The Strange Journey of Ari Goldkind
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The Strange Journey of Ari Goldkind

Over the past four years, countless Torontonians frustrated with Rob Ford have engaged themselves in municipal politics for the first time. This one decided to run for mayor.

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Photo by Liam Casey.

There are two Ari Goldkinds: the one before the gunshot, and the one after.

“Sometimes talking about it overwhelms me,” he says over lunch in Forest Hill in mid-September. “It’s every day.”

It is the only time in six weeks Goldkind cries. During those six weeks, he forced his way into the public conversation as a candidate for mayor of Toronto. In many ways, he symbolizes the Rob Ford effect: an average citizen, upset by the mayor’s buffoonery, becomes more engaged in municipal politics. He’s like the hundreds who went to City Hall to protest potential library closures or decry Ford’s refusal to step down after the crack scandal broke.

Except Goldkind decided to run for mayor. He offers no political experience, no party affiliation, and, in his own words, no bullshit.

But it took him a while to agree to tell the story about the day the gun went off. He told the National Post’s Natalie Alcoba a few weeks later, but he also told her he didn’t want that part printed. “So why should I let you, or Natalie, tell that story?” he asks. “Convince me.”

But negotiating is a hallmark Goldkind trait. He ended up convincing himself.

When Goldkind was 10, he went off to camp north of the city. One day, a camp councillor was out shooting pop cans with his pellet gun. He came back to the cabin and pointed the gun at Goldkind’s eye. Then he pulled the trigger, all part of a terrifying prank. But the gun wasn’t empty. The small metal pellet blew through the chamber and didn’t stop until it hit Goldkind’s skull. The pellet destroyed his eye.

“I became a senior citizen that day,” says Goldkind, now 40. “Carefree no more. In the hospital for three weeks with everyone crying over your bed and seeing the faces of your parents and grandparents.”

He spent three weeks in two hospitals: first Sick Kids, then Toronto General. The only bright spot was the Harvey’s meals his grandmother brought him, because the hospital food was so terrible. He cried everyday—but it hurt to cry. Doctors left the eye in its socket. Then the bullying started.

“I looked like a cyborg. I was called Cyclops and when you’re sitting on the subway, which I took to work everyday, people stared at me. And you’re not being stared at because you’re handsome—it’s because you’re freakish.”

It took him a few months to figure out how to catch a baseball again and a few more to hit a tennis ball. He had no depth perception. Years later he’d have trouble shaving. He never played contact sports. He just couldn’t chance going blind. Same thing for drinking and drugs: he’s never had either. Not a drop of alcohol. Or a puff of crack.

Now on this day in September, Goldkind is busy. In the morning, he has a quick up-and-down with his most infamous client, Gordon Stuckless, at Old City Hall. Stuckless is one of the worst child molesters in Toronto history, who committed many of his crimes at the old Maple Leaf Gardens.

Stuckless shows up to court with his family. He is a stout, frumpy man. Goldkind is ready to give his closing arguments on the most recent charges of buggery against his client, but the Crown isn’t ready to provide theirs. So Goldkind asks the judge to push the case until the Crown is ready. She agrees.

Early political advisors said the first thing Goldkind had to do if he ran for mayor was drop Stuckless. He still gets one question more than any other: How can you represent a child molester?

“I believe in what I do—that no matter if somebody is vicious, horrible, guilty, they deserve to be treated fairly, and fairness should be something that everyone is concerned with,” he says. “I would no more abandon Gordon Stuckless for some craven political goal to be more popular than I would give up on anyone who needs help in this city who people are stepping on.”

Goldkind has become a quasi-celebrity in the court halls. “Mr. Mayor,” says one lawyer with a nod. Then a Crown attorney walks by and stops him: “So I was looking for your name in the polls,” he says, laughing. “But I couldn’t find it.”

Goldkind laughs, too. He would eventually make it into one poll, a Forum Research survey that gave him 3 per cent of the vote. Taken pessimistically, he was within the margin error of zero per cent—but he also polled at 3 per cent with only 19 per cent of those surveyed recognizing his name.

It’s a strange thing that the ultimate democratic action, voting, is informed by so many undemocratic prerequisites: To get name recognition—and into the polls—you need money, consistent media attention, and a spot in the debates.

That last has been a challenge for Goldkind. Early on, he was considered by many, including himself, to be the seventh-place guy, behind John Tory, Olivia Chow, Rob Ford, Karen Stintz, David Soknacki, and Sarah Thomson. The “Big Five” were regular debaters early on. Thomson wasn’t invited—and her antics, including showing up at City Hall to register for her mayoral run on a white horse or making a hip-hop video about transit, hurt candidates such as Goldkind.

