bob hunter understands poli-tics enough to know he's not supposed to get rattled in front of a reporter in the middle of an election campaign.But sipping a coffee across from his campaign office on Danforth Labour Day morning, the Greenpeace co-founder, prolific author, journalist and bathrobed newspaper scanner for Moses Znaimer just can't help himself.
The Liberals' Hail Mary candidate in the Beaches-East York by-election -- which the NDP's Michael Prue should walk away with on September 20 -- has got his greying ponytail in a knot over the fact that the Green party is running against him.
Hunter says he's been trying to contact Green candidate Peter Elgie so he can ask him, point blank, ""What the hell are you doing running against me?'"
"I close my eyes and try to imagine the Greens running against me and it just seems ridiculous," he explains.
Hunter, whose green creds are impeccable, is so troubled by this scenario that he compares the impact on his candidacy to the Greens who snubbed U.S. vice-president Al Gore only to end up with environmental horror story George W. Bush.
"I'm coming from behind. I have a hope of making it. But it could be by one vote, for god's sake -- and I'll lose because the Greens insisted on running against me? If they don't think I'm green," he says, "and if they don't believe they can trust me to remain green, then I don't know who the hell they can. With all due respect to Peter or anybody, I'm sorry, but I was doing this kind of stuff before they were born."
Which is exactly why the Greens, the NDP and a string of political observers around town can't understand what possessed Hunter to run for Dalton McGuinty's Tory-light Liberals.
"If Bob Hunter thinks he's going to make a difference in the Liberal caucus, I don't know what he's thinking," says Elgie, the son of East York red Tory Bob Elgie, a former cabinet minister in the Bill Davis government. "I'd be happy to step down if he'd like to run for the Greens."
Because of his red Tory bloodlines, Elgie, who would normally siphon votes away from the NDP, could steal from the Grits and the Tories here.
But the Green party should be the least of Hunter's worries. In the last two provincial elections, no-name Liberal candidates have run third after no-name Conservatives and popular NDP incumbent Frances Lankin (who recently resigned her seat to head up the United Way).
Even though the Tories don't appear to be pouring a ton of money into the campaign, there is the daunting possibility that Conservative candidate Mac Penney, political consultant and a sympathetic Harris voice on the political talk-show circuit, could sneak up the middle and snag second place behind Prue -- halting the political momentum the Liberals built up from their Vaughan-King-Aurora by-election win earlier this summer, as well as their current lead in the polls.
"The middle could open up in a number of ways and we could come right up there," says Penney.
Hunter's celebrity will only carry him so far. Public affairs consultant Graham Murray notes that Globe and Mail columnist Michael Valpy was held up as the great NDP hope to kill off Liberal MP Tony Ianno (Trinity-Spadina) in 2000, but came up short.
"Somebody who has a certain amount of celebrity among the chattering classes does not necessarily have voter appeal," he says.
Joining the Liberals is, at first glance, an odd move for a veteran environmentalist who has spent decades railing against government inaction.
Hunter, who turns 60 in October, just finished his 12th book (on climate control). He's got a cushy job at Citytv, and Hollywood is making a movie about the daring exploits of his old friend and Greenpeace co-founder Paul Watson, in which Hunter will probably feature prominently.
He had just returned from a canoe trip in the Northwest Territories last month when his son Will, a law student and Liberal volunteer, approached him about running.
It's no secret that Hunter wasn't the Liberals' first choice. He probably wasn't even their fifth choice. Ironically, Prue, a solidly progressive city councillor and former mayor of East York, was among the Liberals' initial picks.
Prue should easily carry the East York portion of the riding, and he's counting on Lankin's strong support in the Beaches to stay NDP.
"I stopped and thought about (running for the Liberals) for a week," says Prue, who ultimately decided that "the NDP has a place and a future, and it's changing and I hope to be part of that instrument of change."
When his son approached him, Hunter was already thinking about leaving Citytv and perhaps rejoining Greenpeace or starting his own environmental group. He says it took him three seconds to make up his mind.
"I can do my TV gig as much as I want -- it's not going to change things," he says. "So I thought, "Put up or shut up,' and they're saying to me, "Here's the door, it's open.'"
But does Hunter fit in with the Liberal agenda? He has a history of trashing the Liberals in his eye weekly column. In 1997, he wrote that Jean Chretien had "Mafioso don-style powers over his party as well as the country." And although he endorsed the Ontario Liberals in the 1999 election, in 95 he gave a nod to the Green party and in the 2000 federal election also backed the Greens.
"No matter how wonderful the (Green party ) platform is, there's not a hope in hell of me getting in," Hunter says.
Although Hunter hasn't been involved with Greenpeace in an official capacity for 20 years, the Grits are clearly hoping to capitalize on that legacy. Sure, Greenpeace has gone mainstream in the last couple of decades, but it still engages in illegal direct actions from time to time (like the recent CN Tower demo).
Hunter says he still supports non-violent demonstrations that may break the law. But are the Liberals prepared to embrace those tactics?
"Absolutely not," says Ontario Liberal party president and Vaughan-King-Aurora MPP Greg Sorbara, who is quick to clarify that "this is not a marriage of the Ontario Liberal Party and Greenpeace. This is one of the guys who founded Greenpeace a long time ago deciding that it's time for him to put his name on a ballot and sail with our team."
So Hunter must have been convinced that Dalton and company will kill nuclear power generation, right? How about coal-fired energy plants? And what about a permanent development freeze on the Oak Ridges Moraine?
"I looked through all the policies, and some of it's pretty vague," Hunter admits. "My understanding is that between now and the next provincial election is the grey area where all of this has to be firmed up."
Is he being wilfully blind? Perhaps. But the bottom line for Hunter is this: "If I'm there sitting in the room where they're making the decisions, I get a better chance of influencing them than otherwise."
Sorbara, however, is confident that his star candidate is "sufficiently aware of the compromises that are inevitably involved in party politics."