By Karon Liu
The former premier leaves a dollar tip for the $1.25 coffee — no sugar, just low-fat milk — at the counter and removes his brown overcoat to hang over a chair in the back of the Oakham House Café on a rainy afternoon. Even though this coffee date was just another stop in his campaign trail that day, having already appeared on Canada AM and a luncheon honouring a friend from the United Way — he was still able to schedule in a quick workout — the empty tables and chairs of the restaurant provided a moment of calmness for the man hoping to get elected in the Toronto-Centre riding for the federal by-elections on Mar. 17.
If elected or rather, when elected (it’s been a Liberal stronghold reigned by Bill Graham since 1993), 59-year-old Bob Rae will be representing a diverse bunch including the old money of Rosedale, the poor of Regent Park and the flamboyance of Church and Wellesley. For now he’s in the microcosm of Ryerson where students coming in and out of the café occasionally take second glances, though most are oblivious of his presence.
That’s why he’s optimistically cautious with this election, saying his chance is a modest “pretty good.” “You can’t take anything for granted,” he says. “We’re not taking anything for granted and trying to get as many volunteers as we can to run a good campaign.” Ryerson politics chair Neil Thomlinson agrees, saying in the world of politics Rae can never be too sure about his standings, especially in the absence of polls. Rae has also been a bigger presence on campus than Graham with Rae attending the close Gould Street protest and placing ads in the student newspaper. But for Thomlinson, it’s hard to compare the two.
“It compares in the fact that Bill was already a senior Member of Parliament, compared to Bob who is more or less unemployed, so his priority is to get employed,” he says. “But once Bob is elected, you won’t have that same access anymore, and if the Liberals form a government and he becomes a senior member, then it’s going to be the same situation.”
The Rhodes Scholar and Ontario’s 21st premier is facing off against two Ryerson graduates in the elections who are also thinking about what the federal government can do for the university. Rae, already a friend of Ryerson President Sheldon Levy, plans on bringing national attention to the school.
“We need to look at Ryerson’s unique role in the life of its community. It’s turning itself into one of the greatest urban universities in North America and it’ll be a great interest to the federal government,” he says. “Also, there’s always the issue of supporting the indirect cost of university research, that’s a big feature of some of the overhead costs that universities have to face.”
Rae remembers his own university experience when he shared a room with Michael Ignatieff, who competed with Rae for the Liberal leadership in 2006, while studying at Trinity College at the University of Toronto.
“We were both young guys and he’s [Ignatieff] very bright and engaging,” he says. “I don’t think we could have guessed [we’d end up where we are now], partly because of our past.” Ignatieff attended graduate school in the States while Rae went to England. When Rae went back to Canada for law school, Ignatieff was in the UK to do journalism and teaching.
It was during the ’60s, the best time to be in university, he says.
Yorkville was neither haute nor couture but the place for twentysomethings to listen to Gordon Lightfoot play at a coffee bar. Every few months Rae would buy the new Beatles or Stones record before becoming a Joplin and Hendrix fan. The country was just starting to get a taste of Trudeaumania, and Rae began his political career by volunteering on Trudeau’s 1968 leadership campaign.
“There’s an interesting difference between campaigning now and when I started in politics,” he says. “In those days a lot of people were at home during the day. Now, not so much unless you go to a seniors’ home.”
That’s also why politicians now have to turn to the Internet, he says, and sign up for YouTube and blog accounts in between logging into Facebook. Rae even had a profile photo of him with his celebrity endorser, the late Oscar Peterson.
“I haven’t played Scrabulous and I’ve restricted the extra things I could add on Facebook, otherwise I’d spend my entire life on the site,” he laughs. “Somebody helps me manage the account with the sheer number of messages and friend requests, but I log in at least twice a day.”
And Rae knows what it takes to run a campaign since this would be his ninth. He was first elected as a NDP to the House of Commons in 1978 to represent the electoral district formerly known as Broadview (it’s now divided among the Beaches, Broadview- Greenwood and Rosedale). He was re-elected in the 1979 federal election and attached a rider to a budget bill that ultimately ended Conservative Joe Clark’s government after eight months in office.
But Rae is most known for being the premier in the early ’90s where the odds of a successful run were against him. For one thing, the NDP never governed Ontario before and it didn’t help that the province was experiencing a recession that could have been compared to the Depression. By 1993, Rae’s party had six per cent of the province’s support, compared to the 52 per cent during his first six months in office in 1991. Rae leans back, rolls his eyes and lets out a laugh of self-deprecation when talking about those three years.
“You have to look back and say, ‘That’s what happened and you could have done it differently.’ I look back at my time in government and wish that I had more training,” he says. “I learned in the school of hard knocks that we promised large things to the opposition and proved to be, given the recession, difficult to accomplish and had to make the difficult decisions that were tough to do. I think I said on many occasions that if I could live the first year of government again I would try to do things differently.”
And now’s the time for the do-over. Having left politics in 1996 with no intention of coming back, Rae said enough people convinced him to return as a Liberal. Though he came in third in the Liberal leadership race, Rae announced last year he wants to run for the Toronto-Centre. With an extra decade of experience under his silver coif, getting elected to the House of Commons would be less surprising than getting elected as premier. He has a resumé ranging from the Air India inquiry to the Rae Report in 2005, which called for more funding for postsecondary education, though he has no plans to run for the leadership as long as Stéphane Dion is in office.
It’s time to move to the next appointment in the Church and Wellesley neighbourhood as Rae takes one last sip of his coffee and leaves the café to say hi and shake hands with students waiting to buy discounted Metropasses in the lobby of the SCC. Not that he needs the extra votes, but given Rae’s last time in office there’s no such thing as too much support.