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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.