When George Smitherman sat down with Xtra’s editorial board on Aug 18, there were a number of red flags that stood out. Most notable was his unwillingness to state simple unequivocal positions on issues of high interest to gay and lesbian people.
On the Pride Toronto censorship controversy, for example, when asked if he thinks Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) ought to be allowed in the Pride parade or not, instead of a simple “yes” or “no,” Smitherman would say only that it is “a question the broader community has to grapple with.” He spoke, rather abstractly, of his concern about the propriety of groups without purely queer messaging participating in Pride celebrations. We grappled on this for some time, but he would not be boxed in.
On the events of the G20 weekend, Smitherman would admit only that he has concerns, and that he has called for an investigation. He wouldn’t state an unequivocal position on the conduct of police, of Toronto police chief Bill Blair, or even whether or not the police response constituted an assault on the civil liberties of Torontonians.
On these two matters at least, we don’t know what Smitherman really thinks and feels, and so it becomes difficult to predict what he is likely to do when faced with similar situations as mayor. This unwillingness to commit on his part, even with the benefit of hindsight, engenders distrust on mine.
But his reticence on these matters is not unexpected. He’s a skilled politician who knows what he’s doing. He’s in this race to win — to lead — and this brand of rhetoric, this fence-sitting, is what it takes to succeed. His handling of these questions is tactical electioneering, pure and simple.
Let’s look at his foundations. He grew up and came out in Toronto. He has participated in Pride celebrations since the ’80s, long before he became a politician. He witnessed the HIV/AIDS epidemic firsthand as it unfolded in Toronto’s gay community. He opened a business in the Church-Wellesley Village before straight people thought it was cool to do so. He lives in the same neighbourhood to this day. Although it makes little sense to vote for a candidate simply because of his sexuality, Smitherman has lived the life in this community, and those experiences inform his moral compass.
“I’m wearing a suit and I’m a white male and I’ve been the most senior openly gay politician in the history of Canada by way of responsibilities,” he told us. “But I have the minority experience. I’m from a community that is a community of the Charter.”
In our editorial board meeting, Smitherman proved very aggressive but quick, intelligent and better prepared than any other candidate we interviewed. He is an effective negotiator, communicator and politician with an impressive, though not unblemished, record. That record includes speaking out against the ban on blood donations by gay men and pushing for proactive funding initiatives to combat HIV/AIDS. His connections to the Liberal machine in Ontario are more asset than liability, and as a newcomer to city hall, he will likely bring much-needed freshness.
There are strategic considerations, too. His opponent, Rob Ford, makes Mel Lastman look like a Rhodes scholar. Ford’s buffoonery would likely make Toronto an international laughingstock, and city programs that benefit gay and lesbian people would almost certainly suffer under his administration. If we wind up with a Progressive Conservative government at Queen’s Park late next year, we need Smitherman in the mayor’s chair, certainly not Ford.
And so, on balance, George Smitherman is best equipped and best positioned to be the next mayor for all the citizens of Toronto.