Born to Run

Working the back rooms, John Tory has made everyone from Bill Davis to Brian Mulroney look good. Now, he’s cashing in years of political capital in his bid to become premier. But there’s more at stake than his personal ambition. He may be Progressive Conservatism’s last hope


Though he was born into Toronto aristocracy and has spent his entire adult life as a political, corporate and charitable titan, John Tory has no airs about him. He is plain-spoken, unimposing and unfailingly friendly. They are acquired traits—he hasn’t always been this at ease in public—but he has honed them into useful political assets. They are especially handy in awkward situations, like when he attended a community barbecue in May to raise funds for the funeral of Jordan Manners, the 15-year-old fatally shot at C. W. Jefferys Collegiate. In the centre of the courtyard sat some makeshift tables and chairs, which were largely empty, since they were in the most uncomfortable place in the compound; a horde of (mostly white) media had formed a ring about 50 feet away, their cameras and microphones pointing toward the tables, like snipers waiting for someone to cross their path. The few dozen well-wishers in attendance avoided the central tables, preferring instead to mill about behind the cameras or next to the DJ spinning reggae.

Into this discomfiting scene walked Tory, accompanied by his wife, Barbara Hackett. He immediately did what most of the journalists seemed afraid to do, which was merely to employ some fundamental social graces: he approached a small group of people, introduced himself, and asked if he could speak to a member of Manners’ family. After he’d passed on his sympathies, he spoke with the media, who were visibly relieved that a Recognized Talking Head had shown up to bridge the two solitudes. Then he left, without lingering and without fanfare. On the way to his next event, he reflected on the appearance. “I think, when people watch TV, the footage that comes from some corner of Toronto is treated no differently than the footage that comes from Afghanistan or Iraq: it’s just on TV, and it seems to be happening some other place,” he said. “There is a gratitude that comes with your presence. What counts is that you’re there just to say, ‘I watched it on TV and it moved me and I wanted to come in person to say that I’m sorry you’re going through this.’ ”

Tory joined the Young Progressive Conservatives at the age of 14 and quickly made a name for himself, serving as Ontario youth chair of Brian Mulroney’s first campaign for the party leadership in 1976. Photograph by Frank Lennon/Toronto Star

Despite his kind words and manners, it’s hard not to assume that Tory is using tra­gedy to score points with voters. And while it’s true the optics are good, the political calculus is not quite so crass. Tory makes a habit of attending these events. In the three years since he became leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, he has attended dozens of community events, each in memory of yet another slain Black youth, as well as about half a dozen funerals. No other political leader—neither Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty, nor Ontario NDP Leader Howard Hampton, nor NDP-leaning mayor David Miller—can lay claim to a similar record of attendance or interest. Mind you, they arguably don’t have to: established political wisdom holds that Liberals and New Democrats by their very nature care deeply about minorities and the plight of the disadvantaged. Tory also cares, but he has to work harder than his competition because most people believe that Conservatives, as Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella puts it, have “tiny black hearts.”

This perception has become so entrenched that it’s jarring to realize just how recently it developed. John Tory represents a less strident brand of conservatism that was once common in this country—one that favours free markets and fiscal prudence, but also believes in social justice and the positive power of government. It’s called Red Toryism, a moniker that has nothing to do with Tory’s family name but is synonymous with his views. It’s the political philosophy whose roots stretch back to Sir John A. Macdonald and the very invention of Canada. In the 1970s and ’80s, during the Bill Davis era in Ontario, it was known as the Big Blue Machine: the ideal combination of organizational strength, political savvy and well-managed, moderate government. In the 1980s, Brian Mulroney borrowed Davis’s formula and his brain trust, riding the Big Blue Machine to two successive federal majority governments. Today, however, few people in Canada equate conservatism with moderation. Federally, the party has taken the Progressive out of its name. Provincially, Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution remade the party into one of ideological purity. And the Big Blue Machine of capital-P Progressive Conservatism has been reduced to rusty scraps and popped springs. John Tory has been carrying that broken-down heap on his shoulders since the defeat of the federal PCs in 1993. He is determined to see it rebuilt. He is probably its last hope.

