With Keith Cole, it’s hard to tell where the performance ends and the man begins. When the queer artist and sometimes drag queen announced that he’d be running for mayor, it was dismissed as another attention-grab. Cole is no stranger to controversy; his public urination at a fundraiser in 2004 made him a household name in certain art circles. What’s odd about Cole’s bid for office is that he doesn’t see it as a stunt at all. For once, Keith Cole is serious.
“I’m not a politician,” Cole’s quick to say. “I don’t have to be guarded. A lot of other politicians have to watch what they say. We need a different voice, and I bring something fresh and new.”
New he most certainly is. Cole has virtually no experience in politics or municipal affairs, but isn’t intimidated by his lack of credentials. “I was convinced by some friends back in 2009 who held a dinner party to get me to run,” he says, and mentions his past work on board of director committees for a few art organizations. “I’m the only person who has thrown my hat in the ring who has put arts [issues] front and centre, and the response has been really great.”
While Cole may be pleased with his own campaign, he doesn’t hold back when discussing other mayoral candidates. “Sarah Thomson is dumber than most,” he says with a dismissive hand wave. “Rocco Rossi scares me even more than Rob Ford—he scares the shit out of me. I think [Rossi] is just evil.” Even when Cole has praise for a fellow candidate, it still carries a sting. “Joe Pantalone is a lovely guy, and he’s done great work, but his ship has sailed,” he says without hesitation. And Cole is quick to comment on George Smitherman’s aggressive antics: “George is just mean. When he doesn’t get what he wants, he screams and yells. He’s a bully.”
Despite Cole’s penchant for trash talk, he has no qualms discussing his own weaknesses as a candidate: “If I was smart, I would just focus on issues that I know: bike lanes, art, public health. I don’t think it would be wise for me to tackle something like property taxes.”
Cole at the Gladstone Hotel: the only mayoral candidate who drinks pints of Molson Canadian from a straw.
Cole’s platform advocates civic engagement and funding for the arts, but the details are vague at best. He gripes about frustration with the provincial liquor board and the lack of trees in Yonge-Dundas Square, and promises to dedicate himself to citizens’ mundane concerns, like getting potholes fixed. It’s not that Cole has no goals—it’s that he’s not afraid to articulate an opposition to those discussed by the primary election candidates. “The TTC and Transit City are important issues, but they’re not the only issue,” he says. “If we let this whole thing be about transit, then we lose sight of everything else.” He isn’t that eager to discuss the hot topic of privatizing waste management, either: “Whatever is the most efficient way to do it,” he says about the issue.
The assertion in Cole’s announcement speech that the issues that dominate the mainstream electoral process are “fucking boring” may have struck Torontonians as crass, but he did have a point. A mere 39.3 percent of the city went to the polls in Toronto’s 2006 election [PDF]. “That kind of apathy is disgusting,” says Cole. “This election is an exciting race because so many councillors aren’t returning, so the city could go in a whole new direction. We need to make voting as easy as possible so people will take the five bloody minutes to do it.”
Even if more Torontonians do head to the polls this year, will that many vote for a candidate whose election flyers boast him in drag? The public’s reaction to Adam Giambrone’s recent escapades revealed that most aren’t abandoning their conservative attitude towards sex any time soon, and last week’s poll in the Toronto Star showed centre-right candidate Rob Ford taking second place in the race. Cole is aware of the multitude of conservative voters present in Toronto; he refers to the city as “very Puritan,” and is quick to admit that he’s not exactly a part of the mainstream. “I don’t know what the centre-right want,” he says, “but I’d like to.”
Cole’s eager to learn, but his agenda may not mesh with the concerns of the centre-right. On the top of his list of goals, for example, is the beautification of City Hall. “When I went to give my $200 candidacy fee, I saw the inside of City Hall. It’s so butt-ugly,” he says. “How do people work in there? It’s oppressive. It needs a makeover.”
Cole’s concerns may seem flippant, but his critique of our city’s aesthetic appeal is spot-on: “If you go to Europe, you’ll be embarrassed about how Toronto looks. It’s not rocket science to make things beautiful.” Cole certainly puts his grievances into action: to protest the lack of greenery in Yonge-Dundas Square, he has organized a Mother’s Day diaper toss on the site (yeah, that’s just what it sounds like).
Still, it’s hard to decipher what exactly the unshakably confident and optimistic Cole is getting out of his bid for mayor. At press time, with no campaign finance program, significant support base, and not enough publicity to have coverage in most major newspapers, Cole remains—like any good politician—completely positive. When Torontoist asks what he will do if he wins the election, he’s quick to correct us: “When I win, you mean, not if.” He’s not naïve; Cole admits that even close friends have doubted him. His response to them? “Get over it!” he cheers, quoting his campaign slogan. “If you don’t have that much imagination to see, then just stand back and let me go forward.”
Photos by Nancy Paiva/Torontoist.