If it's Thursday, it means a new "Guelph Beat" column in Echo. This week's subject is my candidate profile of NDP nominee Tom King. See the original article at Echo's website here, or find it on newsstands across the tri-cities for the next seven days. Below is the Director's Cut of the interview:
Tom King is standing outside his home, getting his picture taken by a Macleans photographer. Caught between a busy campaigning schedule and a healthy lunch of a sandwich and fruit, I sat with King at his kitchen table to talk shop. “I’m happy that we finally have a by–election at last,” he says between bites. And after a year a half of solid, “unofficial” campaigning, who could blame him.
On waiting for the writ: "When I ran for the nomination, we expected there to be an [general] election within three months," explains King. (Editor's Note: King was officially named the NDP candidate in March 2007-AAD) We expected that because there seemed to be no way that the Liberals could vote on some of the issues that the Conservatives were bringing down. "We were wrong," he adds with a laugh.
On campaigning: "We've been going door to door and going to activites for over a year now, so we've kicked it into higher gear, but not much higher. Sort of like on a long road trip.
This is King’s first go at elected office; the latest in a long line of odd jobs and careers that started with working as a stock boy at J.C. Penny at the age of 17 and went on to include selling shoes, working on a tramp steamer, being an ambulance driver, a photojournalist, a bank teller, even a door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman. “I know what the ‘McJobs’ of the world are like, I’ve done them,” he explains. “I [also] know what being poor is like and that there’s no romance in being poor.”
Lately, King is best known as renowned author, radio host and community activist. He’s a member of the Order of Canada, a Massey Lecturer and a University of Guelph professor. He says that he’s been a “political animal” for most his life (starting in the 60s after he got back to North America after three years in New Zealand) and that running for office now represents a change from doing “nightshift politics” to doing the “dayshift.” “You’re never sure how much a change you’ve actually make and the question I’ve always had is ‘Are there other areas I can get engaged in where I can be more effective?’”
Extra: Why NDP? King was unaffiliated before joining the NDP to run as their candidate. He says that he looked at all the major parties and he went through them one by one. King says he began by looking for a strong and principled leader, then looked for a party with the same general ideas as him. Things he was looking for: a good record on the environment, concerned about social issues, particularly public health, as well as a focus on jobs and the economy.
Conservatives - "Frankly, they weren't available to me," he says. "If their [environmental] program were a car it'd only have reverse as its transmission gear." He adds the Prime Minister Harper has not been keen on public institutions and has steered more towards P3s. King says that while P3s may have some role in certain sectors of the economy, they don't belong in healthcare and education.
Liberals - King says they've "made a lot of noise" about the environment and social programs, but "haven't voted those principles, and this last parliamentary year has been dispicable to be honest." What drives King's disappointment is the Liberal abstention in 43 important votes in the last year. "What does it say to young people when they scurry for cover whenever there's a hard issue to vote on."
"The two main parties struck me like Old Mother Hubbard's Cupboard, you open the doors and there's not much there."
Green - "I like the Green stand on the environment but I have no idea what they'd do if they got into power. I think they'd do the right thing, but you never know because you would have expected the Liberals to do the right thing." He added that party leader Elizabeth May bothers him because of the one-for-one deal she made with Stephane Dion, where a Liberal would not run for office in May's riding and a Green would not run in Dion's. King calls it a "deal made with the devil" (not the first though) and says that he can't understand how Green supporters can be okay with it.
NDP - King mentions Bill C-377, the Climate Change Accountability Act, as proof that the NDP are change while the others just talk change. (Learn more about C-377 here.) He also likes the party's commitment to the homeless, low income earners, seniors, public health and education.
One of the places where King is already effective is his role as a satirist. He says that having humour is an important character trait when dealing with politics. That and a “decent brain” along with a willingness to back anyone with a good idea, (and a willingness to fight anyone with a bad idea) King says, makes him a good candidate. “I’ve gotten to an age where I’m reasonably fearless,” he adds. “I want to do it because I think it should be done well.”