Glory days: Premier Bill Davis made Tory his principal secretary in 1981—an unusually prestigious appointment for a 26-year-old. Photograph by Jeff Goode/Toronto Star

The defining moment of Toronto’s 2003 mayoral election, a memorable campaign fought clean and hard, came when the loser crashed the winner’s party. David Miller prevailed over John Tory by a count of 299,385 votes to 263,189. Tory, originally written off as the neophyte candidate of council’s tired political right, was greeted at Miller’s celebration with enthusiastic applause, testament to the respect he had earned across the political spectrum. He later helped Miller raise funds to pay off his campaign debts. He did it, he says, because it was the right thing to do. “In municipal politics, the debt you incur is yours personally—you are legally responsible for it. I have known a number of people who, years later, were still trying to deal with it. It’s a terrible distraction.” Tory and Miller still BlackBerry each other regularly.

Many Torontonians have since wondered whether they chose the wrong guy as mayor. What they remember of that scene is the farewell of an exceptional candidate. What they remember less is a candidate so consummate he didn’t stop shilling for votes even after they’d been counted. And he hasn’t stopped yet: the following year he won the leadership of the Ontario PCs, and since then has been on the hustings in his quest to unseat McGuinty as premier. Everyone who knows Tory says he is the hardest-working person they’ve ever met, and they say it reverently. “John is capable of immense output,” says long-time friend and colleague Allan Gregg, the former pollster and strategist. Tory maintains no exercise routine—life is his workout—and neither his wife nor his staff even bother trying to keep up with his relentless pace. He arrives at his Queen’s Park office at 6:15 every morning and spends the next hour and a half reading and personally answering the hundreds of e-mails he receives from the public. A large proportion of them are petitions, letter-writing campaigns and invitations, which he reviews and forwards to the appropriate member of his staff. The rest range from questions to comments to provocations to ad hominem attacks, and he responds to all comers.

Tory had a similar routine while he was president of Rogers Cable: he insisted on personally reviewing the most substantial and egregious customer complaints and, at home between 9 and 10 p.m. every night, would call those people. “He’d often have to repeat himself and insist that no, it wasn’t a joke, he really was the John Tory who’s president of Rogers Cable,” recalls Hackett. While this might be a laudable and effective practice in business (not to mention a clever one for a CEO with political ambitions), in politics it’s called flirting with disaster. An offhand promise or carelessly worded commitment could eventually backfire on him, as could something as trivial as bad grammar. It makes his staff nervous, but Tory is confident of his own sure footing and combative about this aspect of his routine. “Anything that early in the morning is my time—my staff doesn’t get to program my schedule during those hours,” he says. Besides, they can’t get up early enough to stop him.

Within months of meeting his future wife, Barbara Hackett, Tory brought her to a YPC convention in Quebec City. “My idea of a hot date,” he said

Tory’s emphasis on meeting and talking to as many people as possible is stock-in-trade for opposition politicians, but it’s also an antidote to negative media coverage, especially in this era of image politics. The media love to churn out stories on how politicians vainly remake themselves for the cameras, and many in the Queen’s Park press gallery have pointed out that Tory no longer wears the eyeglasses that were a standard accessory during his mayoral campaign. It’s easy for voters to believe a candidate is all style and no substance if they’ve never met the person. But if they meet face to face, then not only are voters more likely to support the candidate, but they have also effectively been inoculated against media stories about how the candidate has duplicitously stopped wearing eyeglasses to appear less intellectual and increase his appeal with voters outside Toronto. I asked Tory about the eyewear while he was attempting to insert a contact lens in a moving van, and his rambling answer, which he told with great enthusiasm, is a folksy tale of thrift. He has relatively good eyesight, he explained, and needs lenses only for distances. He considered laser surgery, but this would have left him needing reading glasses. “Then they told me that they could do the surgery in just one eye, and the other eye would adjust on its own,” he recalled. “So I figured that the same must be true of contact lenses. So now I wear only one contact lens at a time. I alternate each eye. They’re disposable lenses, and you’re supposed to throw them out after a week, but since I wear each lens half as often, they last me two weeks, and I save money on the prescription.”

