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Politics: Rae of light?

Toronto's gay councillor comes under increasing scrutiny

A HARD MAN TO BEAT. In 2003, Kyle Rae took Ward 27 with 66.3 percent of the vote. In 2000, he ran unopposed.

After 14 years as the city councillor representing Ward 27, home of Toronto’s gay village, some are saying it may be time for Kyle Rae to leave.

A year away from the next municipal election, some critics accuse the city’s only openly gay councillor of betraying his progressive roots, of being too close to developers and corporate interests, ignoring the homeless and letting the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood deteriorate. But Rae also still has many supporters who point to his support of gay rights and businesses, his attempts to push for reforms and his constituency work as reasons to elect him to a sixth term in 2006.

Alex MacLean, Rae’s constituency assistant and former lover, resigned in September, saying Rae favours developers and his richer constituents in Rosedale.

Rae did not respond to a request for an interview for this article. But he told the Toronto Star last month he was being unfairly criticized for supporting an increase in high-density housing downtown.

“[They say] I’m in the developers’ pocket,” Rae told the Star. “What the development industry is doing, when you push them, give them direction, is to deliver high-quality architecture and development. I’ve been pushing for better architecture.”

Dennis O’Connor, the head of the Church-Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area and the owner of the O’Connor Gallery, worries that Rae’s ties to developers have made him forget ordinary homeowners. O’Connor says he’s considering running against Rae in the next election.

“A lot of criticism has to do with his feelings on urban development, the building of studios in the sky wherever developers feel like building. His interests have changed quite a bit from helping the little guy to working with developers.”

However, David Blaire, co-owner of the Dundonald House bed and breakfast, says Rae was very helpful in dealing with a nearby high-rise condo development at 46 Wellesley St.

“When I approached Kyle, he set up a steering committee made up of people from the community. We went through a process with the builder, the architect and Kyle.”

Blaire says the committee was able to bring about changes, especially on matters like shadows and the view from Dundonald.

“Things were handled very well here and they wouldn’t have been if it hadn’t been for the direct involvement of Kyle Rae.”

But antipoverty activists say Rae has sacrificed affordable housing for luxury construction.

“His name is synonymous with development and the social cleansing and driving out of homeless people,” says John Clarke, an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. “Wherever the snarly yuppie element is taking issue with the homeless, Kyle Rae is there. From Yonge St development issues through to the most day-to-day issues of homeless people, he’s always been opposed.”

Michael Shapcott, research coordinator with the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee and the New Democrat candidate for the riding in the next federal election, agrees with Clarke.

“From 1999 to 2005, not a unit of affordable, supportive or alternative housing was developed in Kyle’s riding.”

Shapcott hastens to point out that 29 of 44 councillors have an identical record, although he contrasted Rae with his neighbouring councillors, Pam McConnell, who had 50 units built in her riding over the same timespan, and Olivia Chow, who had 150.

Then there are those who who accuse Rae of leaning too far the other way on these issues. O’Connor believes that downtown Toronto bears a disproportionate share of the burden when it comes to existing social housing and the homeless.

“A lot has to do with the downtown city councillors allowing a lot more social housing downtown. Anyone knows that you shouldn’t build a ghetto, but spread the load across the city.”

Rae also faces criticism for his support of Yonge-Dundas Square, which many say is ugly and dominated by advertising.

“The one thing I think of when I think of Kyle Rae is Yonge-Dundas Square,” says Dave Meslin, coordinator of the Toronto Public Space Committee. “I don’t think he should be proud of it. That Kyle Rae and city council would view this as what the public needs in an open space is horrifying.”

Rae’s alleged closeness to those private interests has also sparked interest in his campaign finances. In his financial disclosures for the 2003 campaign, Rae declared donations of $82,025, $63,000 of which were corporate donations. Those included donations from a number of developers, including Cadillac Fairview and Olympia And York, and from companies like Viacom Outdoor Canada — which displays ads on billboards and garbage cans — and 21 Dundas Square Ltd.

Rae also received donations from community businesses such as Hair Of The Dog, Zelda’s, Woody’s and Spa Excess.

Neighbouring councillor Pam McConnell declared donations of $30,775, $13,000 of which were corporate, including one from Olympia And York. Olivia Chow declared donations of $35,288, $6,758 of which were corporate.

But for all the criticism, Rae still receives considerable support for the stands he has taken on queer issues. Spa Excess owner Peter Bochove says that prior to becoming a councillor, Rae was instrumental when the city was sued to allow the opening of new bathhouses.

“The bath business has profited from having Kyle in that chair. I don’t mean financially, I mean being in existence. When it comes to safe sex and outreach, the City Of Toronto stepped up to the plate, with Kyle’s urging, and allowed us to do that outreach.”

Tim Jones, who was the general manager of Buddies In Bad Times Theatre at the time of its move to its current city-owned facility, credits Rae with bringing that about.

When the city decided to award the building on Alexander to a theatre troupe in 1992, a competition was held that culminated with Buddies being selected. A homophobic backlash ensued, fuelled by the Toronto Sun, which relentlessly attacked Buddies.

“At the time, the Sun unleashed 46 articles, editorials and cartoons portraying us as a sex club,” says Jones. “There were attacks on us from all levels of government. There were various people on city staff or council who didn’t want us. We never would have been able to do it without someone working on the inside, someone who was prepared to stand up amid all the craziness.”

But even with such testimonials, MacLean says Rae has lost a lot of support within the community and from the NDP political establishment.

Rae had received considerable NDP support and endorsements in his initial 1991 campaign and subsequently. He was not endorsed by the NDP in the 2003 race. According to Murray Gaudreau, the president of the federal NDP local riding association, Rae didn’t ask for the endorsement in 2003. He won that election by more than 10,000 votes over his closest competitor, Enza “Supermodel” Anderson.

In the 2006 election, Rae may face his first serious challenge in some time. O’Connor says he has been approached by various individuals and one political party to run against Rae. He says he thinks it might be time for a change in councillors, but that he has not made up his mind.

Gary Leroux, a design teacher at York University, is also planning to run against Rae.

“There’s a lack of leadership. People want a councillor who will listen. Our community, 10 years ago, was alive and vibrant and exciting in the Church-Wellesley area. We’re losing everything.”

But Rae’s supporters say he’s still the best man for the job.

“He does do a lot for the community,” says Blaire. “He has the community’s interests at heart.”