Originally published on Torontoist on August 22, 2011.
“Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.” Jack Layton knew the meaning of the advice he gave in his last letter well, as many people said he didn’t have a chance during his first run for municipal office in 1982. He entered one of the most closely watched races that November, when political heavyweights were all but certain to nab the two seats up for grabs in Ward 6. The Star‘s candidate profile of Layton emphasized several issues that remained key concerns throughout his municipal and federal political career.
Jack Layton, 32, is a Ryerson politics professor known to Rogers Cable TV viewers as host of the now-defunct Council Insight show. This is Layton’s first campaign for elected office and he’s hoping the ward’s NDP network will help him win the junior aldermanic spot. He lists housing, transit, neighbourhood preservation and police-minority relations as key issues. Layton lives just outside the ward with his wife, Sally, and children Michael and Sarah. He’s spending $17,000 on his campaign.
CBC clip of Jack Layton following his victory in the 1982 municipal election.
Pundits expected the seats in Ward 6 to go to former Toronto mayor John Sewell and rising star Gordon Chong, who Conservative backroom operators felt was mayoral material. Layton used the NDP’s clout in the ward to run a low-cost, volunteer-intensive campaign. Housing proved the critical issue, thanks to tenant worries about massive rent increases after Cadillac Fairview sold off 11,000 units across the city. Chong, who received $40,000 in campaign funding from Metro Toronto chairman Paul Godfrey, didn’t seem to care about these concerns until late in the race, when he proposed that the city borrow $270 million to buy the units and sell them back to the tenants as condos. Both Layton and Sewell ripped apart Chong’s proposal. When the votes were tallied on November 8, 1982, Layton finished in second place with a little less than a 2,000-vote cushion over Chong. The new junior alderman noted that “having 600 workers is a lot better than a $60,000 campaign any time.” At his victory party, where many volunteers admitted surprise that he bested Chong, Layton told the Star that the result “showed even more than we imagined that residents in this ward aren’t going to tolerate politicians who ignore them.”
Once in office, Layton quickly stressed the role citizens played in city politics, “where ordinary people can make a difference.” In a profile that appeared in the Globe and Mail two months after his victory, he noted that “Wherever doors are closed, I would open them up to public participation. And by participation, I don’t mean a smoke-and-mirrors situation where everyone gets to stand up and say their bit but nobody listens. To have access to the decision-making power is more important than expressing opinions only.” Fellow alderman Richard Gilbert felt that Layton was better equipped to handle office than his fellow freshmen councillors because he demonstrated a grasp of local issues by co-producing a Ryerson course on civic issues that aired on CJRT and hosting a community-cable politics show.
Globe and Mail, January 8, 1983.
At city and regional levels, Layton wasn’t afraid to raise awareness for causes he believed in. As one of the first councillors to talk about and develop plans to combat AIDS, he had his outline drawn in chalk to represent those who had died. He was arrested in 1984 for trespassing when he handed out leaflets supporting striking workers at Eaton’s (the charges were later tossed out on grounds of freedom of expression). He argued against the public financing of the SkyDome (and called for an inquiry into the debts that followed), tried to curb the power of developers who seemed to have a free hand at City Hall during Art Eggleton’s administration, supported his fellow cyclists, worked on homelessness issues, helped launched the Toronto Atmospheric Fund and White Ribbon Campaign, and generally proved a thorn in the side of right-leaning fellow councillors.
During his early years on City and Metro councils, Layton’s style of dress was best described as “hip young political science professor”: glasses, jeans, bushy hair, mustache, and running shoes. When a well-groomed, contact-wearing Layton appeared at a Metro Toronto council meeting in early 1987, the rumour mill was abuzz. Was he cleaning up for a future run at top office? He denied such a move at the time, claiming that he could no longer wear glasses, slacks were cheaper than jeans, and that the haircut was his mother’s idea. He joked that he was “changing my underwear, too.” More seriously, he added, “I figure if I’m going to run for mayor, it’s going to be with my mouth, not my eyes.”
Toronto Star, February 5, 1987.
But run for mayor he eventually did, announcing his intentions in February 1991. A fear of vote-splitting among right-leaning candidates reduced Layton’s main competition to former councillor and Metro Toronto Police Commission chair June Rowlands. He lost by nearly a two-to-one margin on election night, as voters either embraced Rowlands’ law and order platform or weren’t ready to trust Layton’s economic proposals and the “Smilin’ Jack” image some thought was phony. After declaring defeat, he urged his supporters to continue working toward “a city where everyone has a place at the table” and commit themselves to rebuilding Toronto. If the evening had a silver lining, it was that his second wife (and fellow Trekkie) Olivia Chow won her city council race.
Layton returned to Metro council in 1994, and served on the post-amalgamation Toronto city council from 1997 until he was named federal NDP leader in 2003. He also served as the president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, defending the interests of cities across the country as he continued to do when he went to Ottawa.
Early in his municipal career, Layton learned it was more important to reach out to people than just criticize his opponents, a quality that served him well in building trust with voters across the country. By staying in touch with the concerns of others and remaining optimistic in the cynical world of politics, Layton inspired many people to follow and act upon their personal beliefs in bettering society, even when others mocked them. And that spirit is embodied by Toronto residents today, such as the deputants who, despite being called names and told their views were worthless by allies of Mayor Rob Ford, stayed up all night to voice their concerns about the current administration, buoyed by their optimism and hopes for a better city.
Additional material from November 9, 1982, and January 8, 1983, editions of the Globe and Mail, and the November 2, 1982, November 9, 1982, and February 5, 1987, editions of the Toronto Star.
The results of this race: Sewell 13,702; Layton 10,101; Chong 8,349; Wong 2,504; Beatty 1,550; Amber 551