4 min

For a better world

Layton's boys in the backroom

Credit: Josh Meles

Two gay vancouver men who helped engineer the political win for NDP Leader Jack Layton in Toronto are back in BC now-triumphant, exhausted and, no doubt, glad to be home after five weeks of eating, sleeping and breathing nothing but backroom politics in the riding of Toronto-Danforth.

Ron Stipp and Jerry Toews led the Layton team to victory, albeit a close one, and they pulled it off despite the fact that Toronto’s mega-sized Pride celebration was the day before Election Day. Not only did they convince the queers to come out to vote-lesbians and gay men came out in droves to volunteer, too.

“Some will be starting later in the day and wearing soft clothing,” Toews laughs, “but nobody said ‘it’s Pride, I’m not going to volunteer,’ and I’ve talked to hundreds of people.”

Layton’s Ontario riding has a large queer population, including a high number of lesbian and gay homeowners. That was a plus to the backroom team, Stipp notes, because Liberal incumbent, Dennis Mills, was “vehemently opposed to same-sex marriage. It was a big issue in a neighborhood with a lot of gay and lesbian married couples.”

Xtra West calls Stipp and Toews for an interview during Pride Day. “And we can’t go,” Stipp laments. He’s embedded in Layton’s Toronto campaign headquarters fielding questions from constituents and media, organizing the world for Jack and just running the show in general. He was probably the busiest queer on the planet less than 24 hours away from the polls opening.

Stipp took a leave of absence from his job as a Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) rep after Jack Layton personally asked him to manage the Toronto campaign. Stipp then called on Toews for help-they’d worked together on Tim Stevenson’s last provincial election campaign.

“I’m mentoring from Ron to become a campaign manager,” says Toews.

Stipp says he’s managed political campaigns for 20 years “on the side. It’s a passion.”

And he’s particularly passionate about the Layton assignment. “I really want to get Jack elected. I think he will make a huge difference in Parliament.”

What motivates Stipp to put his life on hold for politics “is the same thing that motivated me 20 years ago-social change,” he says. “I think it’s important to stand up for your principals and be heard-to do something about it instead of sitting on the couch watching television.”

He acknowledges that being gay is a very important reason why he’s so involved. “Our struggle for equality is of paramount importance. We can’t let the likes of Paul Martin or Stephen Harper shove us to the side, which is what they want to do. As gay people, we have to be political or we’ll get shoved to the side.”

Being gay is also central to why Toews is politically active, and why he was drawn to the NDP.

“I have these incredible ideas that we can make a better world,” he says. “Maybe that’s crazy and idealistic-I’m just really passionate about it.”

Toews, now 39, uses the skills he picked up working on a BA in drama: “confidence, thinking on your feet, taking cues from what happens around you and reacting. And election day is very much the same as opening night-after long hours of preparation you need to be ready. Everything else is building up to that day.” Toews has worked in theatre production doing the technical work and is used to going all night long.

Toews has hitched himself to Tim Stevenson’s political career, working with him on both the 2001 provincial campaign (which he lost to gay Liberal Lorne Mayencourt) and the 2002 civic election (in which Stevenson won a seat on city council). The provincial campaign changed his life.

“I took a pay cut to pursue politics,” he says.

Layton’s campaign is the highest-profile one that he’s worked on to date. But he’s become deeply involved in the NDP, including a stint as provincial secretary. Since Sep 2003 Toews has done contracts for the NDP, Ontario and Saskatchewan provincial elections, and membership drives for BC NDP. He is currently involved with the Vancouver-Burrard Constituency Association and last year sat on the Vancouver Centre NDP Riding Association. (And he’s known within the business community for his work for the Robson BIA, and volunteer work with the Davie Village BIA.)

For more than a decade, Stipp has been involved with the NDP as a political organizer and as director of organizing for the BC New Democrats. The 47-year-old worked on the Vancouver arm of Layton’s 2003 NDP leadership campaign. He was campaign manager for Alexa McDonough’s 2000 election campaign in Nova Scotia when she was leader of the national party. Municipally, Stipp worked on Larry Campbell’s run for mayor. He also trains campaign managers for the NDP.

What’s his secret?

“Ron is the king of calm,” Toews grins, describing Stipp as quick to react and able to motivate people without losing his composure. “He has incredible instinct. Ron feels it; he knows instinctively how to do it, and he has a sense about people.”

Stipp describes himself as even-tempered, a good worker in stressful situations, and good at multi-tasking.

“This job involves keeping a lot of balls in the air at the same time.”

He has an MA in special education and was a teacher many years ago after graduating from UBC.

It’s been an intense time working to elect Layton. “I miss the ocean,” he says. He left behind his Yaletown home, two cats, his bike and the spins around the Seawall in exchange for Toronto’s Greektown. Mark, his partner of eight years joined Stipp for the last three weeks of the election, also volunteering his time to the cause.

For his part, Toews was a bit apprehensive about his coming back to Vancouver after the election. The issue is his bed: he’d planned to move at the end of last month, but didn’t have time to pack, what with the election call and other NDP work he was doing in northern BC. So a friend moved him.

“And he’s a Liberal!” Toews laughs. After five weeks of living out of a suitcase in Toronto, he’ll be returning to a new residence and the short-term reality of living out of boxes. The first thing on his mind is sleep, he says.

“Then I’ll hit the PumpJack and relax a little.”