Inside the race for Toronto-Centre

And the upcoming by-election previews a looming 2015 battle for Canada’s political left

<p>MACLEANS-FREELAND-08.06.13-TORONTO,ON: Toronto-Central Liberal party leader candidate Chrystia Freeland holds a casual meet and greet event on Bay Street in an effort to let possible supporters and voters get to know her character and stance on politics.</p>

Chrystia Freeland

Photo by Cole Garside

Chrystia Freeland apologizes for checking her BlackBerry. “I have a lot going on right now,” she explains. That’s an understatement. In the past two weeks, Freeland resigned her executive job running digital media at Thomson Reuters in New York, moved country with three children under age 10, and announced she was running for the Liberal nomination in the upcoming by-election for Toronto Centre.

The riding, held by the Liberals since 1993, has been in play since Bob Rae announced his resignation on June 19, effective July 31. Todd Ross and Diana Burke, long-time residents and local volunteers, had launched campaigns for the Liberal nod. Human rights and social activist Jennifer Hollett, a former journalist who holds an M.A. in public administration from Harvard, had declared her bid to run for the NDP.

But it took Freeland’s surprise entry to get the attention of the chattering class, which isn’t surprising. The Peace River, Alta., native boasts a CV gilded offshore: Harvard B.A.; M.A. from Oxford, which she attended as a Rhodes scholar; successful career as a business journalist based in Russia, London and New York (with a two-year Toronto stint as Globe and Mail deputy editor); habitué of the Davos circuit. The New York Observer declared Freeland and her husband, New York Times reporter Graham Bowley, a “New York media power couple.” Her 2012 book, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, hit a post-Occupy nerve as it chronicled the ascension of the 1 (and 0.1) per cent while providing a voyeuristic glimpse of its denizens. Its research entailed “attending the same exclusive conferences in Europe; conducting interviews over cappuccinos on Martha’s Vineyard or in Silicon Valley meeting rooms; observing high-powered dinner parties in Manhattan,” Freeland writes. Much lauded, the book heightened Freeland’s profile as a pundit who regularly traded barbs with Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert.

Now she’s multi-tasking in a café near the University of Toronto, fielding questions from a journalist while arranging to pick up a travelling child and checking the progress of a real estate deal. “We’re in the middle of buying a house,” she says, eyeing her messages. Navigating the over-heated Toronto real estate market suggests confidence and permanence. Yet Freeland insists her nomination is not the slam dunk everyone assumes: “Nothing can be taken for granted,” she says. “We have to fight for every vote.”

As scripts go, it’s not entirely convincing. Freeland has the Liberal party apparatchik backing her, including four campaign “co-chairs”: former Liberal MP Bill Graham, Toronto Centre Liberal MPP Glen Murray, and veteran party organizers Amanda Alvaro and Sachin Aggarwal. She’s clearly a “get”: a woman from the West who’s a media magnet. More, her reportage on the beleaguered middle class and income inequity dovetails with the party’s new “middle-class agenda.” Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has name checked Freeland and Plutocrats for months. The July 30 press release announcing her candidacy employed the term “middle class” six times in seven paragraphs.

Linda McQuaig meets with supporters. (Photo by Cole Garside)

Yet only one week later, the race was thrown a curveball when marquee leftist Linda McQuaig announced her bid for the NDP nomination. McQuaig, a provocative, polarizing journalist, activist and author, is a formidable opponent who threatens to dilute Freeland’s brand. She, too, has chronicled social and income inequity, most prominently in the 2010 book The Trouble with Billionaires: How the Super-Rich Hijacked the World and How We Can Take It Back, co-written with tax law professor Neil Brooks. The first chapter: “Return of the plutocrats.”

