Front of Sue-Ann Levy’s campaign office on Mount Pleasant Road. Photo by Jamie Bradburn/Torontoist.
When voters go to the ballot box in St. Paul’s on Thursday their choices will include the latest in a long line of Toronto Sun columnists who have attempted to parlay their print personas into elected office, usually for parties that have matched the paper’s right-wing tilt. City Hall columnist Sue-Ann Levy’s run is part of a tradition that stretches back to the early days of the paper and was inherited from a large number of staffers from the Telegram that sought to represent the public. Some came to the paper during/after their elected stints (True Davidson, Douglas Fisher, Paul Hellyer, Morton Shulman), while others found the exposure didn’t hurt when they ran (Garth Turner). Today we’ll look back at three prominent figures from the paper who, despite not achieving their ultimate goal, left behind tales of colourful, controversial campaigns.
Logo for Paul Rimstead’s mayoral campaign. The Toronto Sun, December 4, 1972
From the paper’s first edition in 1971 until his death in 1987, Paul Rimstead provided readers with a daily dose of his colourful misadventures. His hard-drinking, populist persona earned him a loyal audience that played a part in his decision to run for mayor in 1972. Born out of a joke during a “welcome home” party at the Brunswick House after he had spent the winter in Mexico, Rimstead initially intended to run for office employing the same irreverent tone found in his column. Along with several other Sun staffers, Rimstead considered ideas such as running a donation-free campaign and a deal with a brewery to market a specially labelled beer around the city. But as Rimstead thought more about a run, his mood changed, as he revealed in his column on October 18:
I went home, enthused about another madcap adventure and started to think. Something told me it wasn’t right. Just a small signal somewhere up there in my usually-vacuous noggin. It would be a ball. Two months of parties. A chance to poke fun at City Hall. But, dammit, this is Toronto we’re fooling around with…This used to be the best city in North America, the best possible place to live. I was away for seven months. When I returned, it was bursting at the seams. More clubs, more music, more entertainment, relaxed laws…more hookers, more crime, more undesirables. We are growing too fast…I am far too worried about the future of Toronto to fool around with it, even though I love a good time. That’s why I can’t run a fun campaign.
At the end of that column, Rimstead asked readers if he should consider a serious run for office. The Sun’s switchboard was flooded with calls for the rest of the day—by the time Rimstead checked with the office before an evening jazz gig, more than thirteen hundred readers called in favour. He soon set up headquarters at the Brunswick House, where volunteers produced signs and buttons. Rimstead remained nervous about entering and waited until the last minute to file his nomination papers, by which time he had already participated in several candidate meetings. His platform consisted of issues he felt the three leading candidates (aldermen David Crombie, Tony O’Donohue, and David Rotenberg) were afraid to tackle—the deterioration of Yonge Street, a rise in handguns, racial tensions (he felt the city turned its back on the black community), the need to shut down Rochdale College, and the need to slow overdevelopment of office towers downtown. As he was allowed to continue writing his column, he arranged to have the three frontrunners write one column a week for the Sun. Rimstead ceased writing for one week after an opponent complained he had an unfair advantage, but returned when he discovered the other papers in town would cover him as just another fringe candidate. The last week of the campaign saw a desperate, bordering on whiny, tone creep into Rimstead’s columns, as he pitched his platform and complained about the lack of respect and coverage from elsewhere. As he noted on November 28, “I’m learning a lot in this election. In a way, it is going to hurt. I am as disappointed in politics now as I am with my own profession. I am afraid I am going to come out of this a cynic.” When the ballots were counted on December 4, Rimstead finished in fourth place with just less than eight thousand votes.
Perhaps Rimstead’s run was best summed up by Jean Sonmor in her history of the Sun, The Little Paper That Grew:
He entered as a lark but found himself taking it seriously and the more he did, the more his patchy naivete stuck out all over the place…in the end, the snowy day and the overzealous use of his column to promote himself kept his vote low and his candidacy on the fringe. What the Sun had hoped would be a great whimsical romp turned into a vaguely embarrassing chapter for everyone concerned.
