In one of the safest Liberal seats in the nation, the departure of an encumbent leaves the race wide open and kinda gay

“Davenport is one riding in Toronto we expect to win with a little bit of luck,” says Adam Giambrone, the cherubic 12-year-old president of the federal New Democratic Party and the Toronto City Councillor who represents the riding municipally. Being straightforward about the party’s chances in Toronto, Giambrone (who’s actually closer to 26, truth be told), says the NDP expects to sweep the south end of the old city of Toronto — sending former Greenpeace executive director Peter Tabuns to Ottawa to represent the Beaches, party leader Jack Layton from Toronto-Danforth, his wife Olivia Chow from Trinity-Spadina and Peggy Nash from Parkdale-High-Park. Davenport is a tougher fight, however, and may finally represent the extent of the NDP’s success under Layton’s leadership. Or, taken another way, how far the Liberals have sunk in Ontario.

That the seat is in play at all is attributable to one very heavy presence that won’t be on the ballot: 74-year-old Charles Caccia. The last of the Trudeau Liberals, Caccia has represented Davenport since 1968, swept in by Trudeaumania, and, in addition to being a constant environmental gadfly, Caccia is known as one of the best constituency politicians in the country — his is considered by some to be the safest Liberal seat in Canada. Or was.

There’s a widespread perception that Caccia, like other Chrétien loyalists including Shiela Copps, was forced out of the seat during a nasty nomination contest this spring that saw the nomination go to former Toronto city councillor and Martin team-player Mario Silva. Seeing the wide organizational lead and the number of memberships Silva had already sold more than a year before the nomination meeting, Caccia declined to participate in what he described to the national media as a “rigged nomination” for a seat he’d held for 36 years. Caccia speculated publicly about mounting an independent run for the seat until early June, when he finally announced his retirement. Now his absence, and the bitterness it has caused, has thrown the Davenport race wide open.

“I was canvassing today and I ran into this old lady in her seventies who said, ‘I’ve voted Liberal all my life, but they’re on my crap list. I’m voting for you,'” says Brendan Agnew-Iler, campaign manager for NDP candidate Rui Pires. “A lot of Portuguese and Italians are saying ‘Liberals, they’re robbers.’ The feeling out there is very sombre. And everybody knows what they did to Charles. Charles deserved better.”

Pires is an HIV/AIDS- and homelessness-outreach activist who, in running for the NDP, is trying to pick up Caccia’s mantle and galvanize the bitterness people are feeling towards the Liberals under Paul Martin and Dalton McGuinty.

“People were very angry a couple of weeks ago…. I would not want to be a Liberal, quite frankly, knocking on doors at this time,” Pires says, canvassing a tree-lined street near Dufferin Grove Park on a sunny June afternoon. “People didn’t want to hear any promises from anyone. About anything. They just wanted to look you in the eye and have you look back at them in the eye and find out if you were a person who was being honest with them.”

Looking people in the eye is something Pires seems to be good at. Walking down the street, talking about his campaign, he keeps stopping when he gets to an important talking point to meet my eyes and impress upon me the importance of what he’s saying. That’s when he isn’t being stopped every block or so by constituents who recognize him and want to talk — constituents he speaks to in English, Portuguese and Italian. Strangely for an NDP candidate, he seems to focus on his own disappointment with government spending.

“I’m running because I was working … with homeless people full-time and doing HIV/AIDS education in my other part-time job. I was watching large sums of money go out the window completely unaccounted for in Ottawa. Money I know I could use to help people a lot more,” he says. “One of the main reasons [I’m running] is that I want something to actually happen that’s going to help people … bottom line, it’s about poverty. Even HIV, even crime, it’s about poverty. We have to look at increasing community programs that should be there,” programs dealing with addictions and joblessness, he says.

During an hour-long interview, Pires mentions the environment, the state of cities and “affordability of life” as key issues for him, drawing often on his career as an activist for examples of his can-do approach.

Davenport is a working-class neighbourhood, 29 per cent Portuguese, with large numbers of Italians, Brazilians and Caribbean-born Canadians. Many feel that such a riding would be unlikely to embrace an openly gay candidate. Yet Pires has photos of his live-in boyfriend on his campaign literature and doesn’t try to avoid the question of his sexuality at all.

Asked about it, Pires says he hasn’t been taking any flak over the gay thing. “People respect hard work, they respect integrity, they respect the fact that you like people,” he says. “They don’t really care about your sexuality.”

Giambrone thinks there’s another reason that Pires’ sexuality is not a factor. “The refreshing thing about Davenport is that both the leading candidates are openly gay, so that’s not really a factor,” he says.

Not exactly. Asked if he is gay, Silva fidgets and looks away and stutters a bit before answering. “I don’t state one way or the other on the issue…. My view has always been, my personal life is my personal life, it’s nobody’s business. My friends and supporters know about my sexuality, but I don’t make it an issue at all.”

Someone who may be subtly making an issue of sexuality is openly married Conservative candidate (and Oakville resident) Theresa Rodrigues, whose campaign literature calls for a defence of the traditional definition of marriage and features her husband and many children and grandchildren prominently. But most agree that the Conservatives are unlikely to be a major factor in Davenport. Rodrigues, who runs an architectural firm in the riding with her husband, could not be reached for comment.

In addition to not wanting to discuss his sexuality, Silva thinks the Caccia factor is overblown in the press. He says it’s not something he’s hearing about on doorsteps, “It’s a very, very, very minor issue,” he says.

What Silva does want to talk about — other than Stephen Harper — is Team Martin’s record. “If you look at how things are today compared to 10 years ago, we’ve seen a good deal of stability and growth economically,” he says. He thinks Martin’s record on the economy as finance minister (Chrétien is mysteriously absent here, as he is in Liberal campaigns across the country) resonates among working-class voters struggling to pay their taxes and still cover their bills.

Perhaps predictably for a former city councillor, his key priority as an MP would be raising the profile of cities at the national level. “Not just Toronto, but cities in general, they need respect and credibility. There’s always been this argument that cities are the creatures of provinces — certainly that’s what Stephen Harper thinks. I think our constitution is flawed in that respect and we need to recognize the authority of cities,” noting that, as a former chair of Exhibition Place, the Toronto waterfront is another high priority for him.

Also running is ESL instructor and Green Party candidate Mark O’Brien (see Fouth party’s growing page 14), who is considered unlikely to win the seat.

It seems Silva and Pires are in fairly wide agreement on most issues. Both support cities and think we need to protect the environment, both are in favour of same-sex marriage and free choice on abortion, both feel that immigration assistance and constituency work will be the key elements of their prospective terms in Parliament. (They were also born the same year, two years before Caccia first won his seat.) Where Pires draws on his career in social services, Silva points to his experience on city council. Pires is a more confident and polished speaker, but Silva has a better financed and experienced campaign team.

The outcome of the race in Davenport may ultimately depend on how Jack Layton and Paul Martin perform over the final week and a half of the campaign.

Whichever way it goes, this election will make history: unless O’Brien works a historic upset for the Greens, whether Pires, Silva or Rodrigues wins, Davenport will send the first Portuguese MP in Canadian history to Parliament.

Originally published June 17, 2004 in Eye Weekly.