The 74-year-old city councillor has morphed into a street-savvy superstar who spouts rap lyrics on Twitter, pals around with Drake and inspires worship from teens around the world
(Image: Daniel Ehrenworth)
It was early September, and Norm had been listening to Drake all summer, talking about Drake all summer and tweeting at Drake all summer. Norm’s Drake obsession was born in social media, and up until then it had remained there—they’d never met IRL. He had a chance in August, when the rapper invited him to OVO Fest, but Norm was on a Danube cruise with his wife, Charlotte, and couldn’t make it. So when a Ryerson student called and told Norm that Drake was going to be a surprise guest at the school’s annual outdoor concert on September 11, and asked if maybe Norm would consider joining them, he didn’t hesitate. Norm’s known a lot of big shots in his time, but no one quite as big as Champagne Papi. He arrived in the rain with his assistant, Jerry, at 8 p.m. sharp.
Norm, of course, is Norm Kelly, Toronto city councillor for Ward 40, Scarborough-Agincourt, and two years ago our deputy mayor and steady-as-she-goes foil to the marauding Ford brothers. Do you know any other Norm? Norm likes to say that the only people who call him Councillor Kelly are the ones he hasn’t yet met, though it’s hard to believe there are many such people left in Toronto. Most of us only know him as @norm, the Twitter handle through which, in the last year or so, he has become the city’s most beloved politician and an unlikely folk hero to teenagers and card-carrying CARP members, hip hop fans and meme-meisters everywhere.
That night in September, Norm looked like he always does: trim, slightly natty, his remaining hair an indeterminate reddish-gray hue, a thin-lipped smile constantly playing over his face. He’d asked the organizers to have a Ryerson Rams sweater waiting for him, and when he arrived he pulled it over his shirt and tie, and stood with them in the laneway outside the student centre they were using as a green room. One of the organizers, a journalism student named Cormac McGee, had also spent his summer talking about Drake, making a Herculean effort to get the rapper to Ryerson. He thought Norm would be a “cool cherry on top.” But getting Drake to play your university frosh concert isn’t easy, and even in the week leading up to the concert, McGee still wasn’t 100 per cent sure he’d show.
After a few minutes, a small fleet of black Escalades materialized in the mist. It was happening. Drake stepped out, followed by an entourage of about 15. As the crew headed into the building and got in the elevator, McGee hustled Norm in behind them. At the sight of the councillor, Drake’s face lit up—“You’re my hero, man,” he said. They shook hands, embraced. What a time to be alive.
When Norm was summoned to the stage, there were six or seven thousand soggy people in the audience out on Gould Street. After a minute or two, the MC announced the councillor’s name—and the crowd lost its shit. Drake was a surprise, sure, but Norm? No one expected Norm. He went out onto the stage, where Drake was already waiting, waved to the audience and, as he had rehearsed in the green room, hollered in a voice slightly higher than he intended: “Ryersoooooon! Y’all, tuuuuuurn up!” Drake giggled and bowed in we’re-not-worthy style. Then they posed, back-to-back, for the audience. Drake put his hands together in prayer and looked up toward the night sky as Norm, his arms crossed, pursed his lips in smug satisfaction. Ryerson had become a temporary Olympus, and there, for the first time, the twin gods of the 6 stood together, an improbable advertisement for an intergenerational, interracial and irreverent Toronto that probably only exists in the imagination, but that Norm has been ardently trumpeting for months.
But to what end? The next municipal election is nearly three years away, and Norm’s an old guy—he may not even run again. Norm’s strategy, such as it is, seems to be both simpler and more complicated than promoting his political career. After 30-odd years at city hall, he finally got to be The Mayor. For a brief, shining moment, he was at the centre of it all, his hands on the levers, the guy in charge of what he calls “the big picture.”