Advertisement for Lubor Zink’s second election attempt in Parkdale. The Toronto Sun, July 7, 1974.
Concurrent with Rimstead’s mayoral run was editorial page commentator Lubor Zink’s first attempt to woo voters as the federal Progressive Conservative candidate in Parkdale. Unlike Rimstead, any humour in Zink’s columns tended to be unintentional. Having fled his native Czechoslovakia after the Communists took over in 1948, Zink’s zealous criticism of anything with the slightest Commie tinge bordered on grotesque caricature, even when his accounts of horrible conditions behind the Iron Curtain were dead on. He displayed an obsessive hatred of Pierre Trudeau, whom he was convinced was destroying the country in a dictatorial manner. Though he would claim otherwise, it seemed clear that his hate-on for Trudeau was the guiding force behind his campaign, even if he told the Sun “he doesn’t bother me as a person—but he does as Prime Minister. I am accusing Trudeau of not only slowing down the economy and raising unemployment artificially, but of killing jobs by undermining the working morale—by destroying the work ethic that built this country.” He blamed the destruction of work ethic on government programs that allowed young people to “do their own thing” instead of good old-fashioned work. When the votes were counted on October 30, Liberal incumbent Stanley Haidasz remained in office, but Zink had improved the Tories’ usual lousy standing in the riding with a second-place finish. Zink waited until late in the evening to congratulate Haidasz on his victory, by which time the MP had left. On the way out, Zink was jeered by two young boys who echoed a refrain that had been heard throughout the campaign: “Zink stinks!”
Insults didn’t deter Zink, who tried again two years later. The 1974 campaign was a nasty affair, as swastikas were spray-painted on Zink’s headquarters on Queen Street and on campaign signs in the north end of the riding, while Haidasz’s windows were smashed. Zink blamed the graffiti on the Liberals’ “almost pathological appeal to chauvinism and racism.” He was bitter about his reception in the “Polish Fortress” he found around Roncesvalles Avenue, where voters were afraid to publicly associate themselves with the columnist. “I am being called a stinking Jew and a Nazi collaborator,” he told the Star. “I would be proud to be a Jew. It so happens I am not Jewish.” He claimed that posters were ripped up nightly and that the tires and radiator hose on his car had been slashed. Haidasz brushed aside these complaints as a case of Zink “running scared” as he tried to take advantage of the vandalism. A call from a local Polish paper that it was “obligatory” to vote for Haidasz because of his Polish background added to the tension. Zink lost again, blaming the defeat on goon tactics and voters who feared change. “They don’t realize that the economy now is like a firecracker in the sky that is burning itself out,” he told the Star. “Anyone who tries to tell them that the brightness can’t last is bound to be unpopular.”
A burning dislike of Trudeau also fuelled the political adventures of the Sun’s first editor-in-chief, Peter Worthington. That he considered running for public office surprised many, as Worthington often admitted that he didn’t care for politicians. But 1982 found Worthington looking for new challenges after he resigned as editor-in-chief of the Sun following its sale to Maclean Hunter. Following a mountaineering trip to the Himalayas, he joined a crowded field of candidates running for the Progressive Conservative nomination in a federal by-election in Broadview—Greenwood. The nomination meeting at the CNE Coliseum on September 9 proved a raucous night, as Greek-Canadian delegates were fuelled with rage stoked by candidate Bill Fatsis and an editorial that had appeared in the Greek Canadian News two days earlier that accused Worthington of “racist fanaticism.” The charge was based on an August 26 Sun column where Worthington denounced multicultural policy as a waste of money that divided Canadians. Boos drowned out Worthington’s supporters as their man lost to Fatsis by sixty-nine votes. Some party officials were relieved not to have to deal with Worthington’s maverick nature…or so they thought.
