Mayor In Waiting: an inside look at Olivia Chow’s political ambitions

Mayor In Waiting: an inside look at Olivia Chow’s political ambitions

Olivia Chow’s public mourning after Jack Layton’s death cast her in a new light: dignified, likeable and, well, mayoral. Toronto wants her to run, but does she want Toronto?

Olivia Chow
Christopher Wahl

The morning of December 13, Olivia Chow woke up with a strange feeling on the left side of her face. Her ear was also a little sore, but it had been like that for a week. It was only when she went to the mirror that she realized she couldn’t smile. Her skin drooped; she looked older and more tired. But she felt normal, thoughts whirring inside her head at the same pace as always. So she went right on with the phone interview on Newstalk 1010 she had scheduled for 7:30 a.m., before going to her family doctor.

The culprit turned out to be Ramsay Hunt syndrome, a complication from a shingles infection of her facial nerve. It wasn’t a serious illness, just bad luck. There was only a small spot of shingles inside her ear. Her doctor put her on a week of the steroid prednisone and an antiviral. About three quarters of patients who are treated within three days recover from the syndrome; she had arrived within a few hours, so the prognosis was good.

It’s tempting to invest this minor medical incident with heavy meaning. Chow has been a politician for 28 years, first as a school trustee, then a councillor, and, as of 2006, the MP for Trinity-Spadina. For politicians, a face is not just a thing you park in front of a computer in the morning and show to the family at night. A politician meets new people, all day, every day, and people are inquisitive, and not all of them have tact.

When her husband, Jack Layton, died of cancer in the summer of 2011, just 16 weeks after leading the NDP to an unprecedented 101 seats in Parliament, Chow gained a mythical dimension. Her image was everywhere. And those pictures elicited unusually strong emotions for a Canadian politician. (Stephen Harper posing for photos with a kitten simply doesn’t have the same gravitas.) She behaved in a time of mourning how a lot of people would like to behave. The footage of her following the coffin somehow struck the right mix of devastation, dignity and strength. Even the people who usually disagreed with her, and with her husband, were impressed. In that moment, whether she liked it or not, she became a public widow—and a household name.

Related: The no-politics mayoral candidate questionnaire—Olivia Chow

During her recovery from the facial paralysis, Chow rested at her semi-detached house on Huron Street, in the south Annex. She futzed with her iPad, posting a picture to her Twitter feed of fireworks on Parliament Hill on New Year’s Eve. She spent time with her 85-year-old mother, Ho Sze Chow, and with her two cats.

Her condition also gave her time to think about the future. The most effective politicians are born strategists, always plotting several steps ahead. And the natural next step for Chow, her inner circle believes, is to become Toronto’s mayor. The polls back them up: in the weeks before Rob Ford won his appeal of the ruling that would have tossed him from office, Chow beat all potential opponents, including Ford. In one scenario, she took 40 per cent of the vote, Ford 35 and Adam Vaughan 13. The city wants her. The question is, does Chow want the city?

Chow called a press conference on January 4 to explain what had happened to her face. It was a necessary bit of stagecraft to avoid weeks of answering questions. “Overcoming adversity and challenges is part of who I am,” she told the reporters. Her matter-of-fact delivery undersold the drama of the last year and a half of her life. Underselling drama, getting on with things: these are signature elements of Chow’s political brand.

A month later, Chow’s face was still partially paralyzed, but it wasn’t slowing her down much. I followed her to community meetings and press conferences and more community meetings during the same week that the decision about Ford’s appeal was to be delivered, which meant that her every appearance was met with reporters asking when she’d announce her mayoralty run.

Chow is more than used to these questions by now, and she always gives non-committal answers: I’m listening to people who are telling me to run for mayor. We’ll see what happens down the road. I don’t answer hypotheticals.

Yet she was keeping herself in the public eye, just in case. I followed Chow to one press conference regarding the fate of Downsview Park, about which she has opinions even though it isn’t in her federal riding. She demanded that Harper’s Conservatives not sell it off piecemeal to condo developers. The next day, the newspapers covered the event as if it were a stop on a campaign for the mayoralty, quoting her opinions on casinos, with a brief mention of the park.