In all of Tory’s rambling, personal anecdotes, he casts himself as a perfectly decent and ordinary guy, dealing with family life, putting out the trash, saving a few bucks at the optomet­rist. He can also talk about the time he spent as president of Rogers Cable or raising millions of dollars for St. Michael’s Hospital without a trace of self-importance—just a guy in a job who got a few things done and had some funny stuff happen to him while he was there—and there is nothing about his manner to suggest it’s an act. He even looks the part: he is handsome, but in an ordinary way. He is neither tall nor short, neither fat nor skinny. He may not have a magnetic presence in a room, but he is perfectly approachable, and you’re left with the impression that he is smarter and more competent than most people you know, and is also just a really nice guy. This is the man John Tory wants you to get to know personally, whether by e-mail or phone or face to face. And to meet him, you would never guess just how driven he is to meet you.

Barbara Hackett met John Tory while both were attending York University. She was in business school; he was studying law at Osgoode Hall. He was easy to spot, the only student who wore a sports jacket to class every day—and “pretty gnarly ones at that,” according to Hackett. “So I ask this guy, ‘Hey, would you like to come out with a few friends for a brew after class?’ ” she recalls. “He said, ‘Uh, gee, I’d like to, just a minute.’ ” Then he led her to the bank of pay phones in the hallway and she watched as he fed the slot with quarter after quarter to call and cancel the many political meetings and events he’d already planned to attend that evening. Hackett says she knew then that he was smitten with her. She also knew exactly what she was getting into.

Tory has been a compulsive networker pretty much since birth. “He was always a very articulate child, comfortable speaking with his elders,” says his father, John A. Tory Sr. “He is still energized by people, even ones he doesn’t know.” It’s a common perception that Tory, the eldest of four children, was born into high society and raised with a silver spoon in his mouth, but from the accounts of those close to him, his home environment was not quite so baronial. “That silver spoon stuff conjures up images of a house with butlers and servants, like Conrad Black,” says his father, who notes that he and his wife, Liz, still live in the house they built on Glenallan Road in Lawrence Park in 1967. During the time that John Sr. and his twin brother, Jim, were building their law firm of Tory Tory Deslauriers & Binnington (now simply Torys LLP), they lived much as their engineer and accountant neighbours did. “We didn’t have the wealth that would support a lavish lifestyle. My wife raised the children on her own until the youngest was born. Then we had a live-in nanny until the children were all at school, which I don’t think is that unusual.”

Tory attended the University of Toronto Schools, where he was involved in numerous extracurricular activities but was an average student. He joined the Young Progressive Conservatives at the age of 14 and quickly made a name for himself, serving as Ontario youth chair of Brian Mulroney’s first campaign for the party leadership in 1976. Within months of meeting Hackett, he brought her to a YPC convention in Quebec City (“My idea of a hot date,” says Tory), where he first proposed to her—sort of. “We had a liquid lunch and were out walking the Plains of Abraham. We sat on the grass and he started to tell me that he loved me and had plans for me, and that he wasn’t going to let me out of his sight,” Hackett recalls. He was testing the waters to see how she’d react. She didn’t flinch at his description of the future, nor did he at her career aspir­ations or her intention to keep her maiden name. Three weeks later, one night at his parents’ home, he emerged with a diamond ring and a T-shirt that read, “Will you marry me?”

They wed in 1978 at Islington United Church, with a reception at Weston Golf Club attended by 150 friends and family. The following year, Hackett graduated with her BBA and gave birth to their first son, John Jr. Over the next nine years they had three more children, Christopher, Susan and George. The early years of their marriage were very busy, with nannies caring for the kids while they pursued their careers, he in law and she in corporate finance. Hackett now runs Stratheden Homes, her own design-build company, which she started in order to have more flexibility when the kids were entering their teenage years. “When kids reach the age where they start to make their own decisions—even though that’s what you’ve been encouraging them to do—you need to be more present, to make sure they are making good choices. That’s the part of parenting you can’t outsource.” Today they are a close-knit family of BlackBerry addicts, constantly messaging back and forth about who’s taking the car and who’s headed up to the cottage on Lake Simcoe.

Tory graduated from Osgoode in 1978 and joined the family law firm, where he worked for three years. From that point onward, his personal history is also the history of Red Toryism in Canada. In 1981, Premier Bill Davis asked Tory to serve as his principal secretary—an unusually prestigious appointment for a 26-year-old. When his grandmother, Jean, heard the news of young John’s appointment, she famously remarked, “What useful advice could John possibly give to Premier Davis?” But Davis, who’d already known Tory for a decade from his work with the YPCs, believed he’d made a shrewd choice. “John had distinguished himself at the law firm very quickly, and he already had lots of political experience,” says Davis. “Within a few months he had the absolute confidence of both the cabinet and the senior civil service.” Davis retired in 1985, and though no one knew it at the time, Progressive Conservatism in Canada had just lost its last honourable, trustworthy and beloved figurehead.