Cover of Looking For Trouble, published the same year as Peter Worthington’s second run for office in Broadview—Greenwood.
Despite proclaiming “I don’t think I’ll try politics again. Once is more than enough,” a grassroots campaign impressed Worthington enough for him to re-enter the race as an independent two weeks later. He admitted that “on a personal level, I’ve felt unfulfilled. All the fight was not taken out of me and I wanted to go on. I’m in the same race, I’ve just changed horses.” He also believed that once elected, he would inevitably find his way into the Tory caucus, even if party leader Joe Clark wanted no part of him for violating traditions like supporting the winning party nominee. Nervousness in Tory ranks over the rise in support for Worthington saw Clark visit the riding five times in the final weeks of the campaign. Other newspapers, especially the Globe and Mail, delighted in skewering Worthington, emphasizing his millionaire status, right-wing opinions, lack of knowledge of the riding apart from its softball diamonds, and his tendency to draw attention to himself. He admitted that he “generally made a nuisance of myself” while campaigning, to the point of blaring the theme from Chariots of Fire while wandering along Danforth Avenue. When ballots were cast, he lost to the NDP’s Lynn McDonald by two thousand votes, which placed him far ahead of Fatsis. The wrap party felt like a victory celebration, as Worthington was pleased that Clark had had his “ass kicked.” When asked if he was through with politics, he said, “The last time I quit forever, it lasted three days,” then smiled when he suggested he wouldn’t rule out another run in the future. He later revealed that his secret plan was to run for the party’s leadership so that he could act as a kingmaker for any potential leader who hewed closer to his views than Clark.
(Sidebar: there is a direct link between Worthington’s campaign in ’82 and the current race in St. Paul’s—perennial fringe candidate John Turmel. The sixteen votes he received in Broadview—Greenwood may have been the lowest count he ever received.)
By the winter of 1984, the ouster of Joe Clark in favour of Brian Mulroney made Worthington consider another run. Despite manipulations by remnants of the Fatsis camp, Worthington won the nomination. During the election campaign, his outspokenness resulted in opposition from a group calling itself the Committee to Defeat Peter Worthington (CDPW), whose brochures portrayed him as someone who represented hardship for the poor, the military for the unemployed, political confusion and discrimination,” which was backed up by quotes from years of columns. Worthington accused CDPW of being an NDP front and considered pressing hate literature charges. McDonald’s camp denied responsibility and was further outraged when they discovered some Worthington workers reprinted the brochure with a slight modification—the addition of an NDP phone number. Worthington was predicted to win, but finished four thousand votes behind McDonald on September 4. Joking that “it takes real talent to lose even an NDP riding in the middle of a Tory sweep,” he vowed never to run again. Over at McDonald headquarters, a black-draped coffin topped with candles representing Worthington was brought onto the stage once her victory was secure.
In the closing words of his book Looking For Trouble, written in the midst of the 1984 campaign, Worthington wrote:
The creed that the politician’s first duty is to get elected, his second duty to get re-elected, has to change if the country is to improve. The people recognize this, but do the politicians and bureaucrats who control the system? Only politicians can rescue themselves from the quagmire of their own making. It will be interesting to see if someone who feels this way, as I do, can be elected and, if elected, can do anything about it.
Time will tell if any future Sun columnists with designs on elected office will heed these words.
Additional material from Looking for Trouble by Peter Worthington (Toronto: Key Porter, 1984), The Little Paper That Grew by Jean Sonmor (Toronto: Toronto Sun, 1993), and the following newspapers: the September 22, 1982, October 7, 1982, August 14, 1984, and August 17, 1984 editions of the Globe and Mail; the October 31, 1972, June 20, 1974, July 4, 1974, and July 9, 1974 editions of the Toronto Star; and the October 16, 1972, October 18, 1972, October 19, 1972, November 28, 1972, September 9, 1982, September 14, 1982, September 22, 1982, October 13, 1982, and September 5, 1984 editions of the Toronto Sun.