The scene was set: her portrait at centre stage, the shot from her book cover that doesn't seem to be the essence of her at all sits under a beam of heavenly light. Soft folk faves plays on the sound system.
At NDP MP Olivia Chow's official book launch on January 22, intended as the prelude to her mayoral bid, no detail was left to chance. And why would it be? A lovely cocoon had been woven for the 200 or so who filled Trinity-St. Paul's Church. The choice of venue was no accident either, emphasizing the little- known fact that faith has played a large part in Chow's life and career.
This is one of a number of revelations in her autobiography, My Journey. Among the others we've already heard about: Chow's abusive opera-singer father, and relationships that followed with abusive boyfriends. And others we haven't: she led her neighbourhood gang; and she still has the waterbed she and late husband NDP leader Jack Layton bought back in the 70s.
The proceedings had a reverential feel at times. The 20-somethings sitting behind me snapping selfies on their cellphones and posting on social media ("Hashtag Olivia Chow," came the gentle oft-repeated reminder from the MC) didn't need prompting. Every word that spilled from Chow's mouth was eaten up. And her every attempt at humour, awkward or no, elicited laughs.
The line that formed afterwards for signed copies of her book stretched in a semi-circle right around the inside of the church, out the main doors to the foyer and back in again.
In addition to these committed worshippers, some, including a few council lefties, came to gauge the reception to Chow's unofficial mayoral campaign launch. They weren't disappointed.
The broad outlines of her campaign were hard to miss. The immigrant-roots narrative that taught her the value of a dollar will be central, the ballot question going something like this: Who will voters trust - someone who says he'll spend wisely but was born with a silver spoon in his mouth (see Rob Ford and John Tory) or someone who was brought up watching every penny?
For her handlers, however, those who've reportedly coalesced around her (Chow hasn't officially declared), there's still some work to do. What's her vision? Is it that she can bring a badly divided city together?
Maybe a little roughing up of that image thing would help. There were few flashes of the cheeky playfulness familiar to those who've met Chow in social settings.
Of course, she's playing a different game now, vying for one of the most important jobs in the land, and it's important to project a serious image, especially to a nervous Bay Street (which opposed Layton back in 91 when he ran for mayor) and to voters north of Bloor who may only know her as the widow of the late NDP leader. As with any candidate who seems outwardly to have everything going for her, the danger is that she'll try to control too much. And that's how it felt at the book launch at times.
Chow delivered her best lines while recounting the activist side of her ample resumé and the political victories, large and small, that she helped win when representing Trinity-Spadina on council. Like the time they played a Simpsons episode during a council debate on the Adams Mine.
"Politicians want us to be cynical so we leave things alone."
When it was time to depart from the script, Chow couldn't always segue smoothly. To wit: when Sook- Yin Lee, who was doing the Q&A honours, asked what one word Chow would use to describe herself, the answer was "Oh." And that's where that part of the conversation ended. Some have remarked on how guarded, how uncharacteristically impersonal, Chow has seemed in one-on-ones.
But she isn't the same woman she was when she left for Ottawa almost a decade ago; it's easy to forget it's been that long. Her personal travails since then have included her health battles first with thyroid cancer and recently with shingles.
And, of course, the death of her life partner, Layton. She says the pain of that experience has taught her to live in the moment. "I don't look at my past. I don't project that I can't have those experiences any more. This is the thing about living in the moment: you don't remember anything."
Very Zen, but it's a strangely detached thing to say about a person who loomed so large in her life. Perhaps the experience is too raw to speak about.
I'd add a hashtag: #Olivia Chow philosopher politician.