And he loved it. Now he’s figured out how to maintain—scratch that, magnify—the influence and celebrity he enjoyed while at the same time shedding the burden of real mayoral responsibility. It’s all the fun, none of the grief. No longer the acting mayor or even the deputy mayor, he’s the alt mayor, the bizarro mayor, the fun mayor, the night mayor. And he loves that even more. The Internet bestows celebrity in weird and wonderful ways, elevating Swedish YouTube gamers and no-name Viners to megastardom or, yes, granting geriatric politicians entirely unexpected afterlives. If Norm arrived accidentally to this new world, he’s doing his best to stay there, riding the crest of fame for longer than anyone expected. “It’s hard becoming a star,” Norm likes to say, “but it’s even harder remaining one.”
Just a few years ago, Norm was an inauspicious, long-time member of the dysfunctional kindergarten we call city council. A pragmatic, go-along-to-get-along, centre-right politician, he had been a dutiful supporter of whichever mayor—Lastman, Miller, Ford—occupied the fishbowl. If he was known for anything, it was controversial remarks he made in 2013, as chair of the parks and environment committee, that intimated he didn’t believe in climate change. “I think there’s information coming along the academic pipeline,” he told reporters then, “that suggests that there’s a complexity to the issue that has yet to be fully understood.” (When I asked about it two years later, Norm said the notion that he’s a climate change denier is “inaccurate” and then quickly dispatched the conversation: “I not only hug trees, I talk to them.”)
Like any good origin story, Norm’s contains a lot of foreshadowing. He was born in Toronto in 1941, the youngest in an Irish family, with two much older brothers and two older sisters. His father was a mechanic at the O’Keefe brewery; his mother sold lingerie at Simpsons on Queen Street. When Norm was 10, the family moved from Dufferin and St. Clair to Scarborough so they could buy their first house, and in his account of his boyhood, the suburb takes on an almost Rockwellian patina. Norm the tween was a bookish jock, the kind of kid who could spend all day playing baseball with homemade bases, and then devour illustrated histories of Greece and Rome at the library.
Norm’s political life began at age 13, when he was elected to student council. As a teen, he briefly considered a career as an NHL goalie and was scouted by the Leafs—but he only lasted a month. After high school he headed to Western to study history, the first Kelly kid to go to university. A few years later, he married his high school sweetheart, Donna, an administrator at Bell, and they had a son and a daughter. He did his master’s at Carleton and then began a PhD at Queen’s.
Pierre Berton, a family acquaintance, derailed Norm’s academic career, hiring him as a research assistant on his now-classic volumes The National Dream and The Last Spike. It was fulfilling work, and it allowed Norm to travel the country, but it didn’t pay well. He got a job teaching high school history at A. Y. Jackson in North York and soon after that, in 1973, was appointed head of the history department at UCC. In class, he sometimes arranged desks as if they were in Parliament—government on one side, opposition on the other. When students asked a question, he made them stand, because as future leaders, he told them, they would find themselves standing in front of other people a lot.
After a year at UCC, though, Norm thought he might make a pretty good leader himself. He didn’t think he was prime minister material necessarily, but public office seemed a noble enough ambition. So in 1974, while still teaching full-time, he ran for alderman on what was then the Scarborough borough council. He won. And then won two more consecutive terms. For him, politics held, and still holds, a particularly geeky promise—it gave him power and influence, sure, but it also meant, in a way, never having to leave school. “I like politics because I get to keep learning,” he says. In 1980, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals approached him about running federally, and, after winning that election and becoming the MP for Scarborough Centre, he finally resigned from UCC.
While he didn’t agree with all of the Liberal party’s policies, he shared with Trudeau senior a belief in a strong central government, and he admired the prime minister’s doggedness. When the Grits were kicked out of office in 1984, he ran twice for mayor of Scarborough—and lost both times. Norm “plays to win,” as he’s fond of saying, so he ditched political life for a tangentially related, if far more lucrative, field: real estate. He got his licence and worked as a broker for 10 years.