Olivia Chow
The footage of Chow at Layton’s funeral made her a household name. (Image: Chris Young/CP Images)

Last November, when reporters asked Doug Ford what he thought of Chow running in a hypothetical byelection, he responded that she’s “no Jack Layton.” It was a dunderheaded thing to say about someone so recently widowed, for starters. He was also implying, of course, that Chow is a coattail rider. But she was never merely Layton’s wife. She has always been her own person, an accomplished politician whom Mel Lastman trusted enough to recommend to the Police Services Board and to name an advocate for children, even though they had very different political leanings. Later, when Layton became NDP leader, she had to let him take the spotlight. “Occasionally, at big functions, I was the spouse,” she told me, “but I don’t do a lot of spouse things.”

Layton was known within the party as the vision guy, and Chow the one who made the wheels turn. “He was the louder of the two, he was the orator, the one who spoke the truth,” says Bob Gallagher, who worked as Layton’s chief of staff. “Olivia was always the one who reached out to the middle-of-the-road folks and would craft the motion in a way that would actually bring people on board.”

In March, the CBC broadcast Jack, a biopic about Layton’s struggle with cancer, studded with flashbacks to his early years with Chow. In the movie, Layton is played by the Traders actor Rick Roberts and Chow by the CBC radio host Sook-Yin Lee. Layton is depicted as an idealistic bumbler with a funny moustache, all thumbs and over-the-handlebar flips between rousing speeches. It is not a completely convincing portrait: it doesn’t account for how he managed, despite a contingent of people who always complained he was too slick, too Smilin’ Jack, to lead the party to victory. Unless, of course, you give at least some credit to people like Chow, for doing the less glamorous, and less media-friendly, backroom work.

The producers consulted Chow and she gave the movie her blessing. She didn’t have approval over the screenplay, but she did give the screenwriter suggestions on how to make scenes on Parliament Hill more true to life. (For one scene of a press scrum, she felt the journalists’ questions were too polite.)

Chow always thought of herself and Layton as equals. Or, rather, she continues to think they are equals: more than once during my time with her, she lapsed into the present tense when we talked about Layton, as if he were still alive and holding her hand. “He is the big thinker,” she told me. “Which is why we are really good together.” Layton was the optimist. She’s the pragmatist. As evidence, she described his insistence on the NDP’s incursions into Quebec, and how he presciently advocated for a system to use water from Lake Ontario to cool the downtown skyscrapers. “That part of him rubs off through the years,” she said.

“On others?” I asked.

“On me!” Chow corrected.

Chow’s desk at her Trinity-Spadina constituency office is covered in lists, scribbled in ballpoint on plain white paper. And when she describes successful politics, the kind she likes, she usually employs some version of the phrase “get things done.”

The political and ideological neutrality of that phrase isn’t an accident. I asked Chow what she would say to someone who called her just another NDP tax-and-spend radical. Her response: “I’d laugh.” She followed this up with a cartoon villain laugh: “Mwa-ha-ha.” She said she doesn’t consider herself radical, maybe when she was 25. When I pressed her on her political convictions, she got impatient with me and told me to change the subject. Ask a question about her VIA Rail initiative and you’ll get four minutes about the political economy of grain transport. But she’s not going to talk to you about Marx. (Her spare-time reading, she says, is mostly fiction and memoirs.)

When I asked her what she felt were her major accomplishments in the last year, she pulled a list from her desk to tell me about them. She proposes private members’ bills often enough, but they get waylaid, for some reason or another, on their way to being passed. For example, she proposed a bill, prompted by the 2009 vigilante incident at the Lucky Moose Food Mart on Spadina, to give shop owners greater leeway to defend themselves. The Conservatives borrowed that idea from her and proposed their own bill. On her signature issue, transportation, she hasn’t had much luck either. She tried to build a coalition to force a National Transit Strategy on the federal government. She convinced several different mayors and transit authorities to sign on to it, but when the bill hit Parliament, the Conservatives blocked it. Now she’s rethinking her strategy and making plans for a publicity campaign, hoping more public support for infrastructure will encourage more movement from the Conservatives. Speeches she gave about transit at York University and the University of Toronto, in February, were something like dress rehearsals for that.

