, all over the place all of the time,” remembers a community activist and newspaper journalist named Kaj Hasselriis. “He was always full of crazy ideas and plans, talked nonstop.” Reporters used to joke that they needed some kind of spit guard to protect themselves during scrums. (I understand; my hands, watch and notebook would be splattered after enthusiastic close encounters with Murray). Mary Agnes Welch was a fledgling reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press during his tenure, and she talked of frequently finding herself out of her depth during an interview, and of having to rush back to the office to search the Internet for details on what he’d talked about, but of how city politics was suddenly stimulating and fun. “Since he left,” she says, “there’s never been anyone that cool to cover.”

Murray vaulted ahead of MPPs who felt he hadn’t paid his dues. his ministry has $7 billion to spend, and tentacles in everything

Murray presided over the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg (he has photos of himself meeting everyone from Princess Anne to Desmond Tutu). He convened a summit, backed by the urban guru Jane Jacobs, that included mayors from Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver and that lobbied for greater municipal autonomy. He also lobbied hard for a tax-shifting program he called (not very originally) the New Deal, a plan to shift the burden from property tax to user and consumption taxes. It didn’t fly. According to Welch, who covered the debate for the Free Press, “It was so complicated that everyone could find something in it they hated. Glen always did lots of public consultations, but these were really wonkish, with PowerPoint presentations of super-high-level stuff. Most people didn’t get it, but he was right—there is a fundamental problem with the way cities are funded.”

Glen Murray | Confidence Man
Left: mugging for the camera during his first term as Winnipeg mayor; right: with his partner of 17 years, Rick Neves (Image: Marcel Cretain/Winnipeg Sun)

The Murray honeymoon ended when he revealed a talent for realpolitik. The issue that lost him many of his supporters was the matter of preserving the old Eaton’s building, a 1905 heritage property in the heart of downtown Winnipeg, empty since the company went out of business in 1999. There were plans, backed largely by private money, to build a new arena and performance centre on the site, and though there were alternative locations, Eaton’s was the choicest. Jane Jacobs supported an Eaton’s preservation project. So, it seemed, did Glen Murray—until he voted in council for the building’s demolition. The MTS Centre, home to the Winnipeg Jets, now stands on the site. Shawna Dempsey, a Winnipeg artist who met Murray when they were both involved with Affirm (a United Church gay group) and who was thrilled when he won the mayoralty, was also a member of the Save Eaton’s Building Coalition. She calls what he did a betrayal, and believes he did it to win the respect of “the good ol’ boys who like sports.” Kaj ­Hasselriis saw a sea change in the man’s politics: “He’d always been so big on community consultation and debate. This decision was made in Premier Gary Doer’s style—shove it down our throats.”

Murray acknowledges that the Eaton’s demolition lost him friends. He calls it “one of those terrible moments in politics, and a difficult and heartbreaking development decision,” and then launches into a good 10-minute justification, complete with on-the-spot, hand-drawn sketches illustrating why the building had to go (his explanation comes down mostly to the refusal of both the feds and the province to pony up the money to rehabilitate its feeble structure).

He further alienated his supporters with his decision to abandon the mayoralty partway through his second term (he’d promised to stick it out) and run for the Liberals in the 2004 federal election. It reeked of old-style backroom deal making, particularly when then–prime minister Paul Martin opened up a riding for Murray by offering the incumbent, John Harvard, the position of Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba. The riding, Charleswood–St. James, is 1960s-style suburban, religious and partly rural, and may not have been the best choice, particularly since Murray didn’t even reside there. The campaign got nasty. Lawn signs and the outside of his campaign office were defaced with slurs like “liars” and “fag.”

If Winnipeggers felt Murray was abandoning the city before his job was done, he saw the election as the chance to take his dreams national. Paul Martin was giving him an opportunity to put in place a federal urban strategy. “It was impossible to say no,” Murray says. “It was a chance to do nationally everything I’d done in 15 years of municipal politics, a chance to work with our most pro-urban, pro-city prime minister. I wanted to do new things with my life, and the Liberals and Paul Martin and I were a perfect fit.”

And then it all dissolved. Instead of flying to Ottawa to join cabinet, he would spend the summer treading water, with no clear prospects—until the call came in from the Toronto urbanati.

The moment he arrived in Toronto, Murray was busy, and not just with the many positions he’d accepted. He also worked as a consultant for Navigator, the public relations firm run by the legendarily well-connected Jaime Watt, who is both an early advocate of gay marriage and a one-time architect of Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution (Murray says he has no problem getting along with people who hold differing political views). While there, Murray was responsible for preparing policy papers on several projects, including a personal favourite he called Smithsonian North, a plan to foster national cultural institutions outside Ottawa (the controversial Asper family–funded Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg being an example).

