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Profile of Jack Layton for The National

Reporter: Diana Swain
Producer: Carmen Merrifield
Editor: Bob Schroeder
Air date: June 21, 2004

The National Profile - runs 18:34VIDEO
Diana Swain's report on Jack Layton aired on The National on
Monday, June 21, 2004.
(Runs 18:34)
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It's Saturday night in Toronto, on the eve of the May 23rd election call. "Keep On Rockin' in the Free World," Neil Young's anthem for the socially conscious, deafens the room.

It's tough to imagine Paul Martin or Stephen Harper at ease here. And yet, on back-up vocals at this event is the man these folks would choose as their prime minister: Jack Layton.

Layton is used to being the centre of attention. But tonight, even he admits to some butterflies.

"It's a little like at the beginning of a race," he tells a CBC crew in a backstage interview. "I used to be a swimmer, and you have a few little butterflies, you know, but mostly it's a sense of 'We're ready, we've been prepared for this.'"

Layton is relatively new to the national political stage. Yet in the 18 months since he won the job as leader of the NDP, his life-long instinct for a camera or a microphone has helped build him a national profile. That attention has fanned the hopes of party faithful that he's the man they've been waiting for.

Layton was first elected to Toronto city hall in the 1980s, and getting attention has never been his problem.

Jack hasn't owned a car in years
Jack Layton hasn't owned a car in years  

His personal passions shape his policy. He hasn't owned a car in years; that's his nod to the environment. He's pushed hard for affordable housing, against poverty, and on behalf of gay rights long before any of that was politically chic. The local media were there, every step.

Layton always knew how to get an audience – and how to goad his opponents.

Betty Disero ran against Layton for the Toronto mayor's job in 1991. Both lost, and later returned to council to battle some more.

"Jack is a really good speaker, so when he does get up to speak, people stop and they listen to what he has to say," Disero says. "He used to make very bold statements – [even] hurtful – to get the media to cover what he's saying. After the council meeting, you go back to Jack and say, 'Wait a minute. Why would you say something like that?' And he'll turn around and go, 'Yeah, well, maybe I exaggerated a little bit.'"

 Jack was elected to Toronto City Hall in the 1980s.
  Jack Layton was elected to Toronto City Hall in the 1980s.

She may not have agreed with his tactics, but they certainly seemed to work. "When you look at who's quoted in the paper, it's those that are most outrageous, at Toronto City Council."

"Jack is very much an edge politician," says Robin Sears, a former NDP strategist who championed many of the same social causes. "He has always played closer to the edge and further from the safe corridor of the mainstream, than if I were his political adviser, I would've felt comfortable [with]."

For example, at one point in the 1980s, Layton lay down on a street to be outlined in chalk to protest the lack of funding to people with AIDS and HIV.

"I was always a little bit nervous that, you know, Jack was pushing the AIDS issue or homelessness or housing issues a little too far," Sears says. "The rhetoric was a little too harsh. The demands were a little too excessive...

"But when you watch him in action for a while, he's always aware of where the edge is. You know, he plays close to the edge because he knows that gives him the greatest leverage and theatre. But he rarely steps over the edge and it's always – almost always – a very conscious decision about where he's gonna play along that dividing line."

Layton has taken an unlikely path for a boy raised in an upscale English enclave of Montreal.

His father's politics leaned to the right. Robert Layton even served in one of Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney's cabinets, as minister of state for mines from 1984 to 1986.

 Jack got his Doctorate in Political Science and emerged on the left of-the political spectrum
  Jack Layton emerged from university on the left of the political spectrum

Young Jack emerged from university on the left of the political spectrum.

He was never one to shy from a crowd, and even his marriage to fellow Toronto councillor Olivia Chow was a public event, held on the city's waterfront.

Together they've become the Canadian left's best-known power couple. Chow is herself running for a federal seat in Toronto this time out, and could be the first wife of a leader to arrive in Ottawa as a fellow MP.

"Olivia is as capable, as tough, as intelligent as experienced a politician as Jack," says Robin Sears. "This is a genuinely equal marriage of two professional people, pursuing the same... personal and professional goals."

They're both so well known here in Toronto that you only have to say "Jack" or "Olivia" and people immediately know who you're talking about. In civic politics, that kind of in-your-face, individual style is what gets you elected.

Together, Olivia and Jack have become the left's best known power-couple.
Together, Olivia Chow and Jack Layton have become the left's best known power couple.  

But now Layton is playing on Canada's biggest stage, trying to get an entire party elected. And for the first time he's being asked to say not what he thinks, but what the party believes. It's a challenge not everyone is sure he's up to.

Layton used to organize his campaigns in his dining room. Now party strategists and media advisers travel across the country with him, briefing him on what the other leaders are saying and how he should respond.

On one recent day, Paul Martin has just released the Liberals' economic platform. Layton walks into a Winnipeg hotel room, holding a cell phone and finishing a conversation with Manitoba's NDP premier. The media is waiting in the lobby for Layton's reaction.

"I just got off the phone with Gary Doer and he's saying, you know, this narrow so-called Romanow gap is just not going to wash," Layton says to party strategist Jamey Heath. "We have to go for the full support. So he's really encouraging us to stay strong on that."