“The big problem we have is Sarah Thomson,” said Maria Tassou, a volunteer on Goldkind’s campaign, in early September. “They say if we let Ari in, we have to let Sarah in.” And at that point, no one was letting Thomson in. Even after she dropped out, the answers from debate organizers were similar: “If we let Goldkind debate, we have to let everyone debate.”

Yet a few debates did invite him. The organizers liked his common-sense approach, which is based on one unabashedly simple concept: things cost money.

“I have a good life. I worked hard for it, sure, but we have to take care of people who aren’t as fortunate,” he says as we leave lunch and walk to his small two-bedroom, semi-detached home in Forest Hill. “That’s who we are as a society. I really believe that people’s frustrations is not taxes, it’s the people who keep wasting them and can’t be trusted.”

Part of his platform is to increase the land transfer tax on homes that sell for more than $1.1 million. Later, at his first debate at the Brickworks, he laid out his other tax strategy: an extra 50 cents per person, per day. Soknacki was the only other candidate who pitches a similar scheme, but he dropped out of the race.

Back at his home, logging on to Reddit for an Ask Me Anything session, Goldkind hugs his 13-year-old dog Ziggy, a black Labrador mix. “Ziggy rescued me, and I love him and I don’t care who knows,” Goldkind says, laughing.

Goldkind is single, and his home shows it: a bunch of suits and shirts sit on his dining room table, waiting to be dropped off at the dry cleaner; there are photos and paintings of Ziggy, including a giant black-and-white one of the pair together on a beach. A couple of reporters call today—the Toronto Star’s Edward Keenan, and the Toronto Sun’s Don Peat—both seeking comment on Chow’s plan to increase the land transfer tax on homes sold for more than $2 million.

“She ripped that off from me!” he yells—a charge Chow’s camp would later deny.

After the chat, we hop into his 1989 Jeep YJ, and, with the top down, head over to the internet radio show he hosts, The Truth With Ari Goldkind, in Regent Park. On the way, he describes the rest of his childhood, the events of which helped shape his political views.

Goldkind began to grow up years before he lost his eye. At seven his parents divorced. His grandmother Isobel nurtured and comforted him, and although he lived with his father briefly, Goldkind moved in with his grandparents full-time after the shooting. His mother was unable to take care of him because of her deteriorating mental health; she eventually moved into an apartment above his grandmother’s place in Forest Hill.

“Doctors couldn’t diagnose her. She had a personality disorder where you couldn’t be in a room with her by what she’d say. She was also very touchy, in inappropriate ways,” Goldkind says. “She had very bad epilepsy that complicated matters. But she had an energy in a very sort of infantile way. In public it would cause all sorts of scenes.”

The son of Jewish parents, Goldkind went to Bialik Hebrew Day School until grade 6. Then he attended St. Andrew’s Collegiate, a public school at Bayview Street and York Mills Road, for grades 7 and 8 before moving on to Forest Hill Collegiate for high school.

At 11, Goldkind got a job at Maple Leaf Gardens selling popcorn, peanuts, and Cracker Jacks. There he met one of his idols, Hulk Hogan, in the basement before a big wrestling match. “I love wrestling—love it. It’s about storytelling,” Goldkind would later say. At 15 he got a job selling programs for the Blue Jays at Exhibition Stadium, and later at the SkyDome. “Back then the Blue Jays were a team that could actually play,” he says. He was at the SkyDome in 1993 when Joe Carter hit the walk-off home run that won the Jays their second World Series title. “I’ll never forget it,” he says, trailing off. “That was the happiest I’ve seen Toronto.”

After high school, Goldkind went to Queen’s University, where he completed his bachelor of arts degree in three years. Then it was off to law school at the University of Toronto.

He didn’t know what he wanted to do, but he knew he wanted a law degree. He figured it would open doors whether he chose to practise law or not. He articled at a Bay Street firm and worked there for a while, but he didn’t like it. So he decided to try his luck in Hollywood instead. He was inspired by his uncle Jon Slan, who ran a production company, Paragon, that had some success. Slan was an executive producer on the film Wyatt Earp and several television shows.

And so, shortly after adopting Ziggy, he set out on a road trip to Los Angeles. It was interrupted in Phoenix when his grandfather passed away from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Goldkind left Ziggy in a kennel, flew back home, went to the funeral, and then returned to pick up the dog and push on to Hollywood.

