The next municipal election may not be for half a year, but the race to replace Olivia Chow already has tongues wagging and pundits puzzled.
The reason is the newly minted MP's astonishing choice of candidates for her vacated Ward 20 council seat. Whether for demographic reasons or just plain loyalty, Chow is backing her former constituency assistant, Helen Kennedy, over respected community leader Tam Goossen.
"People find it quite surprising that Olivia Chow did not support her long-time ally,' says Simon Li, host of the suppertime show Power Politics on the Chinese-language radio station Toronto First, on AM 1540. "In the tea houses, people are quite stunned,' he says referring to opinion in the Chinese-Canadian community.
Leftie activists are also taken aback. "Olivia doesn't do anything without thinking. I can't figure it out,' says Annex activist and long-time Chow supporter Tim Little, who worked in her recent federal campaign but now backs Goossen.
He's certainly not alone in that. Most of the city's leading labour and progressive lights have signed on to the Goossen endorsement list everyone from John Cartwright, president of the Toronto-York Regional Labour Council, and MPP Rosario Marchese to early childhood education advocate Dr. Fraser Mustard.
This makes it all the more surprising that Chow's name isn't on the list. It was Goossen who nominated Chow when she ran for trustee a few decades ago. Since then, Goossen has racked up what would appear to be the perfect credentials to take over Chow's council job.
Not only does she speak fluent Cantonese and, because she's Chinese, would make the lily-white council chamber a little less so, but she also has a stellar decades-long record. Goossen has been a school trustee, president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations and head of the Social Planning Council of Toronto. On top of all that, she's had a hand in a host of groups and agencies in her Kensington neighbourhood.
And all the while, Goossen has been Chow's loyal comrade, right up to the just-run federal campaign. "I worked flat-out for Olivia,' she sighs. "I was hoping the sitting MP might want to take a step back and let the process take place,' she says of the upcoming NDP nomination meeting that will choose the candidate who'll run under the NDP banner.
As Goossen licks her wounds, Kennedy is running her campaign out of Chow's and hubby Jack Layton's living room. Her pitch is that she'll provide a seamless continuation of the Chow years, so constituents won't know the difference.
"After amalgamation, city council is a lot more complex,' says Kennedy, who served one term on the old East York council and worked at Queen's Park during the Bob Rae years before spending seven years with Chow. "With me, there'll be a smooth transition and constituents will benefit.'
As for the need for more minority faces on council, Kennedy concurs but adds that diversity comes in many forms and that she would be the first out lesbian.
Whereas Goossen has packed her website with names of high-profile supporters since she registered early in the new year, Kennedy's so far includes only two and one of them is Chow's. It's a shortage Kennedy attributes to having to stay on as a city staffer till mid-March to help interim councillor Martin Silva settle in.
The half-dozen names on the supporters list e-mailed to NOW by the Kennedy crew include people like Liz Sauter, a Richmond West condo dweller who's in the process of joining the NDP for the nomination meeting. "Kennedy is dedicated, people-oriented and works long hours she made a real difference in this neighbourhood.'
Sauter credits the would-be councillor with giving residents some control over how many nightclubs get to set up in the area, and with curtailing graffiti and other forms of urban blight. "Helen has helped restore the healthy balance of the neighbourhood,' she says.
It's Kennedy's perceived advantage over Goossen at connecting with Sauter and other condo dwellers that, for many, explains Chow's support for her former aide. It's no coincidence that the new MP herself made a special point in the last election of reaching out to those very same voters. Unlike her ill-fated earlier attempts, her new strategy worked.
"Olivia made a calculated move that the ward has changed,' says one insider. "She's betting that she has a better chance with Helen than with Tam.'
But the move has come with a price. "This is quite painful,' says Winnie Ng, herself a former federal NDP candidate and current Goossen supporter. "I wish Olivia had remained neutral until the nomination process was over.'
Instead, Ng complains, the nomination campaign has become a drawn-out affair. A date for the deciding meeting has to be agreed upon by both candidates; the provincial party will step in if they fail to do so. Goossen's supporters believe this delay is deliberate, to give latecomer Kennedy time to sign up members. "The impression is that the nomination process might be unduly influenced by the high-profile support in Helen's campaign,' Ng says.
For her part, Chow says she's supporting Kennedy because she asked before Goossen did. "She asked, "If the seat becomes vacant, what would you think of me as councillor?' and I said, "I think you'd make an excellent councilor,'' Chow recalls.
As for whether it's appropriate for her to support Kennedy, Chow says, "We live in a democracy, and people have a right to state who they support.'
When I ask the new MP about allegations that she's used her influence to delay the nomination, a chippiness comes over her that I've never heard before. "I have more important things to do than respond to innuendo,' she says over her cellphone Monday night, suggesting that if my questions continue in this vein, the interview is over.
Meanwhile, there are signs that even if Chow manages to install her choice as NDP candidate, another confrontation awaits her. There's speculation that the Liberal political machine of the vanquished Tony Ianno will take advantage of expected Chinese-Canadian resentment of the NDP and run Kevin Lee, currently exec director of Scadding Court Community Centre.
Though Lee remains coy about the Ianno connection, it's clear a Kennedy victory would provide an opening for him. "We'll want to see how that plays out,' says Lee of the NDP family feud.
There are also rumours of a possible candidacy by Citytv reporter Adam Vaughan, who did not respond to NOW's inquiry this week.
In the end, this ward might not be the easy hand-me-down Chow expected.