NATIONAL POST – Kelly McParland | March 21, 2014 | Last Updated: Mar 21 2:04 PM ET
To get an idea of what Olivia Chow might be like as Toronto’s mayor, it helps to examine her performance as a Toronto city councillor, a position she held for 15 years. Toronto at the time was in a state of some turmoil. (It’s always in a state of some turmoil, but this was turmoil it didn’t cause itself). The provincial government of Premier Mike Harris had just taken its six moderately well-run municipalities and manhandled them into a single amalgamated supercity, which was supposed to produce cost savings and better government but arguably never did. He then downloaded an array of services the province no longer wanted to pay for, leaving the new council to scrape together the money. The new council had largely fallen under conservative control, headed by former appliance merchant and consummate salesman Mel Lastman, and struggled to make ends meet while also holding to Lastman’s promise not to raise taxes.
Chow, one of the leading leftwingers in the city, fell victim to a bullying union boss with an agenda of his own.
In that environment, Chow comes across in media reports from the time as a skilled people person, able to work across party lines in pursuing policies important to her. These overwhelmingly focused on children and the needy. She was named the city’s first youth advocate, a position one columnist suggested was a wily move by Lastman to keep her away from other, more potent positions. She struggled against welfare cutbacks caused by downloading, outmanoeuvred the mayor to create a $300,000 fund to help tenants fight landlords over rent increases, helped find $700,000 for a meal program for children, and helped create a jobs program to deal with “squeegee kids”, a major issue at the time that had Lastman and other conservatives climbing the walls in outrage. (Scruffy squeegee kids used to haunt busy intersections, cleaning car windows whether you liked it or not, then begging payment. Right-wingers wanted to lock them up).
Then, as now, it was hard to find anyone with a nasty word about her. “Olivia is the most effective councillor for social justice issues,” said one admirer. “She usually gets broad-based support and can work with the right-wing on council.”
It was when she stepped outside her chosen field that she seem less well-equipped. Chow’s growing stature had won her a coveted spot on the city’s Police Services Board. The police department in those days was a viper’s nest of overbearing egos and self-serving power-plays, with rival fiefdoms vying for dominance and council members lining up behind their favoured factions. Police Chief David Boothby, considered ineffectual, was faced with a union dominated by the swaggering union boss Craig Bromell, who dismissed critics as “scumbags” and “loudmouths,” gathered dirt on police “enemies”, and so frightened one police board member he had his office swept for bugs. Lastman loved him.
Abandoned by the Police Board – reportedly with Chow’s approval – Boothby suddenly stepped down, setting off an farcical charade to find a replacement. Several potential candidates were supposedly being consulted on the quiet — since they already had high-profile jobs — until a tactical leak blew their cover, forcing some to withdraw and leaving the field to York regional chief Julian Fantino, who just happened to be the guy rumoured to have the job sewn up all along.
Everyone denied the fix was in. Lastman insisted Fantino hadn’t even applied and would be considered only as a last resort. Three weeks later, on a Sunday night, it was announced he had the job. Chow was one of two members of the police board to vote against Fantino’s appointment, but having helped dump Boothby she was stuck with his law-and-order successor, one of whose biggest fans was Bromell, who suggested they’d “make a pretty powerful team together.”
Three months after Fantino took over, 29 police and dozens of protesters were hurt when an anti-poverty demonstration at the provincial legislature turned into a riot. Mid-way through the confrontation Chow peddled up on her trademark flower-bedecked bicycle. Depending on who you believe, she either spoke to police in an effort to be helpful, or violated her position on the police board by interferring in their operations. Bromell demanded she resign; a report was prepared, and Chow stepped down minutes before the contents were to be revealed. She’d lasted barely a year. One of the leading leftwingers in the city fell victim to a bullying union boss with an agenda of his own.
Bromell later came to grief when he launched “True Blue”, a campaign to raise money by selling stickers to motorists identifying them as police supporters (and which could be conveniently displayed in car windows), which even Lastman couldn’t stomach. Fantino has gone on to fame as one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s least capable cabinet members (sitting opposite Chow’s place on the NDP benches). Chow, despite her supposed devotion to city council, twice tried to get elected as a federal MP before finally succeeding on her third try.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean KilpatrickFormer Toronto police chief Julian Fantino
If she returns as mayor she will find a police force in a far less toxic state than in the old days, thanks in no small degree to the departure of Bromell and Fantino. Chief Bill Blair hasn’t suffered from being a leading figure on Mayor Rob Ford’s enemies list, where he landed by making clear his disgust at the mayor’s drug and drink escapades. Chow’s people skills and cooperative nature may serve her well on a splintered council that desperately wants an end to the Ford circus act. But if her Police Board experience is any guide, she may struggle if hand-to-hand combat breaks out, as it often does. National Post