George Smitherman is making a comeback to Toronto politics, but says the city may see a softer side of the politician once dubbed “Furious George.”
Fifty-three-year-old Smitherman, the province’s first openly gay cabinet minister and former deputy premier, said his intention is to run for city council in a newly created east downtown ward.
“There’s politics no matter what business you’re in or what job you do, but I miss the people of politics, I miss the people of local community especially,” he told Global News’ Alan Carter Monday.
“As my kids have gotten a little bit older and as there’s a new ward opening up in my old territory, it seemed to me the right time to return to what I love.”
The widowed father of two, whose husband Christopher Peloso died in 2014 after struggling publicly with depression, is raising two children on his own – which he said had given him a new outlook on life and politics.
“I knew for every minute that I was away from politics that I missed the grassroots community politics. That’s what I crave, that’s what I’m best at and that’s what I’m seeking to return to. I mean obviously I’m a different person than I was in 2010 for a variety of reasons — we all change from our life experiences and I’ve had some,” he said.
“I think that they give me a broader perspective on the challenges that people are facing everyday and I think that they’re going to make me a better politician even more in tune with the realities of people who are sometimes scraping against the margins.”
Smitherman, who ran and lost to Rob Ford in the 2010 mayoral election and also served as provincial health and energy minister, said it wasn’t his choice to reveal his intentions quite yet but “word got out” so he decided transparency was the best course of action.
He added that any conflicting business interests he has (Smitherman currently sits on the boards of medical marijuana facility THC Meds Ontario Inc., mining venture Ceylon Graphite and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) company Alta Vista Ventures) would be divested “entirely.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory said at a press conference on the city’s film industry Monday that he has known Smitherman for a long time (Smitherman previously worked as chief of staff to former mayor Barbara Hall) and described him as a passionate politician that “loves the city.”
“Certainly he would join a long list of colourful people who have served on city council if he’s successful in getting elected,” Tory said.
“He’s served in the mayor’s office before, he sought the mayoralty of the city back in 2010 and so again I just hope we can in future elections continue to elect people who care deeply about the city.”
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Smitherman said he has a “track record of service” to the people in the downtown core and across the province.
“I eliminated hospital deficits, saved billions on drug plans, brought thousands more doctors and nurses, eliminated smoking in bars and restaurants, took packaging away, introduced new vaccines — my point really is for about 10 years of my life I spent at Queen’s Park,” he said.
“In that time, I had the extraordinary privilege of running Canada’s biggest government department and over the course of six or seven years, I was involved in allocating something like a quarter of a trillion dollars and not all of it goes perfectly naturally, but none of it has gone as badly as the worst things people say about it.”
Smitherman previously said he took responsibility for his lack of awareness on the Ornge air ambulance scandal, placing the blame for “excesses” on the leaders of the company.
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“Ornge? What is Ornge? It’s now an integrated air ambulance service where we didn’t have one,” he said. “When I see an Ornge ambulance flying overhead, I know it’s a safer service than when I first arrived as minister of health. You don’t have to believe that, but I know that in my heart of hearts.”
Smitherman said he helped cut waste in Ontario hospitals and stop doctors from billing the province for billions in unpaid bills in the final months of the years, but had grown away from his previous reputation as an aggressive negotiator.
“If you think you can get people to stop those kind of behaviours by singing “Kumbaya” than you’re wrong … but I’m a different person for sure,” he said.
“The job that I’m seeking is very different than the one that I had. I was put in charge to lead a transformation of the biggest government department in Canada and I brought a lot of energy to that and I broke a few eggs along the way and not everybody was happy. But this is a very, very different set of responsibilities.”
Smitherman said he looks forward to working in a municipal environment where he can have the opportunity to “build alliances with people across the political perspective” and help communities “lift themselves up.”