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Who will succeed Rae in riding that includes Toronto’s gaybourhood?

George Smitherman, Jennifer Hollett among rumoured Liberal and NDP candidates for Toronto Centre

"I look forward to the opportunity to chase Stephen Harper out of Ottawa," says George Smitherman.
Toronto Centre MP Bob Rae announced his surprise resignation from politics at a press conference June 19. The former interim Liberal Party leader and premier of Ontario from 1990 to 1995 says he is leaving Parliament to spend more time in his law practice.
Rae has represented Toronto Centre as a Liberal since 2008, when he won a by-election to succeed retiring Liberal MP Bill Graham. He twice had hopes to win the federal party leadership dashed, in 2006 and again in 2008, following the resignation of St├ęphane Dion and the installation of Michael Ignatieff as leader. He helmed the Liberal Party after Ignatieff lost his own seat in the 2011 election until Justin Trudeau was elected party leader this April.
Despite huge growth in the NDP vote in 2011, Toronto Centre has been considered one of the few safe Liberal seats remaining in the country, and party activists are saying they will fight hard to keep it in the fold.
Many Liberals are saying that the nomination battle is George Smitherman’s to lose. Smitherman, who is openly gay, represented the riding provincially from 1999 to 2010, when he resigned to launch his failed bid for mayor of Toronto. Smitherman says he is considering running but hasn’t made a firm decision yet.
“It’s certainly been the case that Christopher [Peloso, his husband] and I have been thinking of a return to politics at a national level, and the implications on our family,” Smitherman says. “It’s a lot like the opportunity when I began to run in 1998, to play a role in chasing Mike Harris out of Ontario. I look forward to the opportunity to chase Stephen Harper out of Ottawa.”
Other names being mentioned as possible candidates for the nomination include Pascal Dessureault, who is chair of the 519 Church Street Community Centre and a former member of the board of the Liberal Party’s Quebec wing, and political columnist Zach Paikin. Both acknowledge that they’ve considered running at some time, but neither would confirm that they’re interested in Rae’s seat.
“I’ve obviously gotten a lot of phone calls this morning,” Dessureault says. “I’m very flattered, but today is all about Bob.”
Dessureault recently moved out of the riding to the King and Spadina area. Paikin lives in the Rosedale neighbourhood, which is part of Toronto-Centre, but is expected to be removed from the riding as part of redistribution before the next election.
But the federal NDP is not rolling over. While the party has traditionally polled poorly in Toronto Centre, in 2011 the party saw its share of the vote in the riding grow to 30 percent from a previous high of 24 percent. Toronto Centre is the only downtown Toronto riding south of Bloor that is not held by the NDP.
“I think this is a riding that’s in play,” says Vince Cifani, president of the Toronto Centre NDP riding association. “We’ve been canvassing on a wide range of issues, and the welcome has been monumental. People are excited to vote NDP.”
Rumoured to be seeking the nomination is NDP activist Jennifer Hollett, a journalist and former MuchMusic VJ. Xtra was unable to reach Hollett before press time.
Another possible candidate is trans activist Susan Gapka, who sits on the board of the NDP’s riding association. Gapka, who ran unsuccessfully for city council in 2010, says she “could be talked into it” but denies she is organizing.
Nomination meetings have not yet been called for either party. Cifani says the riding association is busy focusing on several events it’s planning in the next few weeks, including a Pride Day brunch with party leader Tom Mulcair.
“That’s probably going to be one of the biggest tickets in town,” Cifani says. “If you’re interested in the nomination, you should probably be at the event.”
Toronto Centre’s boundaries are being changed by a riding redistribution that is expected to remove the area north of Bloor Street and cut along the Esplanade. The redistribution will take effect at the next general election and will not affect the by-election.
Under the law, the prime minister must call a by-election within six months of a seat being declared vacant. It is likely that the by-election will coincide with a by-election for the Montreal riding of Bourassa, vacated by Denis Coderre on June 2.

“The by-election will be fought on the boundaries I know so well,” Smitherman says. “That’s my territory, turf I know as well as anybody. It’s friendly turf. I have a working knowledge of it. I miss the people that I used to see regularly in public life.”