He rented a motel room for six weeks and began hunting for a job. He interviewed with several agencies—places where he could put his law degree to use—including Endeavor Talent Agency, founded by Ari Emanuel, the real-life inspiration for Ari Gold of the HBO show Entourage and brother to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. But this was all shortly after 9/11, when green cards were difficult to obtain. So Goldkind returned to Toronto.

“I always wonder, ‘What if?’” he says. “But I love my life, even though many people don’t understand it.”

He later articled with a personal injury firm, but didn’t enjoy the work. “I didn’t want to look at car accidents all day and windshields and personal injury and learning what fibromyalgia is and isn’t,” he says. He also worked as an in-house lawyer at a real estate company, and then at a technology firm. “And I realized one day, when I was sitting in my cushy office, that this has no meaning to it,” he says.

From there it was onto criminal law, where Goldkind worked as a duty counsel—the people who represent those “who first get arrested and don’t know who to call,” he explains. “When they get to the courthouse, you do bail hearings for them or help them with guilty pleas.”

“And from the first day,” he says, “I was in court—and it is fair to say I was a shit disturber.”

Since becoming a full-time criminal defence attorney he’s had some bad clients, including a nun rapist and bank robbers, in addition to Gordon Stuckless. “My definition of leadership is standing up doing what I believe in, and the chips will fall where they may,” he says. “I don’t do anything I do for news or acclaim or I would be doing things very differently.”

Goldkind’s life has been shaped by profound events, and those have shaped his platform in turn. His empathy for accessibility issues comes from knowing he is one eye away from being blind. He wants to help the mentally ill partly because of his mother and partly because of his firsthand knowledge of the criminal justice system.

Five years ago his mother drowned after having a seizure while swimming in the pool in their condominium. She was taken to hospital, alive but brain dead. Goldkind fought with his grandmother about pulling the plug—he wanted to do it, and give every healthy organ to people who needed them. His nana didn’t. She wanted her daughter to be buried intact. But Goldkind made the call.

There were times during his mother’s life when the family was at its wit’s end, unable to cope with her behaviour. On several occasions they determined to call the police—but Goldkind wouldn’t let them. “I know that once you make that call, she goes into the system,” Goldkind says. “And that system is set up to prosecute the mentally ill, not help them.” It’s one of the reasons he wants police officers to wear lapel cameras—a stance both Olivia Chow and John Tory later took themselves—since there are so many problems when officers arrive at the scene of a “disturbed person’s call.”

Goldkind was happy with the direction of his life, but he wanted to help in a bigger way. So on a walk last summer with a good friend, they were talking about Rob Ford, the crack scandal, and the farce that had overtaken city council.

“I could do a better job than that blank-blank,” he said.

“You could,” his friend replied. “Let’s do it.”

So Goldkind worked on his platform and became known for his common-sense approach to politics. “If I go into a 7-11, I have to pay for what I buy,” he says. “It’s the same for politics. We have to pay to have a great city, and it won’t cost us much.”

There was hope he’d be the next Naheed Nenshi, the long-shot Calgary mayoral candidate who won in 2010, but he hasn’t made the jump in the polls he’d hoped for. He’s shone in the few debates he’s been invited to; he got under Doug Ford’s skin by turning the irascible candidate’s surname into an acronym: “Falsify, Overstate, Repeat, Deny,” Goldkind said to loud applause.

A few days later at a debate organized by the Jewish community, Goldkind called out Rob Ford, who was sitting in the front row, for his racist comments, which include referring to Jews as “kikes.”

“I am a Jewish person,” Goldkind said. “I am not religious, but the fact he insulted my religion, whether under the influence or not—we cannot have a mayor like that, because that’s where it starts.” (Doug Ford responded with his now-infamous list: “My Jewish doctor, my Jewish dentist, my Jewish lawyer, my Jewish accountant”—which led to boisterous boos from the crowd.)

It was a moment for Goldkind—he called out the Fords where Chow and Tory would not. But it didn’t translate in the polls; he was still lumped in with the “other” category. Only the big three candidates had their names listed.

It’s been a strange journey for Goldkind, stepping in as an outsider with the belief that he could bring real change to city council, which has become stale and divisive and dysfunctional. He doesn’t want to talk about what he might do after the election, should he lose. “That’s a hypothetical if, right?” he says. “I don’t know. I help people everyday in a micro way now and as mayor I could help people in a macro way. It lights my fire. I just want to help people.”

Goldkind has something valuable to offer the city. After the election Monday, which he’s unlikely to win, he’ll have to figure out what that something is.