Hackett had their fourth child during the 1988 Mulroney campaign. Tory asked if she’d consider the name Brian. “You’ve been spending too much time with that man,” she replied

Tory became a member of Mulroney’s inner circle, serving as campaign co-chair and managing the prime minister’s tour for the memorable 1988 free trade election. Party insiders remember him as being unflappably in control, even when the Tories were sinking in the polls and the campaign seemed on the verge of self-destruction. “Tensions ran high on the plane,” recalls Luc Lavoie, Mulroney’s former press secretary. “We had to deal with a lot of shit, we were under tremendous pressure, and there was a lot of ‘fuck this’ and ‘fuck that.’ ” Yet while everyone was losing their cool, says Lavoie, “I never heard John swear once.” Mulroney credits Tory for advising him to focus on the issue of leadership in order to shine a harsh light on his adversary, the wobbly John Turner.

Tory left the campaign for only two days—November 1 and 2—to be with Hackett for the birth of their fourth child. He was pulled out of the delivery room in the midst of Hackett’s labour for an urgent call: one key adviser was recommending that the issue of free trade be taken off the table and referred to a referendum at a later date. Tory was incensed. “The election is the referendum,” he said curtly. “That would be the biggest sign of weakness, to say that we don’t believe in our own policy, thanks for calling, I gotta go, my wife is having a baby.” Minutes later his son was born, and talk turned to the matter of a name. Hackett favoured such traditional, princely names as Harry, Henry and George. He preferred Robert or Andrew, and suggested she draw up a short list. He then asked if she had considered Brian. “You’ve been spending too much time with that man on the plane!” she said, before informing him that the short list consisted of exactly one name: George.

The day before the election, when many pundits were still predicting a race too close to call, Mulroney says Tory called the exact number of seats they would win. The victory cemented his status as a top cog in the Big Blue Machine, and Mulroney asked Tory to manage the party’s next election campaign. When Kim Campbell took over as party leader, she asked Tory to stay on, which he did, managing the war room in Ottawa in 1993. It turned out to be the most disastrous election defeat in federal history, a spectacular fireball crash that reduced the party from a 151-seat majority to a mere two MPs. The campaign was marred by the decision to air negative television ads about then Liberal leader Jean Chrétien, an event that has become such a flashpoint of Canadian politics that it has its own Wikipedia entry. Though the ads were intended to question Chrétien’s leadership abilities, they were widely interpreted as mocking his facial paralysis. On election night, Tory appeared on television and bore responsibility for the campaign and its results. Though it was unusual for a backroom organizer to take the fall in public—“in the end, it’s always the leader’s campaign,” says Mulroney, taking a dig at Campbell (who declined an interview for this story)—Hackett says her husband truly felt responsible for the party’s collapse. Others concur. “He was devastated, and absolutely convinced that no one would ever talk to him again, that he was just dirt,” says Gregg. After a short break, Tory returned to work at the family firm, to an office decorated with balloons and streamers and bottles of whisky to welcome him back. Friends threw parties in his honour to pick up his spirits.

When Tory talks about the 1993 campaign now, he sounds as if he’s gone through therapy. “The first reality you have to accept is that the party had split in three,” he says, referring to its Quebec wing breaking off to form the Bloc Québécois, while its western supporters were fleeing to the Reform Party. He lists the other realities of the situation, which include the fact that Canadians were ready for a change after nine years of PC government, and that the leadership changeover took place “later than would be desirable.” (This is the nice way of putting it. As Gregg says of Mulroney, “bile would come dripping down people’s chins whenever his name was mentioned.”) Tory’s analysis is correct: the party’s internal coalition had collapsed even before the writ was dropped—they stood 15 points behind the Liberals in the polls at the time the attack ads aired. The shellacking cast moderate conservatives into the wilderness for the ensuing decade.