There was good money, and for a good while. When the market finally cratered in the early 1990s, politics beckoned again. Selling houses had given him a new arsenal of adages: “In real estate, you’re trying to bring disparate groups together to make the deal,” he says. “I still see myself in that role.” That same year, his marriage ended, and he started dating his executive assistant, Charlotte Ting. They married in 1997. Ting is now an administrator for Toronto Court Services.
Norm was elected to Metro council and was re-elected, in 1997, in the newly amalgamated megacity, to Toronto city council. He’s since been re-elected four times. Over the years, he’s accomplished a lot: he was involved in the revitalization of Regent Park, helped get the Raptors a training facility built at Exhibition Place and kick-started the renewal of the Island airport. To city hall, Norm brought dignity and diligence. But most important to his political survival was his ability to play well with others. Just as Norm didn’t always agree with Trudeau, he didn’t always agree with Lastman or Miller. He’s a big proponent of what he calls the “Kelly thesis” in council agenda triage. It states: if you’ve been appointed to the mayor’s cabinet, you vote with the mayor on the issues nearest and dearest to his or her heart. That’s why Norm supported Transit City when Miller was mayor and “Subways, subways, subways” when his successor arrived. (For the record, Norm really does support subways.) And on the balance of the votes—about 95 per cent of council business—you vote however the hell you please. “Norm is a chameleon,” says his fellow Scarborough councillor Michael Thompson. Which is a nice way of saying that Norm Kelly knows where the power lies and how best to suck up to it.
Then along came Rob Ford. Norm’s expectations for the new mayor were low. While he’d often voted with Ford, he’d also teased him during debates. Even worse, Norm had been on Miller’s executive committee. He liked Miller, and he helped the mayor push through his agenda. Norm figured he’d be persona non grata in Ford’s eyes. But Norm had also just taken 74 per cent of the vote in his ward, and, after he expressed his support for killing the vehicle registration tax, Ford asked if he’d chair the parks and environment committee. Norm accepted.
Initially at least, Norm thought Ford did a decent job. Though Ford was Miller’s opposite in every way, Norm appreciated the mayor’s apparent zeal for efficiency. Then, in the summer of 2013, after Ford’s deputy mayor, Doug Holyday, vacated his post to run in a provincial by-election, Ford tapped Norm to replace him. Ford’s reasons weren’t exactly profound—“he said he liked working with me,” Norm remembers—and the next day, at Ford Fest in Thomson Memorial Park, Ford announced Norm’s new position. Mobbed by well-wishers, Norm took a half-hour to get back to his car.
When Ford’s self-immolation threatened to engulf city hall entirely, Norm was forgiving, for a while. “He drinks too much?” Norm remembers thinking, “Well, so did Sir John A.” Privately, Norm had already had a number of heart-to-hearts with Ford: “I gave him my best advice, telling him what was best for the city and best for his political career.” Then, the day after Ford made his notorious “I’ve got more than enough to eat at home” comment in mid-November, a number of councillors came to Norm’s office and said they wanted to strip Ford of his powers and give them to Norm. Norm didn’t hesitate.
Dramatically thrust into the spotlight, Norm thrived, and he immediately set about repairing the damage Ford had done. On the one hand, it was like taking a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser to Chernobyl, but as Justin Trudeau has more recently learned, it can be easy to restore confidence by simply doing the opposite of your reviled predecessor. Norm pulled a page from the Bill Davis playbook: bland works. If Ford was sleaze, Norm would be old-school charm. While Ford was fuelled by bombast, Iceberg vodka and crack, Norm ran on civility, black coffee and the occasional glass of red wine. Ford had kept his door closed, hiring a burly security officer to stand guard outside his office. Norm’s door, by contrast, was open at all times. Ford banished the media, and Norm brought back regularly scheduled news conferences. At the last council meeting before the 2014 election, Councillor Pam McConnell said that Norm had “brought us out of dark chaos and into the light.” If he had been popular before, things had been just heating up. In that election, Norm got 85 per cent of the vote for his Scarborough council seat.
