George Smitherman: the man Toronto wishes it had picked as mayor

Openly gay liberal now seems like a dream choice to some after antics of Rob Ford

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 2:43am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 2:43am


This is the mayor Toronto could have had: George Smitherman, an openly gay liberal who overcame an admitted history of drug use to become Ontario's deputy premier.

Instead, Canada's largest city got Mayor Rob Ford, whose erratic behaviour and confessed crack cocaine and alcohol use while in office have embarrassed many fellow citizens, leading the city council to strip him of most of his powers last week.

If Toronto is a tale of two cities, the 49-year-old Smitherman represents the one better known to the world, the mainly liberal downtown of Canada's financial capital. Ford hails from the city's vast conservative suburbs, where he won over voters with promises to stop "the gravy train" of government spending and end a so-called "war on cars".

Smitherman, a polished politician, openly told voters during their 2010 campaign that he had beaten a five-year addiction to unspecified "party drugs" back in the 1990s. Ford attacked his opponent on those and other grounds, and won.

I think we were not aggressive enough in exposing his weaknesses

Now Ford's own drug history is emerging for the world to see. It turns out Toronto elected a mayor who recently admitted to smoking crack in the past year during one of his "drunken stupors", insists he is not an addict and refuses to resign or take a leave of absence.

Many in the city are shocked. Ford's former opponent is not.

"For anyone who cared to look, all of the mayor's limitations and issues were there from the beginning ... so I'm not surprised," Smitherman said from the home he shares with his husband and two adopted children.

The 2010 election for mayor wasn't pretty. The Ford campaign questioned whether Smitherman's past drug use made him unfit for office, though Ford had been charged with marijuana possession and drinking and driving in 1999.

Smitherman didn't heavily attack Ford's past on those grounds.

"I campaigned honourably," he said. "I'm not a person prone to regret, but I'm reminded of that old adage, 'Don't bring a knife to a gun fight'. I think we were not aggressive enough in exposing his weaknesses that are even more apparent now."

Ford also cast himself as a traditional family man, contrasting his wife with Smitherman's husband - though Ford had been charged with domestic assault in 2008.

Ford also appealed to the city's conservatives by painting Smitherman as a tool of Toronto's liberal elite and himself as an authentic everyman.

The election wasn't really close: Ford defeated Smitherman by a margin of 47 per cent to 36 per cent. And Ford's core of conservative supporters, known as "Ford Nation", was born.

"It was a tea party kind of time in Toronto," Smitherman said, referring to the conservative movement in the US that campaigns for smaller government and less federal spending and taxes. "Experience became a negative rather than a positive."

Smitherman entered the 2010 mayoral race after years as a member of parliament for the provincial Liberal Party, where he served as health minister and deputy premier and went on to become then-Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty's deputy.

These days, Smitherman has moved from politics into a private-sector job as a consultant for startup companies. He says he has moved on from his loss in the mayoral race, no matter what Ford does. "I loved politics, but on the other hand, losing opens up pathways that are extraordinary," he said.