His failure to get a federal seat didn’t lower him in Paul Martin’s estimation. In March 2005, Martin appointed him chair of a new national environmental roundtable, a group that provided advice to the prime minister and a per diem of approximately $600 to Murray. It was an appointment that further enmeshed him in an old-style politics of which he had once seemed the antithesis. A Commons committee had reviewed Martin’s recommendation and Murray’s qualifications and rejected the appointment by a seven-to-four margin, claiming Murray had no solid environmental qualifications. Martin went ahead with it anyway, sparking furious charges of cronyism and patronage from the opposition, particularly since he had assured the House he would consult MPs on every appointment.

GlenMurray | Confidence Man
Left (top to bottom): Murray and former U.S. president Bill Clinton during a visit to Winnipeg; with Archbishop Desmond Tutu at a Winnipeg leadership conference; attending a 2004 mayors’ summit with David Miller and Hazel McCallion (Image: Aaron Harris/CP); right: at Queen’s Park with Dalton McGuinty and MPP Bob Chiarelli (Image: Frank Gunn/CP)

Cronyism or not, Murray remained on the job, and he would eventually produce a series of research papers and recommendations that, with the election of a minority Conservative government under Stephen Harper in 2006, would go precisely nowhere.

He kept his hand in civic issues, becoming president and CEO in 2007 of the Canadian Urban Institute, a Toronto-based not-for-profit with an annual budget of $5 million that works with cities worldwide, studying ways to improve the quality of urban life. He was there for three years, his first task being to get the organization out of debt by securing more international consulting work. He loved his job at CUI and wasn’t eager to get back into electoral politics. (Neves, who guards his privacy, dreaded the prospect.) But when David Miller announced he wouldn’t run in the 2010 election, Murray’s BlackBerry began to vibrate with messages—many from friends and many more from the people who had eased his entry into the city’s elite—urging him to jump into the race. Murray consulted widely, speaking with friends and possible backers, as well as his board at CUI, councillor Shelley Carroll, the Labour Council’s John Cartwright and Matthew Blackett, the publisher of the Toronto-loving Spacing magazine. But after Smitherman announced his candidacy, Murray decided not to run. It wasn’t the right time, he said.

Besides, a much more tantalizing prospect had appeared. Smitherman’s resignation as MPP provided the perfect riding. Toronto Centre habitually sent Liberals to Queen’s Park, and it contained the gay village. To no one’s surprise, he was acclaimed as a candidate and won in the February by-election. Supporters and campaign workers thronged the victory party. McGuinty was at Murray’s side, touting him as “my champion and your champion,” and lending credence to press speculation that Murray, a man with no previous experience in Ontario politics, had already sewn up a cabinet seat. He began by serving on the finance and economic development committee, and six months later he was handed a junior cabinet post: minister of Research and Innovation. The budget was small—some $400 million—and so far off the legislature radar that he never, in his 14 months as minister, had to face a query during Question Period. Still, he claims some successes: the expansion of the MaRS Centre at College and University and the creation of regional innovation centres in 14 communities.

Last year’s provincial election resulted in another promotion for Murray, who accepted the far more substantial portfolio of minister of Training, Colleges and Universities. That put some noses out of joint, said one Queen’s Park insider—Murray had vaulted ahead of several long-serving members who felt he hadn’t paid his dues. He’s no longer a legislature wallflower, not with more than $7 billion to spend in a ministry with tentacles in everything from financial assistance programs for students to apprenticeship programs and adult literacy.

Murray passes his days meeting with student associations, university presidents, union leaders, trades organizations, mayors of small towns—some 20 meetings a day. He’s casting about for ways to fund the Liberals’ all-new $430-million tuition fee grant program, one that means many undergrads will be paying $1,600 less per year if their household income is under $160,000. Some 420,000 students started receiving cheques last month. Since the recession, the government noticed an uptick in applications for student aid and chose to shift from scholarships (which had been receiving more and more private backing) to needs-based funding. “That was the premier’s commitment,” he says. “I have to find the money to make it work.”

Although Murray’s critics see him as a power-hungry opportunist, they almost always end their comments the same way: “But I like him”

He is frequently on his feet now in Question Period, parrying with the opposition, almost never completing his statistics-packed diatribes before his mic is cut off for going over his allotted time. Steve Peters, the former Speaker, remembers Murray as a good heckler and one of the loudest members in the House, his strong baritone regularly riling the opposition. Murray once referred to them as “sissies,” a comment the Speaker forced him to withdraw. The Tories, Peters says, would get him back, sometimes referring to Murray as “the member from Winnipeg.” Peters also remembers several occasions when Murray became overtly emotional, almost weepy, when speaking to issues that touch him deeply, like gay rights or bullying.