When Norm was serving as deputy mayor, he routinely, obsessively, had city hall bathed in colourful lights to commemorate some occasion or cause, whether it was the Raptors making it to the playoffs or World Pulmonary Hypertension Day. Just as he had done with the mayor’s door, it was a way to physically make the building seem more inviting and inclusive.
He took a similar approach to his social media presence. Norm started tweeting in July 2010. His first tweet: “Hello Twitter world. The Kelly is among you!” As deputy mayor, he hoped to make the account more welcoming, even playful. Tweeting under the handle @dmayorkelly, he proved that, at an age when many people have trouble remembering their Gmail password, he could reinvent himself again. In contrast to the robotic banality most pols favour on social media, the account was pitched somewhere between Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts and a staff report written by a council freshman hopped up on Adderall—Norm’s feed was full of predictable civic concerns like pothole repairs, but also non sequiturs about video games, political history and pop music. At the end of April 2014, he tweeted about the pain of stepping on a piece of Lego. Later that year, posting a picture of himself holding up a snow shovel, he bragged about his childhood work ethic. A people-pleaser in politics, Norm was just as comfortable catering to free-floating avatars. During the year he was deputy mayor, his followers grew from 1,200 to 6,000.
But almost immediately, speculation about the authorship of the account swirled. And that suspicion only ramped up when @dmayorkelly became @norm. He introduced the handle change with a Vine in which he enters his office, and his staff, Cheers-style, yell “Norm!” The new @norm was even goofier, more winkingly combative, sly and Internet-savvy. He joked about his garden being “on fleek,” complained about man buns and lamented—at great length—about Reese’s peanut butter spread not being available in Canada (it is now). When a makeshift memorial was erected for a dead raccoon left too long at the corner of Yonge and Church, the morbid joke spread even further on Twitter. Norm picked up the hashtag—#DeadRaccoonTO—and ran with it. The bit culminated when Norm christened the raccoon Conrad and posted a photoshopped image of himself and the animal attending a Blue Jays game.
In March he started tweeting about Drake, and then, over the next several months, every other tweet seemed to be about Drizzy. “Are we going to start calling the 905 area the five? Or do we have to wait for @Drake to say it first? #AskingForAFriend,” he quipped in early July. A few weeks later, during the Pan Am Games, he tweeted, “Drake should have been a torchbearer for the sole purpose of being able to say, ‘I was running through the six with the torch.’ ” So Norm was a hip hop fan now too? C’mon. Surely he had to have some savvy millennial on the payroll, helping him court the youth vote for the next election.
The truth, as it always does, lies somewhere in between. Norm does have a millennial on the payroll—his mild-mannered, 25-year-old special assistant, Jerry Nasr, who’s been with the councillor for five years and who now doubles as his media relations guy. And Nasr does help Norm out, but mostly with technical support. The day after Thanksgiving, I watched Norm stop by Nasr’s desk and dictate a tweet, right down to the punctuation. “I want to do another poll,” he said, referring to the newish Twitter feature. “Thanksgiving dinner, period. You enjoyed—colon—turkey.” He paused. “Other.” The next day, almost 12,000 people had voted (turkey won by a significant margin). During the several days we spent together, I also saw Norm grab his own BlackBerry Passport and hammer out a handful of 140-character dispatches, and noticed how quiet his account would get when he was stuck in committee meetings. Unless he had a phalanx of ghostwriters working diligently off-site while he faux-typed, I’m fairly certain @norm is Norm.
But Norm contains multitudes. He admits he steals tweet ideas shamelessly from everybody, and everybody can include Nasr, his stepson, a stray Ryerson student. One regular font of tweets, currently sitting on his desk atop a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Pamela Blais’s Perverse Cities, is a palm-sized compendium of political quotations, bristling with Post-its. He pays attention to what’s trending on Twitter and has pages of handwritten draft tweets at home. He also keeps tabs on his analytics, and while tracking his followers and retweets has now become burdensome, he still checks each day’s mentions. Those numbers, he says proudly, are now in the thousands. “I had no goals for the Twitter account other than to have fun,” he says, “and now it’s big. Now it’s work.”