Tory spent those years in the private and charitable sectors. In 1995, he took the helm of Rogers Media, which at the time included the Sun newspaper chain. In 1999, he became president of Rogers Cable, then a money-losing monopoly; by the time he left, it was a profitable enterprise offering high-speed Internet service and competing successfully with satellite companies for the home television market. His opponents like to suggest that these posts were plums held out by family friend Ted Rogers, but Tory’s father says the only break Rogers ever gave his son was a summer job as a cub reporter for CHFI; the rest has been hard-earned.

Throughout this period, Tory was heavily active in fundraising for charities. As chair of the United Way Campaign in 2001, he raised a record amount in donations. He also chaired the St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation Campaign, which, thanks in part to his efforts, has helped the institution overcome its reputation as a poor inner-city hospital to become a magnet for investment and a centre of medical research. In 10 short years, Tory amassed a spotless record of relentless accomplishment, the kind one might expect from someone bitterly stung by a very public defeat.

In the weeks before he announced his run for the PC leadership in 2004, Tory sought advice from, of all people, Liberal attack dog Warren Kinsella. A long-time Chrétien adviser, Kinsella had endorsed Tory’s 2003 mayoral campaign. “He told me he was considering a run for the Conservative leadership and asked me what I thought,” Kinsella recalls. “I said, ‘John, you don’t want to know what I think. You’ve already decided to do it. And after you win, we are going to strip every last piece of bark off your tree.’ ” As it happens, Kinsella is now running Dalton McGuinty’s war room for the October 10 election campaign.

Winner’s circle: Tory and wife Hackett at the PC leadership convention in September 2004. Photograph by Adrian Wyld/CP

With months still to go before election day, polls are predicting PC gains and a minority government of some sort in Ontario. For the campaign, Tory will be playing the same cards he played to great success in ’88 and to disastrous effect in ’93: his main theme will be leadership. When moderates are at the helm of the PC Party, this is pretty much the only hand they’ve got. On policy issues, their moderate platform makes them largely indistinguishable from the Liberals, so they turn the focus toward intangibles. Still, it’s a sound strategy that trumpets Tory’s strengths while underlining McGuinty’s weaknesses. The trouble for Tory is that, while McGuinty does not poll well on leadership issues, none of his flaws are considered lethal because most Ontarians believe the province is well managed and on the right track. Liberals know this, and they are already poking holes in the PC election platform, which they claim contains more than 240 promises without costing any of them. Tory maintains he can pay for much of his platform with the savings he will reap from finding efficiencies in government operations, but he is no more specific than that. Presumably he intends to have the entire civil service perform the bureaucratic equivalent of wearing only one contact lens.

Kinsella’s main objective is to protect the Liberals’ ownership of the political centre against encroachment from moderate conservatism, and his main theme will be the gap between Tory and the Common Sense Revolutionaries in his caucus, such as Bob Runciman and Frank Klees. “He wants to jump back to the Davis era, but the rest of his party wants to go back to the Harris era,” Kinsella says. “He is a Trojan horse. He’s not in control. Until that’s resolved, we will build our campaign on it.” But Tory has spent too many years in political backrooms not to see this coming, and he has taken many steps to shield himself from that charge. He ran for the party leadership on a centrist platform as a “Davis Conservative” and won. He has attracted high-profile moderate candidates in the GTA. He also promises a lasting solution to the city’s chronic budget woes, though he won’t say exactly what it will be. (He has been consistent on this issue: he voted against the City of Toronto Act because he believed it was a mistake to offer Toronto new powers without first fixing the city’s fiscal problems. Given that city hall has since drained the last of its financial reserves, he is being proven right.)

In the meantime, Tory continues to attend events like the barbecue for Jordan Manners, and the more he goes to, the more you have to concede that he is not massaging his image or his party’s, but is in fact taking a genuine political risk. Toronto is increasingly marred, dismayed and even defined by violence among its young black population; it is a pressing social problem for all levels of government, and it requires a political solution. Premier McGuinty has his own crass image-management reasons for avoiding scenes of tragedy and mourning: he is in power, and with every funeral he attended he would appear increasingly powerless to stop the violence. In this sense, Tory has put his reputation on the line. If he’s elected premier and he stops going to these things and he fails to make progress toward a solution, there will be no denying his hypocrisy. But if he is elected and keeps his commitment, Red Toryism will be poised for a lasting comeback, and perhaps down the road they’ll just call it Toryism.

This story originally appeared in the August 2007 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $39.99 a year, click here. To purchase single issues, click here.