PARTY CRASHER

CAN A JACK LAYTON MEMBERSHIP DRIVE WARD OFF A PRAIRIE STORM?


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Ottawa — On a warm Sunday night in a quiet neighbourhood, Jack Layton is riffing on a side porch.The supremely self-assured — some would say self-righteous — veteran of Toronto’s political trench wars won’t officially announce his intention to replace tired Alexa McDonough as the next leader of the stalled federal NDP until the next morning. But that doesn’t stop him from delivering his speech-in-progress to the 50-odd local NDPers, academics and frontline social and eco-workers who have turned up at the house of Ottawa city councillor Elizabeth Arnold.

Layton, also until recently the president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, reveals how Prime Minister Jean Chretien told him that Ottawa had “lost interest” in building affordable housing. He knocks the feds’ wavering support for the Kyoto climate agreement and talks with urgency about the need to “animate politics in this country again.”

Indeed, the media-savvy councillor has come onto a federal political scene starved for real opposition to the fratricidal Liberals. Sporting an uncharacteristically formal grey suit, white dress shirt and black shoes — and a red tie, right out of the plastic wrapper, that his partner and fellow councillor, Olivia Chow, urges him to wear — Layton strikes a confident pose on the Monday-morning TV talk shows prior to his announcement.

In the holding room, Chow talks at the TV screen as if he can hear her. “Transit,” she blurts out when the AM Canada interviewer asks him about the Liberals signing onto Kyoto.

Chow also takes the opportunity of Layton’s announcement to publicly criticize the Liberals’ record on child poverty, indicating that the NDP is in for a two-for-one deal. But is the party ready for the Jack and Olivia show?

British Columbia MP Svend Robinson — potentially Layton’s biggest leadership rival for the hearts and minds of the party’s grassroots — hasn’t made his intention known.

However, Layton is scheduled to hold a press conference in Vancouver on Friday (July 26), where, NOW has learned, Vancouver East MP Libby Davies will endorse him.

“I just love his energy,” says Davies. Although the Layton camp says there are no plans for Robinson to be at Friday’s press conference, word is there could be some indication from the Burnaby-Douglas MP about his position the same day. Robinson was away at his Parker Island retreat and unavailable for comment. But he’s due back in Vancouver today (July 25).

As for labour support, Layton has lined up a couple of endorsements, from Wayne Samuelson, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, and Earl Manners, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation. But he by no means has a lock on labour, which is crucial to a successful leadership bid, since it holds a 25 per cent bloc vote at the convention.

Combustible Canadian Auto Workers prez Buzz Hargrove initially urged Layton to run, hoping he would come on with a clear mandate to lead the party from the left. But so far he’s been frustrated with Layton’s issue focus.

“Politics is about issues, but it’s (also) certainly about identifying which side of the political spectrum you are on,” says Hargrove.

The CAW chief also says he was angry when Layton didn’t speak at a recent support rally for striking Toronto city workers.

While there are rumours that Windsor-St. Clair MP Joe Comartin, a former CAW lawyer, may throw his hat into the ring, Hargrove says he doesn’t see him as “the person who’s going to build our party from the left” either.

Hargrove reveals that he hasn’t ruled out running himself. He says he’ll make up his mind by the end of September it will depend in large part on how fast the union can wrap up a collective agreement with one of the three major auto companies.

It’s no surprise that during his Sunday-night sermon to the faithful in Ottawa, Layton makes it clear that they need to “sign up thousands” and that everybody should “set personal goals” in their membership drive.

While Layton’s campaign sound-bite is “justice and jobs in a green and democratic Canada,” it all boils down to hard numbers.

Ontario has the second-largest number of NDPers in the country, with nearly 19,000. Saskatchewan has the most, with 28,000.

In fact, it’s widely expected that long-time Saskatchewan MP Lorne Nystrom (Regina-Qu’Appelle) will announce his candidacy in the next few weeks. (Besides Layton, only the MP for Winnipeg-Transcona, Bill Blaikie, and Quebec NDPer Pierre Ducasse have announced they’re running.)

Despite his cross-country tour this week, the bulk of Layton’s support will likely come from inside Ontario and, more specifically, from “fat-cat” Toronto. There are plans to set up phone banks in supportive lawyers’ offices around town. And Layton has brought on Bruce Cox, the former provincial party secretary and effective election organizer, as his campaign manager.

With the leadership convention scheduled to take place in Toronto January 24-26, Layton has just six months to build a membership base and convince party stalwarts that he’s their future.scottand@nowtoronto.com

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