In his office, Norm keeps a set of binders that serve as a hard copy backup for his brain. Every time he reads a book (several dozen a year) or newspaper (all four local dailies, starting with the Sun), he marks up significant passages with his trademark kelly green pen. A couple of students type up these passages, print them out and file them in the binders. The books tend to be non-fiction—volumes on management, economics, history, thinky self-help, futurology.
So when Norm wanted to educate himself about hip hop, he did it in typical Norm fashion—he went to the library and checked out some books. Read them. Made some notes. “I was watching Empire with my wife the other day,” he told me, “and I turned to her and said, ‘I understand these people! You hear that word, ‘dope’? This is what it means.’ ” But of course Norm wouldn’t have known Jay Z from Jazzy Jeff if it weren’t for Drake. He first started hearing about the rapper when he was deputy mayor and, to his delight, discovered that Drake, even in his stratospheric success, was proud of his roots: “This young, multicultural, creative, economically successful guy has not forgotten Toronto,” Norm says. As far as Norm was concerned, there had never been a better ambassador for the city. He is good for business, good for the brand. But Norm’s more into sports than he is into music, and he was mildly distressed, he says, when, during the NBA playoffs, he saw a photo of Drake shaking hands courtside with Washington Wizard Paul Pierce. Norm posted the pic and captioned it, “Yo, @Drake, what the hell is this?” It was retweeted 3,000 times.
Norm kept up the needling into the summer, mildly mocking the rapper for, among other things, his all-sweats wardrobe at the MMVAs. But then, in July, someone else took a swipe at Drake, and Norm leapt to his defence. You might have heard the story before—Norm’s been dining out on it for months—but it goes something like this: a week before he was to perform in Toronto, the Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill took to Twitter to claim that Drizzy didn’t write his own raps. Drake didn’t respond, but Norm enthusiastically entered the fray, telling Meek on Twitter that he was no longer welcome in Toronto. A presumably startled Meek fired back: “Aye white man @norm what gives you the audacity to tell me I can’t come somewhere over me voicing my opinion! U sound like a thug lol.” Norm turned it up: “Aye American @MeekMill. Didn’t say don’t come. Just puzzled why you’d diss a Canadian hero a week before coming to his city.” While Drake stayed mostly mum, retaliating only in subtle lyrics of subsequent singles, Norm kept up the Twitter heat, issuing jabs like “Meek Mill will drop a good track. #beforethejayslose again.” For Norm, Meek’s criticism of Drake was no less than an attack on Toronto itself.
A rap beef is one thing, but a rap beef that involves a septuagenarian Canadian politician makes headlines—in this case, Perez Hilton, Complex and Time. As he probably intended, Meek got a lot of attention for going after Drake, and Norm, as he no doubt intended, got a lot of attention for going after Meek. Norm’s account exploded—in a few weeks, he went from 12,000 followers to more than 100,000, from #TOpoli curiosity to full-blown Internet meme. Twitter Canada dubbed that summer #summerofnorm. His American followers, of which he suddenly had thousands, were asking him to run for president. In mid-September, a Michigan teen had a custom iPhone case emblazoned with a photo of a grinning Norm.
What makes something, or someone, meme material? Just scroll through your memory and recall some of your favourite all-time viral sensations: Keyboard Kat, Grumpy Cat, LOLCats. A meme is usually funny or absurd, accessible and sharable by a wide audience, and often taps into pre-existing online trends—@norm hit all those buttons, most obviously the latter. Drake exemplifies the value of virality, and he introduced Norm to a new and influential constituency.