She didn’t run for leader of the NDP after Layton’s death, even though many people in the party wanted her to. Instead, within the party, she has styled herself as a kind of den mother, men­toring three of the newer MPs, who needed help relating to the constituents they suddenly found themselves representing. She guided them through Question Period and gave them tips on how to prepare mailings to their constituents.

Olivia Chow

The timing for a federal leadership run wouldn’t have been right—it was too soon after Layton’s death. Yet there’s another factor that likely held Chow back: her get-things-done attitude isn’t a perfect fit for federal politics. The NDP has simply never had the numbers to get much done in Parliament, not in the way she likes. And even with its newly swollen ranks, it’s still having trouble shaking off its history as a fringe party.

The best you can ever do, as a member of the opposition, is question the people in power. Chow currently serves on the standing committee for transport, infrastructure and community, where she pores over the numbers, breaking down the particulars of infrastructure funds to cities, and questions the government’s math. “The original plan with the green infrastructure fund was to do $200 million per year,” she said during one committee meeting. “Now there’s only $18 million left out of the entire package, it seems to me. Rather than spreading it out over five years, now it’s spreading out over six years, because the program went from a five-year to a 10-year program with the same dollar amount, which amounts to about $3 million per year on green infrastructure. Am I correct in that calculation?”

In her allotted time she ended up going toe to toe with the bureaucrats on numbers. Everyone else was in full ideological mode. One Liberal MP just asked if Canada Post would be privatized; a Conservative MP started asking about something he calls “the culture of safety” in aviation. Another made use of his time by accusing the NDP of wanting to raise taxes. Chow protested, which led to this bit of wit from Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre: “If the taxpayer is a chicken, then the NDP is Colonel Sanders.”

For someone so driven, the gridlock of parliamentary politics is frustrating. Chow’s closest advisors—Joe Cressy, who served as co-chair on her last campaign, Anne McGrath, Layton’s last chief of staff, and Bob Gallagher—all believe she should be in government, not in opposition, and it may be time for her to leave Ottawa. They all think she’s just what Toronto needs right now. She is, they argue, the perfect antidote to Rob Ford.

Chow’s talent for the grunt work of politics, for hand shaking and committee negotiations and vote counting and the simple everyday functioning of government, could restore a degree of stability at city hall. If nothing else, her leadership style would be a welcome contrast to Ford’s “going with my gut” philosophy, which is really just another way of saying that he’s flying a $9-billion city budget by the seat of his pants, based on a bunch of frequently arbitrary decisions.

Chow has demonstrated an aptitude for uniting diverse political entities—in her national transit strategy, she built a coalition that spanned labour unions and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, which is led by Perrin Beatty, that old Mulroney pal. However, pledges of support are one thing. Obtaining money is another. If she became mayor, she’d need to go back to the federal government to get funds for transit and for other projects, like, say, fixing the Gardiner Expressway. Ford’s idea of an intergovernmental political summit is inviting the premier-elect for beer and wings at a Super Bowl party. He isn’t taking that part of the job particularly seriously.

Chow does share one quality with Ford: an endearing lack of polish. I mean that as a compliment. Her particular quirks—an accent that lingers from Hong Kong, a no-nonsense demeanour that comes off a little more bluntly than she intends—make her far more likeable than a slick, perfected politician.

There’s little doubt she could marshal a mayoral campaign. In the last election, a candidate could spend $1.3 million. If she’s the chosen anti-Ford candidate she’ll have no trouble raising that amount. Her years of campaign experience, and the army of volunteers running her office, suggest she will have a formidable election machine. But we live in an era when machinery isn’t always enough (just ask George Smitherman). Some other kind of alchemy is necessary for victory, some kind of magic meld of message and tactics.

The 2014 mayoral contest doesn’t begin in earnest for nine months, and a lot can happen between now and then. It was less than two years ago that Chow and Layton held a party to celebrate their move into Stornoway, with guests eating white chocolate moustaches in tribute to his. Two weeks later, Layton announced he was stepping down. And in another month, those crowds mourned him in Nathan Phillips Square. For the moment, Chow, ever the planner, the one who looks ahead, is biding her time. She’s just too level-headed to do anything else.