The likelihood of jack laytonleaving local politics to become leader of the federal NDP is setting up a municipal election showdown in his east- end ward that could pit partisan socialists and organized labour against the city's gay and lesbian community.Already, two prominent political personalities with progressive pedigrees -- Paula Fletcher and Chris Phibbs -- have expressed serious interest in entering the Ward 30 (Toronto-Danforth) race this fall. Fletcher, the area's duly elected school trustee, has made it known she'll be seeking nomination as the ward's NDP candidate if Layton moves on to Ottawa after this weekend's leadership convention.
"A lot of people have told me I should run in Jack's place," Fletcher told NOW this week. "I'll be asking for the party's endorsement. There has been a history of that process in the ward, and I'd like to work in that way."
But Phibbs, a well-known lesbian activist and executive assistant to councillor Kyle Rae, has no intention of asking for the blessing of a political party she quit in disgust nine years ago.
"I just don't think it's necessary in municipal government," she says. "Candidates should be judged on what they can do in the community. I live in the ward, my child goes to school in the ward, and I have good connections there."
Phibbs says she has talked to both Layton and Fletcher about her political ambitions and they both suggested she rejoin the NDP and take the nomination route.
"I would really encourage her to go into the process so we wouldn't be two progressive candidates splitting the vote," Fletcher says. "If she gets the nomination, that would be fine with me. I'd work pretty hard for her. And if I get the nomination, it would be great to have her working for me."
The nomination process would seem to be stacked in Fletcher's favour. She ran with Layton on a council/school board slate in 2000 and according to party sources also has the backing of Marilyn Churley, the NDP MPP for Toronto-Danforth. Furthermore, Fletcher is married to John Cartwright, president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council.
"That would be a pretty hard nut for Chris to crack," says one NDP insider. "Personally, I think she's right to go it alone. My sense is that Ward 30 wants a return to the time when it had someone at City Hall who was primarily a ward councillor. Jack has been more of a big-picture politician. He's been pre-occupied for the past year with the party leadership and before that the FCM (Federation of Canadian Municipalities). He's got good staff, but there are residents who don't think they're getting enough personal attention. Jack doesn't even live in the ward."
Neither does Fletcher, for that matter. Her home is several blocks east of the ward boundary, in Beaches-East York. But she doesn't see that as a liability. Fletcher insists her record as a school trustee who stood up to the Tory government last year by refusing to pass a balanced budget, and the role she played in getting 11 playgrounds rebuilt in the ward will put her in the voters' good books.
But that argument doesn't faze Phibbs. "I would hope the NDP would choose not to run a candidate against an openly gay resident. They do say they reach out to minorities to run for public office. You'd think the NDP would be supportive of that."
Phibbs quit the party because of the position it took on Bill 167 in 1994 -- "that horrible time when the NDP was in government and had the opportunity to extend equal rights to gays and lesbians, but chose not to.
"My partner and I ripped up our membership cards and we haven't rejoined," she says.
Bob Gallagher, a prominent gay activist and executive assistant to councillor Olivia Chow, Jack Layton's partner, is well acquainted with both Phibbs and Fletcher. "The fact that they're appealing to basically the same crowd on many of the issues will be a big factor," he says. "There are many lesbians and gay men who live in the area who will rally around Chris. I have nothing but admiration for her." But, he adds: "I also know there are a number of people who are either NDP supporters or have worked with Paula on many school board issues who would end up working for her regardless of whether they happen to be lesbian or gay. It's going to get very interesting."
Then again, maybe not, if Jack Layton doesn't become the new leader of the federal NDP.