When King was asked by an Ottawa reporter about why he wanted to run, he said, “It was high time we elected someone to Parliament that’s trying to be funny,” (an old Will Rogers line) adding that “the poor guy looked at me and said, ‘That’s a joke, right?’” Great lines like that are characteristic of King’s wit, but it represents what he’s serious about: changing the tone in Parliament specifically and the people’s views of politics generally.
“We live in an era where politics has a dirty name, something that’s to be practiced in the shadows,” he says. “One of the things I believe in is that politicians cannot make the kinds of changes we need to make until you get the community energized and up and looking at politics as a community activity and making it fun again. ["My job as a politician is to get into the community and say, 'Hey guys! This isn't going to work unless you all come along for the ride, get involved, figure out what the issues are and add your voices to it.' Because in some cases, you'll come up with better ideas than the politicians will."] We can’t lead you anywhere unless you want to go.”
I then brought up the subject of sign vandalism. Just a couple of days earlier, it was reported that one of King's signs was rather blantantly vandalized. Kings seems to have taken it with good humour. "I drove by and someone had pasted a big American flag on my sign, and I thought, 'Okay, who did that?' And I thought, 'That's pretty funny.'" He then quoted another Will Rogers line, about his people greeting the Europeans on the shore when asked how good an American was he."
"It's political bullshit," King says. "What they're trying to do is call attention to the fact that I was born and raised in the US; I lived half my life in the US and half my life in Canada. I chose Canada for a number of reasons, and I don't plan on going anyplace." Unless it is to the US, where he still has dual citizenship, so that he can visit family there. "But to stick that up is to reduce politics to the kind of level of a demolishion derby. It really has the potential to take away from the real issues of the campaign. Is the real issue that King happens to be born in the States? I don't think so.
"As far as having my signs vandalized, the next day I came back and somebody put a Canadian flag on there," he adds with laugh. "As for who's doing it, I'm not going to spend a lot of time trying to guess. It's Mickey Mouse. It's juevinille. So is kicking signs over. Are they vandalized by other political parties? Oh... maybe. Are they vandalized by the guys that roar out of the bar on Friday and Saturday night? Probably. Is it a part of the political season? I guess so, I wish it weren't."
And leadership hasn’t been a problem with King’s campaign. It’s been a source of some humour at just how often NDP leader Jack Layton rolls into the Royal City in order to support his party’s nominee. King says he’s been thrilled by that support and the backing of other prominent members of the party. “[Layton] went door-to-door with me last night, and that’s fairly unusual for a national leader, but he makes the time to do that. I think it says to the electorate that I have the respect of the NDP and the NDP caucus.”
King says he's followed Layton's career since he was a city councillor in Toronto and always believed him to be a principled man. "He's the kind of guy that will vote his principles before he votes his job and that's me." Both King and Layton hope to take this riding for the NDP for the first time. "You'll see as much of Jack as you'll see of me I think." (Editor's Note: To prove the point, Layton will be making another policy announcement tomorrow in Guelph -AAD)
To learn King's views on the environment, he recommends The Truth About Stories: The Massey Lectures.
But King says above all, he hears the call for a change in direction from the average citizen on the street. “I talk with people, sometimes desperate people, who all they want is a fair share of the wealth of the nation. So in some ways, I’ve listened to the voices that I’m going to hear as an MP.”
As for his own voice, King says he’s had over 20 years on the national stage to hone it and he’s ready to use to represent Guelph. “I think I have that voice and the willingness to use that voice. MPs are normally quiet," he adds. "Oddly enough, the last MP that we had, I never heard her say anything about anything. Seriously, I never heard her raise her voice about an issue having felt strongly about it."
He also told me a funny story about how his Mom's unorthodox job searching techniques helped him get his first job as a stock boy at J.C. Penny, but I'm afraid it loses a lot in the transcription. I'm sure if you ask nicely, he'll tell it to you.
Read Frank Valeriote's Director's Cut interview here and come back next Thursday's for the Director's Cut of my Mike Nagy interview.