That quality endears him to many, leads to a certain amount of eye rolling among others. A former Queen’s Park staffer echoed Peters’ comments, describing Murray as “someone who fights hard for the causes he holds dear, who will disregard policy or procedure. If he wants to get up in the House and speak on something, whether it’s in line with policy or not, he’ll try to do it, and it doesn’t matter what anybody says. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, and several times in the House he got very choked up.” He can be headstrong, too. Shortly after he was elected, he allegedly threatened to resign because another MPP had agreed to meet with representatives from Uganda, a country with notoriously draconian anti-gay laws. (Murray claims that he never threatened to quit, but that he did object to “the government meeting with ministers from Uganda while they were proposing a law to make being gay and/or HIV-positive a criminal offence punishable by death. We stopped meetings with that government.”)

Glen Murray | Confidence Man
From left to right: Murray campaigning in 2004 for a federal seat in Manitoba (Image: Goris Minkevich/CP); at his October 2011 victory party (Image: Solana Cain); Glen Murray (Image: Markian Lozowchuk)

His so-called Twitter fiasco is another example of the kind of behaviour that exhilarates his fans but worries the government. Just before the Toronto mayoralty election, Murray tweeted, “If u vote Ford u r voting for bigotry,” and then retweeted someone else’s post, which read, “Ford, Hudak and Harper—the trifecta of Republican-style, right-wing ignorance and bigotry.” Murray was told to apologize, but instead he used the opportunity to attack homophobia, challenging Hudak to condemn the anti-gay posters and leaflets that were being distributed during the campaign.

He couldn’t let go of it, giving Hudak ample opportunity during Question Period to claim the high road as the wrongly slandered leader of the opposition who couldn’t extract a simple apology from a minister of the Crown. Murray, probably pressured from the premier’s office, finally produced a full apology.

Murray’s critics see him as a power-hungry opportunist, although they almost always end their comments the same way: “But I like him.” Shawna Dempsey, the woman who felt so betrayed by ­Murray over the Eaton’s demolition, followed up her critique with an email in which she described the excitement she and others felt at seeing an outsider win an election, at watching a man not interested in money or power for its own sake go on to make positive change. “He gave us hope,” she wrote.

Hope is not a small gift. If Murray could rein in his smarty-pants prolixity, there is much in what he has to say that many people would want to hear. At our last meeting, he talked dreams. What transpired was a tour-de-force performance the likes of which I have not seen outside the operatic stage, Wagnerian in length (he talked for almost 40 minutes without interruption) but baroque in its virtuoso ornamentation. He spoke of revitalizing the concept of the individual as citizen rather than taxpayer, of a renewed liberalism that drives more decisions into people’s hands, of the need to make the necessary beautiful and the beautiful necessary in the context of city building, and of much, much more, finally climaxing with a cadenza that wrapped up all his themes into a glowing encomium to McGuinty.

His performance could just be a shining web of buzzwords, skillfully chosen to placate the anxieties of liberal-minded people who see the country’s agenda being snatched from them by the forces of darkness. It struck me as too crazy-passionate to be anything but sincere.

Murray acknowledges that many of his dreams and projects make him a minority among his Liberal colleagues, though he says McGuinty is onside. He’ll need time, and he’ll need power, to even begin to implement such ambitious sociopolitical change. Most people think he’ll get that power, though they elect to stay mum about how, exactly, he’ll pull if off. Harvey Smith doesn’t. He’s the sitting councillor for Winnipeg’s Daniel McIntyre ward. He speaks with something of a country twang and ends sentences with a very Canadian “eh.” He has no problem being direct. He says Murray persuaded him to run again for city council (for which he is thankful), that Murray is a great idea man, that he did a lot of good things for Winnipeg, especially by extracting more resources for the city from other levels of government. He also says, “I like Glen Murray, but I’d always question what he’s up to. I felt like writing a letter to the premier of Ontario saying, ‘Watch out. He’ll be after your job.’ ”

Glen Murray is biding his time. There will likely be no palace coup—he can be brash and impulsive, but he’s no assassin. What he is might just be what the electorate wants—an electorate weary of the same old Liberal formula, an electorate perhaps willing to test its hopes on a dreamer, a crybaby, an ego, a conscience, a Trudeau, a Winfrey, a Machiavelli, a Crawford, a man who has no qualms about joking that he has to find earrings to match.