A Toronto Centre resident for 13 years, McQuaig says she’d been contemplating running for the NDP for a year. “For a progressive, it’s an incredibly exciting time to jump into politics,” she says. “Not just with the NDP as official Opposition for the first time in history, but also in light of the recent scandals and serious weakening of the Conservative brand in a way we’ve never seen before.” Freeland’s bid was a factor, she admits. “In some odd sort of way it stimulated me more. We both write about income inequality but we write about it quite differently.” She welcomes debate, but says it’s far down the road: “I have to win, she has to win,” she says. “And I’d like to study her book more carefully before I start critiquing it.” That said, McQuaig’s revised 2012 American edition alludes to Freeland’s 2011 Atlantic article, the genesis of Plutocrats: “Freeland comes across as reasonable and even concerned about the potential political fallout from inequality, but she ends up largely supporting the rich in their contention that they are a deserving, exceptionally talented lot,” McQuaig writes. She also takes a jab at Freeland’s proximity to her subjects: “She could be described as an embedded journalist, covering the story of class warfare from inside the tanks of the wealthy.”

Freeland politely refuses to answer questions about McQuaig. “I am so boringly and tediously focused on the Liberal nomination,” she says. “For me to even think beyond that is counterproductive and even stupid. But I’m happy for the middle-class agenda and income inequality to be in the spotlight.”

That Toronto Centre has emerged as a platform for the embattled middle class comes with more than a tinge of irony. Few ridings reflect the growing “have” and “have not” divide—and middle-class erosion—more. Its northern end is home to million-dollar mansions and $4 bunches of arugula; to the south there’s the economically deprived St. James Town, the gay village, the Regent Park housing projects currently undergoing revitalization, ending with a condo-glutted waterfront. Complicating matters is the fact that the riding will be divided into two before the 2015 federal election, with the more affluent, upper end becoming the new riding of University-Rosedale. Whoever wins the by-election can stay in Toronto Centre or choose to run in University-Rosedale. The new boundaries will create new challenges for all parties, says Robin Sears, a veteran political consultant: “The NDP presumably will be stronger in the south end, the Tories in the north end. If Chrystia were to win, which riding would she go to? It may be one of those by-election victories that doesn’t turn out to be the beginning of a great career.”

Such speculation abounds. What is clear, however, is that the by-election, which must be called by mid-January, is seen as a microcosm of the larger battle for the country’s political left or “progressive” vote in the 2015 federal contest. The Conservatives haven’t been a force for decades, and no Conservative candidates have stepped forward, though the Pirate party is represented. Rae won the riding in 2011 with only 41 per cent of the popular vote; the NDP doubled support to 30 per cent, and won two former Liberal bastions directly to the west. In June, Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis spoke of the need to hold Toronto Centre: “We’ve got to go in and decimate,” he told the National Post. The spectre of the Liberals and NDP fighting one another, not the Conservatives, is destined to make progressives in the riding unhappy, says Sears: “And that will be a precursor of a broader degree of umbrage going into the general election, which of course makes the Tories rub their hands together with glee.”

“Toronto Centre is a ground war,” says Hollett, who has been knocking on doors for months.“The number one issue is that voters feel disappointed and disillusioned by politics.” That’s something Trudeau has tried to counter with his endorsement of an open-nomination process and his pledge not to parachute in star candidates, a vow seemingly broken with Freeland’s arrival. They’ve made a mess of it, Sears says: “If you’re a Liberal or persuadable progressive and you’re looking for an excuse not to vote Liberal, they’ve given one.” He also sees a slap to the party’s grassroots supporters: “You’ve got to feel bad for guys like Todd Ross; he’s a gay Metis who has poured his life into the Liberal community.” Diana Burke also embodies the very values Liberal head office is championing: She’s an immigrant and a 25-year riding resident who rose from teller to senior vice-president of information security at the Royal Bank while volunteering in the community on issues ranging from early childhood education to poverty reduction. “Mr. Trudeau is talking about embracing a new style of politics,” says Vince Cifani, president of the Toronto Centre NDP riding association. “But he’s doing the same old tricks. The message is: We know voters better than voters know themselves.” Hollett concurs: “The big difference between Liberals and NDP in this nomination race is that the Liberals are top-down and the NDP is bottom-up—one is more traditional and more community-based. It’s up to voters to decide.” Sears sees a new engagement evident in the quality of candidates, four of whom are women. “In terms of taking the pulse of a healthy democracy, the fact the parties were able to attract this level of candidate is very encouraging,” he says. “These are all people putting a significant amount at risk, and they don’t have to.”

