Q&A: Sue-Ann Levy, the Toronto Sun’s most notorious columnist, whose new book comes out today
Sue-Ann Levy, an investigative reporter and columnist for the Toronto Sun, spent more than 15 years on the paper’s city hall beat, where she made a reputation as the press gallery’s most unapologetically conservative chronicler of local politics. Her pugnacious style earned her many enemies, particularly among leftist city councillors, whom she goaded with derogatory nicknames. (Ex-councillor Kyle Rae, who famously would never grant Levy an interview, once said, “The only opinion she values is her own.”)
Much like Rob Ford, a candidate she supported, and whose downfall she blames partly on his treatment by left-leaning media, Levy considers herself a voice for Toronto’s downtrodden. She acts the part of a professional antagonizer of decadent elites who oppress the little guy with things like bike lane studies (“just window dressing”), anti-racism street protests (“political correctness gone mad”), and bloated public-sector salaries (“executives on the public teat”). Levy’s memoir, Underdog: Confessions of a Right-Wing Gay Jewish Muckraker, comes out today. We spoke with her about the book, her political views, and her personal soundtrack.
You’re a proud and self-professed shit disturber. Did you write your book to provoke your enemies? Or is your hope that it will give people a better idea of who you are and where you’re coming from?
Probably more the latter. I wrote the book because I didn’t have a voice for so many years. Being an outsider, living in the closet for 20 years until I came out as a lesbian, being the victim of two assaults by strangers, and living with that trauma, I didn’t feel I had a voice. I’m very honest in the book about the demons I struggled with and seeking psychiatric help after so many years. When I say “shit disturber,” that’s my sense of humour. Really, I fancy myself a champion for the underdog.
You aren’t afraid to engage in a little trash talk, to put it mildly. Have you heard from any of the dozens of Canadian politicos and media members who come under fire in the book?
Well, not yet, because the book is just out, but I fully expect I will. And that’s fine. All publicity is good publicity. I had a very interesting 15 years at city hall. I’m a tough cookie. Frankly, I don’t feel I owe any sort of apology to politicians. There should be no surprises in the book. It’s just me in a longer format.
You note that you’ve been called the Canadian Sarah Palin, the Canadian Ann Coulter, and the Canadian Glenn Beck. Do you find those comparisons insulting?
Not at all. As far as Ann Coulter is concerned, I’d love to make her kind of money—but I could hardly be Ann Coulter because she’s homophobic. I would like to have Sarah Palin’s body. Ha! But as far as speaking out: I pull no punches, and I think I have that in common with the characters you mention. Ann Coulter says things that make my eyes pop out, so I think I’m far more diplomatic.
Do you think you’re the same in person as you are in writing? Some people say they’ve found you unexpectedly likeable when they’ve met you face to face.
I do hear that. I think people are sometimes surprised when they meet me. This is the uphill battle I face constantly. People assume I’m this, that and the other thing because I’m passionate and provocative and I have strong opinions. If you’re a tough woman you automatically get labeled a bitch. You’re not allowed to be what men are. I have a wonderful relationship with a woman, we have three beautiful Dachshunds, I sit on the Reena Foundation. I find it very frustrating, because people say I don’t have a heart. I do have a heart. That’s what drives me.
A lot of your book is about calling B.S. on what you view as political correctness. For instance, you say at one point, as an example of something a politically correct person would never admit, “Caitlyn Jenner is a man.” Do you not believe transgender people are for real?
Oh no, no. Absolutely that’s not what I meant. I take pilates near my house and there was a man in the class who was making a joke out of Caitlyn Jenner. I got so upset with him. I said, “How dare you talk that way about Caitlyn considering what she’s gone through?” One of my good friends at Toronto Community Housing is transgender. We talk all the time.
So you were being facetious?
Yeah, it’s just a little cheeky. I’m not trying to harm anybody. I just say what’s on people’s minds. But I’m the first to applaud Caitlyn. I’m a fan. I feel so much for people who are born in a different body. I lived it for so many years.
Another target is Kathleen Wynne’s sex curriculum. You disapprove of children learning about same-sex relationships in grade three.
What I object to is sexuality being rammed down kids’ throats at such a young age. Kids should be kids. And I think what they need to be taught is tolerance and respect. I’ve covered too many stories about bullying in schools at a young age. I think there is so much time spent on the sex curriculum and not enough focus on teaching kids simple respect and manners.
Wouldn’t learning that some kids have two mommies or two daddies promote tolerance and help eradicate bullying? It’s not like they’re showing them gay porn.
Of course, of course. What I felt when the curriculum came out is that there’s too much emphasis on that and not enough on basic manners and respect. One of my biggest pet peeves is families sitting in restaurants glued to their smartphones and not engaging with each other. I’m dating myself, but, when I was growing up, we actually sat down for dinner and talked to each other.
Your biggest complaint throughout the book is how the “lib left” is always piling on the people who don’t share their views and giving a pass to those who do. And yet, you do the same thing with Rob Ford.
I come from the standpoint of watching him from the time he started as councillor in 2000. Rob Ford’s approach may not have been articulate or eloquent, but it always felt like he had his heart in the right place, in terms of doing right by taxpayers. My wife has this saying: watch the feet, not the mouth. This guy practiced what he preached, and I would see the complete opposite from pretty much the entire rest of council.
So, fair to say you had a soft spot for him?
I say in the book that I immediately gravitated to him and felt for him and stood up for him, because I was bullied when I was young. I didn’t think he ever deserved the kind of vilification that he got—especially from some councillors who had their own skeletons. Until things fell apart for him, he was really their conscience. He made them feel guilty about the way they spent and the way they disrespected taxpayers. He made them feel guilty, so they wanted to shut him down.
I think one could also argue that Rob Ford was the bully.
That was the way he was portrayed, largely by the left media. I really do firmly feel, to this day, that he did a lot for the city. I guarantee you there are people out there who still adore the guy. I’m not making excuses for a lot of the things he did. I was very frustrated when things went off the rails. I thought, finally, some sanity at city hall—and then it became quite the opposite.
You even go so far as to say that leftist criticism of Rob Ford contributed to his cancer. Is that a reasonable argument to make?
I do, I do. I firmly believe it. It wasn’t just the media. It was being dragged into court by Clayton Ruby and George Foulidis, the constant integrity complaints by activist Jude MacDonald, who I call Miss Manners. Who among us would not be affected by that?
Sure, but to connect it to cancer—
I’m just saying these things were factors. They couldn’t have helped.
You say that after your 15 years at city hall there’s almost no politician of any stripe you have respect for. Who would you say is the exception to the rule?
I’ll give you three, and hopefully they’ll all be at my book launch: Doug Holyday, Mike Del Grande and Jane Pitfield. I have a tremendous amount of time for them. Doug Holyday was an old style of politician—generous, kind, respectful of others. A real statesman and a gentleman.
Do you ever feel tired of being characterized as a villain?
That’s why I run half marathons. It’s good for the soul. It clears my mind. I really want to get people talking. There’s a place for all kinds of discourse in the world. The problem is that the left wing media dominates. This is why my publisher really pushed me to put the book together. People need to hear the other side of the story. I’m too passionate about what I do and I’ve been through too much.
Do you have a theme song? Or, if not, what do you think your theme song should be?
Hmmm… I’m not sure. Oh wait. How about “I Will Survive”?