Photo By Fred Lum / CP Photo
Sarah Thomson signs off her emails with "warm breezes."
Though just as warm and breezy as intended, there's also something slightly off-kilter about it - it takes a certain kind of kooky self-assurance to make this your personal trademark.
In the past three and a half years, the former candidate for Toronto mayor and Trinity-Spadina MPP has carved out a particular and peculiar space for herself on the local political scene, bouncing back and forth between the fringes and the mainstream with remarkable rapidity.
These days, she's a full-time activist leading the Toronto Transit Alliance's push for dedicated transit funding. And unlike her campaigns for office, this is a journey whose outcome she thinks she'll be pleased with.
When I show up to her group's latest "symposium" on Tuesday evening, April 30, I expect to find myself in the heart of the Thomson-industrial complex.
The panel discussion, featuring key players from Metrolinx, CivicAction, the Toronto Region Board of Trade and the Pembina Institute, is being held in a large meeting room at the Centre for Social Innovation's Annex space. Tickets are $200. The previous three events in the series, held over the last six months and all along the same general lines, have had admission costs in the same range.
And yet the sum seems far more like an opening bid than a fixed price. Thomson showers social media with free tickets in the week preceding an event, and it's not clear who, if anyone, pays the full fee. (A handful of corporate sponsors chip in lump sums.)
There are between 60 and 80 people in attendance this evening, and the crowd is no more or less diverse than at any other semi-wonky round table on these issues. The suit-to-scruff ratio is about the same as in the public gallery at a city council committee meeting.
The booze, however, is complimentary. (There are also store-bought platters of veggies, cookies and cheese.) Between that and the ostensible ticket price, the TTA symposium is an odd container for an obvious discussion during which professional people say professional things and search for polite answers in response to rambling audience questions that are barely questions at all.
The only truly surprising element is that - this month, at least - it's not the Sarah Thomson Show. She is the moderator and speaks exactly as much as someone in that position should speak, resisting nearly all opportunities to interject her own thoughts.
On this night, Toronto's favourite hippie-capitalist aunt has toned things down. So much so that when I interview her afterward, I almost feel guilty for asking about her and her own ambitions rather than the substance of the evening's discussion.
But there are still some Thomson touches, including the vagueness around the edges.
Speaking to me the previous day on the phone, she describes the genesis of the Alliance: "A group of businessmen, community activists, leaders came up. They were meeting for coffee, and they were saying, ‘We've got to fix this.'" And so, she says, they brought her in and said, "‘Lookit, we want you to organize this into a real organization, and lead this thing.'"
Asked who these people were, the only name she offers is Alfredo Romano, president of Castlepoint Realty. As for who's in the Alliance itself, she cites Clayton Ruby, Warren Kinsella and Conservative lawyer Sam Goldstein. Ruby spoke at an earlier event and recorded a video endorsing the campaign, but the others' involvement isn't clear and their names don't appear on the TTA's website.
In a way, Thomson is the flip side of Doug Ford. They've both awkwardly transitioned from unconventional business backgrounds to politics - but where Ford seems to resent every moment of public life, Thomson just adores it. And where Ford prefers to focus on the next election campaign rather than the business of governing, Thomson has turned her life into one ongoing policy charge.
"That's all I do now," she says of the TTA's 1% Solution project, which advocates for a 1 per cent regional sales tax dedicated to transit (but especially to subways). Having stepped back from the running of Women's Post magazine, she describes her full-time job as "going out and meeting community leaders."
Although the TTA has a single paid staffer, it isn't her. She says the events can raise $10,000 to $15,000 each - the bulk of it from corporate or union sponsors, which value them as networking opportunities - and that the money goes to the staffer, office rent and promotion: $20,000 worth of radio ads in January and an upcoming brochure.
"I love being an activist: you're constantly campaigning," she says. "I love listening to people."
Another public figure who serves as an interesting object of comparison is George Smitherman. For him, the 2010 mayoral race was the end of a long political career. The more the public heard from him, the less they liked, and he promptly faded away following his spectacular defeat.
Thomson, on the other hand, managed to escape the election with more dignity than she'd entered it. Not because she dropped out before the end and not because she was even well liked, but because - unique among the highest-profile candidates - she demonstrated a capacity to grow and to learn. For her, it was the beginning of something.
Are all her subsequent efforts just ploys to maintain name recognition? Her recent canvasses for the transit campaign have taken place in the Trinity-Spadina area. She explains this by saying, not unreasonably, that she was targeting areas close to where the latest symposium would be held.
People recognize her, she says, and congratulate her for her handling of "butt-gate." (I'd decided not to bring up the Rob Ford incident in my interview with her, curious if she'd do so herself.) Having given up on elected office for now, Thomson insists she's content being an activist. I'm skeptical, until she explains that she's basically getting "to do what [she] wanted to do anyway."
And what is that? "Well, to change the world." Letting go of the idea that it's all about her has been a good place to start.