In Plutocrats, Freeland describes her political philosophy as “simply ‘Canadian.’ ” Asked what that means, she speaks broadly of “core Canadian values. We believe in capitalism—and sometimes people say to me, that’s a harsh word, you should say free markets, but I have to say capitalism. I really believe in capitalism—it leads to innovation and economic growth. And we also think that good government is essential to good capitalism and that a widely shared prosperity, a wide civic space, is important. That’s different from a lot of the instincts I encountered in the U.S.”

Chrystia talked about Canada endlessly, says financial journalist Felix Salmon, a colleague at Thomson Reuters. “You should have seen her when we went to Davos. Her eyes would light up when she saw a Canadian.” He recalls Freeland revealed that the Liberals tried to recruit Mark Carney for leader before the story broke: “I thought, ‘Okay, you are really plugged into that world.’ ” Her alliances were spelled out in Plutocrats when Freeland gives special thanks to her “Maple Leaf community.” Her “important friends and teachers” lists a who’s who, including Mark Carney, Paul Martin, author Don Tapscott, Globe and Mail editor John Stackhouse, Roger Martin, former dean of Rotman School of Business, and David Thomson, her former boss and Canada’s richest man.

That orbit lead to her current campaign. She met Trudeau last November, just after he announced his leadership bid, at a party celebrating Plutocrats at a Toronto restaurant, hosted by Geoff Beattie, then head of the Thomson family’s private holding company Woodbridge. Trudeau came with Gerry Butts, now his principal adviser, and Katie Telford, now the Liberal’s 2015 campaign director. “That connected the four of us in discussing the middle class and the middle-class agenda,” she says. No political overtures were made, she insists, but Telford and Butts stayed in touch. In June, Freeland met Trudeau for breakfast in Ottawa. She rejects the idea that she was approached to run. “ ‘Approach’ is too strong a word,” she says. “I would say things became more concrete; more general idea policy conversations took on the possibility of a more specific role.” She was ready to stop diagnosing and start prescribing. Trudeau’s leadership represents “a tremendous moment of renewal,” she says, citing his “idea of politics as positive and good and noble and engaged,” and the Liberal’s emphasis on a middle-class agenda. “So I felt this was the time to roll up my sleeves and do something at home.”

It’s too early to talk platform specifics, she says: “It would be arrogant, hubristic and inappropriate. Point one. Second point: The really big question of creating good government is not something that any person who is honest and eventually able to be effective is able to write a five-point plan to solve. I think it is our generation’s work to fix it.”

In the absence of her own political narrative, Freeland nimbly weaves her family history, referring to her immigrant grandparents who fled the Soviet Union, her great-uncle, Jed Baldwin, an Albertan “Red Tory” MP, her late mother, a lawyer who ran for the NDP in Edmonton, and her father, a farmer in Peace River, a lifelong Liberal. “Do you know how hard it is to be a lifelong Liberal in northern Alberta?” she joked to a crowd of young Liberals at a meet-and-greet. In conversation, Freeland skilfully marshals Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, memorized as a child, to explain her world view: “Learn my brothers, think, read, learn about the foreign things, but don’t scorn that which is your own.” Sears gives Freeland’s recruitment a seven out of 10. “She’s very smart, she’s likeable, she’s got a very confident view of herself and her analysis of the world and she’s defended it well,” he says. “But I’m not sure she has the knife skills to succeed in as tough a contest as this could be. Linda took on Conrad Black and it was at least a draw.” That’s true, though premature as a verdict. The must-see political theatre of Toronto Centre is only beginning.