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Mayor In Waiting: an inside look at Olivia Chow’s political ambitions

Olivia Chow’s public mourning after Jack Layton’s death cast her in a new light: dignified, likeable and, well, mayoral. Toronto wants her to run, but does she want Toronto?

Olivia Chow

(Image: Christopher Wahl)

The morning of December 13, Olivia Chow woke up with a strange feeling on the left side of her face. Her ear was also a little sore, but it had been like that for a week. It was only when she went to the mirror that she realized she couldn’t smile. Her skin drooped; she looked older and more tired. But she felt normal, thoughts whirring inside her head at the same pace as always. So she went right on with the phone interview on Newstalk 1010 she had scheduled for 7:30 a.m., before going to her family doctor.

The culprit turned out to be Ramsay Hunt syndrome, a complication from a shingles infection of her facial nerve. It wasn’t a serious illness, just bad luck. There was only a small spot of shingles inside her ear. Her doctor put her on a week of the steroid prednisone and an antiviral. About three quarters of patients who are treated within three days recover from the syndrome; she had arrived within a few hours, so the prognosis was good.

It’s tempting to invest this minor medical incident with heavy meaning. Chow has been a politician for 28 years, first as a school trustee, then a councillor, and, as of 2006, the MP for Trinity-Spadina. For politicians, a face is not just a thing you park in front of a computer in the morning and show to the family at night. A politician meets new people, all day, every day, and people are inquisitive, and not all of them have tact.

When her husband, Jack Layton, died of cancer in the summer of 2011, just 16 weeks after leading the NDP to an unprecedented 101 seats in Parliament, Chow gained a mythical dimension. Her image was everywhere. And those pictures elicited unusually strong emotions for a Canadian politician. (Stephen Harper posing for photos with a kitten simply doesn’t have the same gravitas.) She behaved in a time of mourning how a lot of people would like to behave. The footage of her following the coffin somehow struck the right mix of devastation, dignity and strength. Even the people who usually disagreed with her, and with her husband, were impressed. In that moment, whether she liked it or not, she became a public widow—and a household name.

During her recovery from the facial paralysis, Chow rested at her semi-detached house on Huron Street, in the south Annex. She futzed with her iPad, posting a picture to her Twitter feed of fireworks on Parliament Hill on New Year’s Eve. She spent time with her 85-year-old mother, Ho Sze Chow, and with her two cats.

Her condition also gave her time to think about the future. The most effective politicians are born strategists, always plotting several steps ahead. And the natural next step for Chow, her inner circle believes, is to become Toronto’s mayor. The polls back them up: in the weeks before Rob Ford won his appeal of the ruling that would have tossed him from office, Chow beat all potential opponents, including Ford. In one scenario, she took 40 per cent of the vote, Ford 35 and Adam Vaughan 13. The city wants her. The question is, does Chow want the city?

Chow called a press conference on January 4 to explain what had happened to her face. It was a necessary bit of stagecraft to avoid weeks of answering questions. “Overcoming adversity and challenges is part of who I am,” she told the reporters. Her matter-of-fact delivery undersold the drama of the last year and a half of her life. Underselling drama, getting on with things: these are signature elements of Chow’s political brand.

A month later, Chow’s face was still partially paralyzed, but it wasn’t slowing her down much. I followed her to community meetings and press conferences and more community meetings during the same week that the decision about Ford’s appeal was to be delivered, which meant that her every appearance was met with reporters asking when she’d announce her mayoralty run.

Chow is more than used to these questions by now, and she always gives non-committal answers: I’m listening to people who are telling me to run for mayor. We’ll see what happens down the road. I don’t answer hypotheticals.

Yet she was keeping herself in the public eye, just in case. I followed Chow to one press conference regarding the fate of Downsview Park, about which she has opinions even though it isn’t in her federal riding. She demanded that Harper’s Conservatives not sell it off piecemeal to condo developers. The next day, the newspapers covered the event as if it were a stop on a campaign for the mayoralty, quoting her opinions on casinos, with a brief mention of the park.

  • batb

    WHAT Toronto wants Chow to run?

    ‘Not the Toronto which elected Mayor Rob Ford.

    “Toronto wants her to run” is the kind of asinine, myopic, entitled, in-a-Leftist-bubble statement one has come to expect from Toronto’s mostly incestuous media. Sure, there are lots of 416 Torontonians who would like to see Olivia Chow as Toronto’s mayor but she’d bankrupt the city by kow-towing to the unions — the last thing Toronto taxpayers need. The unions have just about decimated Toronto coffers, putting in jeopardy Toronto’s infrastructure — have you checked out Toronto streets lately? What about the crumbling Gardiner Expressway? — so what Torontonians definitely DON’T need is a mayor who will continue David Miller’s dismal record.

  • Stefan

    O shut up.


    somewhat agree with you Batb. Sure, some downtown wards may want Olivia but to say ‘Toronto’ wants her is flat our ridiculous. The City may not want Ford anymore however it does not need Ms Chow.

  • batb

    Mutual, I’m sure.


    Just what Toronto needs, an NDPer to give Unions a blank cheque and turn a blind eye to over spending. Silly Lefties. Just what Toronto needs, NOT!!!

  • Vashty Hawkins

    I lean decidedly left of centre – and have always liked Chow/disliked Ford – but what Toronto needs is an intelligent centrist who could somewhat unite our woefully polarized city council, rather than continuing this destructive see-sawing between left/right factions that we’ve seen over these last several years of municipal politics

  • Torontonian

    I live in downtown Toronto, and given a choice between Chow & Ford, I’d choose Ford – not because I think he’s a good mayor, but because I’m afraid Chow would bankrupt the city…

    I agree with Vashty that what the city needs is a centrist mayor, and a council that will work for what’s best for the city instead of focusing on left vs. right.

  • Christina Archer

    Oh, my. You ‘conservatives’ do enjoy name-calling, don’t you? First of all, Ms. Chow has not stated any interest. Secondly, stop crying out , ‘Help, help!’ at any mention of any candidacy short of neo-liberal. Thirdly, if unions had a ‘blank cheque’ from those in power why did Miller have to deal with a garbage strike?

  • Alain Latour

    Toronto wants her? Not this Torontonian. What an slanted article.

  • thedingo8

    this is the same chow who…abused social housing, knew about all of her husbands appointments, which included abuse of chinese sex slaves, said “the average canadian is not capable of making a rational decision” and just recently said “jack wanted to be mayor, so maybe i do” this woman is an intellectual midget,

  • thedingo8

    typical left wing totalitarian statement.. closed minded fool following along at the back of the flock..

  • thedingo8

    lol ‘conservative’ is not a slur even though you believe it to be.. and a david miller reference… now that is lame..