A few months ago, many of Norm’s Twitter followers started referring to him as Dad and Daddy—an endearment they save for their most illustrious role models. It’s a nickname simultaneously affectionate, cheeky and slightly perverse. Norm successfully created the hip fogey persona, but his fans, in characteristic online fashion, personalized it. If Norm’s initial reaction betrayed the fact that he was still an old square—in August, he tweeted, “Have any of you thought about how your real dad feels when you call me dad?”—all the better. He didn’t fully control his image, his audience did. And that fact in turn made his audience even bigger.
In late September, Norm swung by a tech social for a Toronto non-profit called HackerNest. He likes the tech community and spends a fair bit of time at events like these. Norm’s vibe is less Silicon Valley start-up than Rouge Valley cutup, but in the spirit of the occasion, he left his suit jacket in the car, loosened his navy blue tie. As he glided through the room, sipping a beer and inserting himself into conversations, recognition passed over people’s faces, and after a few minutes, one by one, two by two, they asked Norm if he’d pose with them for a selfie. You might as well ask Ovechkin if he likes scoring goals. Norm threw his arms around his admirers and beamed broadly, dropping the kind of dad jokes that keep his Twitter followers in stitches: “I don’t want to have my picture taken with him,” he said of a blonde beanpole, “he’s too good-looking!” There’s no such thing as a grip-and-grin for Norm. He lives for moments like this. At the end of the evening, HackerNest gave Norm an award for being the city’s “most badass councillor.”
A question that now dogs Norm is: how does all this affect his day job? Just a glance at the highlights of his extracurricular itinerary in October suggests he has other things on his mind—he co-hosted the Hot 5@9 on Flow 93.5, dropped by the Ryerson Digital Media Zone, got his nails painted with Toronto police inspector Chris Boddy to raise money for breast cancer research, went to the opening of Cibo Wine Bar, attended a rally for Bill Blair, had breakfast with Maple Leafs Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk. When I asked Norm if all this might distract him from his “real” political work, he responded quickly: “No, it informs me. That’s the beauty of this job. If all roads lead to Rome, then in Toronto, all roads lead to city council.” You could also argue that he’s now serving a larger constituency: as of this writing, Norm has 207,000 Twitter followers, more than three times the number of people who live in his ward.
The last time I spoke to him at his office, we were both distracted by the giant TV screen set up in Nathan Phillips Square, broadcasting the insane game five of the Blue Jays–Rangers American League Division Series. The hundreds of fans who had gathered in the cool afternoon, hugging and high-fiving, were a conspicuous example of the things that bring cities together: blockbuster sporting events, natural disasters, political scandal. In his car-crash way, Ford was a weird unifying force, focusing the fascinated revulsion of almost every Torontonian and nudging the city, for better or worse, onto the international stage.
Norm’s done something similar, flipping the script with as much insouciance as Bautista flipped his bat. “What’s neat is that we had a mayor who was a celebrity for all the wrong reasons,” says Paula Fletcher, the councillor for Toronto-Danforth. “Now we have a councillor who’s a celebrity for all the right reasons.” Whatever Norm has accomplished in his political career, he’ll be most remembered for this surreal adventure. When Norm took us into the light, he made sure it shone most brightly on him.
Have we reached peak Norm? Yeah, probably. But as far as Norm is concerned, there’s no such thing. Ask him about retirement and he flashes you that folksy lopsided grin: the one that says, Nah, I’m having too much fun. He hasn’t ruled out another council term, though that depends on his health (currently good) and energy level (still seemingly off the charts). He kept a detailed diary while he was deputy mayor—maybe he’ll write a memoir? Or, better yet, make a mixtape with Drake. “Wouldn’t that be something?” he said. “I’d have to learn how to rap.”
He pressed play on the stereo beside his desk and started up “Legend,” the first track from Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. “A lot of hip hop is very personal,” he said of the song. “It’s working out where I am, the life that I’m enjoying, the toys that I can afford. It’s transformed from the expression of a community voicing their frustration to the expression of a generation that’s coping with success.”
In a quivery, nasal imitation, his eyes half-closed, Norm sang along. “If I die, all I know is I’m a motherfucking legend.”