When a baby is born, people embrace that child, not for what she is, but for what she will become. A similar blush of promise has cast itself over MPP George Smitherman.
As the first openly gay member of the Ontario legislature, he becomes the community’s voice in the provincial government by default. The question is whether he, as a rookie opposition MPP, can become any more than that.
“As a gay person, I really appreciate the fact that he is out, especially with this government,” says Anna Willats, who helped co-ordinate a drive to encourage marginalized women to vote in the last provincial election. But, “I hope his is a voice of conscience in general.”
Sitting in his new Sherbourne St constituency digs – he calls it a community action centre – Smitherman seems quite pleased with life. AT 36, he is a big man, his frame fairly filling out his chair, his round face capped by dark hair.
“There’s a new queen in town,” Smitherman he tells me, though he’s been around behind the scenes longer than most people realize.
In conversation, he generously salts his speech with references to himself in the third person: “People say Smitherman says this or Smitherman did that.” When he scribbles his cell phone number on a Post-it note, he prints out “Smitherman” and the attendant numerals.
George Smitherman uses his surname as a heroic label – like Hercules or Napoleon would have. When I mention his affection for his own name, he denies it, but his eyes, framed by coal-black eyelashes, twinkle and he gives himself away. Smitherman thinks a lot of himself.
His long history as a backroom boy Liberal, in addition to his bitchy public debates with gay Downtown City Councillor Kyle Rae, have already given him a profile. He’s co-owned the photography shop Prints On Church for years.
But political observers aren’t ready to pass judgment about what he stands for and what he can achieve. The window between his office and the rest of his action centre doesn’t have any glass yet. Like it, Smitherman may yet need some filling in.
“There have been helpful, supportive non-gay voices” in Queen’s Park, says Rev Brent Hawkes of the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto. Hawkes himself ran unsuccessfully as an NDP candidate in the 1995 provincial election. He thinks an out, gay presence in Queen’s Park is important. “I think it’s very crucial for us to have our own voices.”
For others, just being out isn’t enough. Willats hopes that Smitherman will pursue a social justice agenda. So far, she’s appreciated Smitherman’s take on problems in the Church/Wellesley neighbourhood and his defence of the homeless in the area.
Alison Kemper, the executive director of the 519 Church Street Community Centre, says she hopes Smitherman will pursue the “quality of life issues” he campaigned on. Smitherman has advocated more funding for housing and health care, and criticized the province’s restructuring of the five area hospitals.
“He’ll really have his work cut out for him raising the issues that mean people can live here together as a mixed income, mostly queer neighbourhood.”
Smitherman’s victory in Toronto Centre-Rosedale was comfortably padded, but it was no rout. NDP candidate Helen Breslauer and Independent John Sewell were nowhere to be seen. But parachuted Conservative Durhane Wong-Rieger was not far behind. Smitherman says he believes a lot of his support was protest vote.
“I think this election was about who’s going to beat Mike Harris, who’s going to defend this place from that assault, and less about specific items.”
And then there was the gay vote.
Smitherman agrees that he received support from Toronto Centre-Rosedale’s huge gay population, but he seems reluctant to acknowledge that his being gay may have been key to his success.
“I think the gay community was excited to support me for the fact that I’ll be out there waving the flag,” Smitherman says, but also points out “we didn’t have a big gay agenda.”
Perhaps it is this gay politician’s balancing act – how do you represent your gay constituents without being pigeon-holed by the mainstream? – that has set off the cat fight between Smitherman and Kyle Rae.
Since Smitherman took office this spring, he’s had on-going scraps with Rae. In the most recent example, Smitherman played a strange game of sexual one-upmanship. First Rae criticized the public panic of HIV-positive prostitutes by announcing that he had had safer sex with HIV-positive men. Smitherman followed suit and said that he too, had had protected sex with HIV-positive partners. The episode smells of wanting to score some mileage from the attention Rae attracted over his statement.
Earlier in the summer, Smitherman portrayed as heartless Rae’s efforts to discourage panhandlers and squeegee kids on downtown streets. Kyle struck back at a public meeting: “And Mr Smitherman, you can shake your head, but once you’re on the job and understand what the job’s about, you’ll understand.” Smitherman rebutted: “You want to debate me, Kyle? I’ll debate you any time.”
Smitherman won’t speak on the record about his relationship with Rae, except to say, rather predictably, “We’re a couple of old cantankerous queens.”
One thing those scraps demonstrate is Smitherman’s need to point his compass in his own direction where sex and politics are concerned. But the truth of the matter is that Rae, to whom all matters gay flow, is in a much better position to get results than Smitherman, a Liberal up against a Tory-led majority.
Naively, or not, Smitherman doesn’t seem to think that matters.
“We’re going to hammer the hell out of them,” he says of the Tories. “We’ve got an ability to influence them.”
Then perhaps in a slightly less giddy moment, he acknowledges that he and his party don’t have the power to pass bills, though he says he will be able to put forward new formulas before laws are passed.
Perhaps the recognition of same-sex couples in Ontario is the best example Smitherman’s awkward position. In June 1994, then premier Bob Rae introduced Bill 167, which would have amended most of Ontario’s laws to grant equal standing to same-sex couples. The Liberals helped defeat the legislation.
Prior to last month’s opening of the legislature, Smitherman had visions of riding into battle on the issue and redeeming his party.
“Bill 167 was a disgraceful period and I blame all of them,” Smitherman said. “They’ll be ill-advised to go against the legislation because they’ll have me to deal with every day.”
But in the end, the Tories came up with their own comprehensive reforms to spousal law, taking the wind out of Smitherman’s sails. Smitherman was left with the rather narrow worry over closeted gay MPPs. Conflict of interest guidelines would force them to publicly declare if they have same-sex partners.
So, maybe it’s a good thing for Smitherman that people like Rev Brent Hawkes don’t believe it is important whether Smitherman has a hand in writing legislation or getting bills passed. More important to Hawkes will be the entre Smitherman can provide gay men and lesbians to the Ontario legislature.
“This is about us having access to the halls of power,” says Hawkes.
Hawkes also has some deeply held beliefs about the exercising of political office that he says can only benefit the wildly diverse community of Toronto Centre-Rosedale. But that may run contrary to who George Smitherman is, at heart.
“That office [Smitherman’s] can do the most good if it approaches things in a bi-partisan way,” Hawkes says. “He is first and foremost the MPP of the riding, not the Liberal party. His first allegiance is to support the riding.”
Non-partisanship may be a tall order to fill for Smitherman, who has been active in the Liberal Party going back to his days as an Etobicoke teen. In fact, the whole of Smitherman’s career leading up to his June election victory has been that of partisan backroom person.
Most recently, he worked as Barbara Hall’s executive assistant. He was also Hall’s campaign manager in her ill-fated mayoral bid that had as one of its organizers Keith Davey, the venerable Liberal powerbroker. Davey was a guest at 24 Sussex Drive in mid-October to celebrate the 80th birthday of Pierre Trudeau.
These are the forces to which Smitherman is aligned.
“His role should be determined by his constituents. A huge percentage of the constituency is gay and it voted for him,” says Hawkes.
And perhaps it is his being gay that will redeem him as a Liberal party hack. His participation in Sarnia’s first gay Pride day this summer as marshall of the parade that attracted between 600 and 700 people was something of an epiphany.
“That was the single most important reminder of my possibilities as an openly gay MPP to build ties and strengthen communities,” Smitherman says. “Those people reminded me of the possibilities. Reminded me of how much we take for granted in downtown Toronto.”