"If they ask what this does to our chances, then smiley and happy," Heath tells him. "If they ask what you think about education and health care, be a little chippy."

Talking the party line is new ground for a man used to calling his own shots.

"That would be difficult for Jack," says former council-mate Disero. "It is a big transition, and actually even on City Council, there was no team spirit on Jack's part, I guess. It's gonna be difficult for him to now say, 'This is what my party is thinking,' because the NDP have members that have very strong positions. Each one of them will want their own, and Jack's no different than that. And I'm not sure that he'll take the time to ask everybody what they're feeling before coming out with his position on things."

Jim Laxer has also seen his share of the spotlight. He ran for the leadership of the NDP in the early 1970s, and once led a splinter group that argued the party wasn't far enough to the left. He knows that his old friend Jack likes to say what's on his mind.

"He'll have to remind himself to think carefully about everything he says, and about the wider context. He'll have to remind himself not to shoot quickly from the lip, 'cause he's got the ability to do that," says Laxer.

When asked directly about his leader's reputation for speaking without calculation, Heath says: "Shooting from the lip is one characterization of it. Straight talker is another characterization of it."

As the New Democrat's key strategist on the campaign trail, Heath knows each scripted word so well that he can't help mouthing the words as Layton delivers them. And he can't helping hoping his leader doesn't stray too far from the text.

"There's an exuberance there with Jack, and the exuberance can project, you know, very hotly on TV at times. The upside of that is that it's completely genuine...The trick for us and the trick with Jack is to allow the exuberance out... but almost contain it."

 Jack knew how to goad his opponents, but also how to get  people to-listen to what he had to say.
  Jack Layton knew how to goad his opponents, but also how to get people to listen to what he had to say.

What could very well turn out to be the most uncontained moment of the campaign came early. At a speech in a Toronto-area church, he pointedly talked about how many homeless people had died since the Liberals took power in 1993. With his media adviser looking on, Layton took his accusation even further in the scrum that followed, blaming Paul Martin personally for the deaths.

Betty Disero heard it on that night's news. "And I thought: 'Typical Jack.'"

On the municipal scene, she says, he might have gotten used to campaigns that were "ugly and dirty." But a federal campaign is very different. "Jack must remember that... No matter what he says, everything he says is going to end up on TV, radio or newspaper. And I'm not sure that he's learned to buffer what he's thinking in his head and what comes out his mouth."

By the next day, it was clear his comment about Paul Martin was the only thing reporters wanted to ask about. Even one of his own MPs said publicly that Layton had gone too far.

By the end of the day, even the man tailor-made for the spotlight had had enough. You could see it in TV footage of him riding off in a car with his head in his hands, Jamey Heath at his side.

"I was incredibly proud of Jack," Heath says now. "It was a really emotional ride back to the hotel, I have to say. And he was upset. But what was upsetting him was not that he was taking questions. What was upsetting him is the same emotion that moved him when he made the comment in the first place."

Layton's critics were quick to pounce, calling his "head in hands" moment pure theatre designed to play on voters' sympathies. If his emotion was genuine, they argued further, that was proof he wasn't ready for the big stage.

"I can see him saying to himself, 'Jesus H. Christ, why are people criticizing me, who have never had to deal with what I've had to deal with, about this horrific social failure?'" says Robin Sears. "But that would be the end of it. He would quickly come back to form."

It's been quite a while since the NDP has gotten this much attention.

The last time the NDP nudged 20 per cent in the polls, it was under the guidance of Ed Broadbent. He left politics after the 1988 election. Now he's back – and he says Layton has given the party its best shot in years.

"I think he brings a kind of tougher, up-front energy to the whole enterprise," says Broadbent, who's being labeled the frontrunner in the riding of Ottawa Centre in this election. "I think he had, frankly, more energy than I had when I was 25 years younger than I am now.

"So there's a great sense of possibilities that he brings to the political agenda of hope."

During the party's leadership contest last year, Broadbent stunned those who knew him by supporting Layton, even though he's had a life-long friendship with Bill Blaikie, one of the party's longest-serving MPs and another candidate for the leadership. A political veteran knows the value of high-energy charisma – and only Layton offered that, Broadbent thought.

"What was difficult is friendship – that you have to separate friendship from political decision-making. What's best for the party or best for the country may not be best for the friendship. And that could well have been the case – was the case – in my relationship with Bill. It was very, very emotional for me to do that."

The local media loved Jack and he proved he knew how to get an-audience.
The local media loved Jack Layton and he proved he knew how to get an audience.  

Selling a former leader on Layton's merits was one thing. But you'd think his decidedly urban style would be an ill fit on the Prairies, where the NDP still has its strongest support.

In Blaikie's riding in the eastern corner of Winnipeg, you'll find a snapshot of the traditional NDP neighbourhood, with modest, tidy homes, and jobs supplied by the railway.

Al Cerilli worked there for 40 years. A union leader and staunch New Democrat who supported Blaikie for the leadership in 2003, he now supports Layton.

"Good or bad, he's [on] the front page. He's in your face. And I used to have a theory when I was a trade unionist. If you're in somebody's face that day, and he squeals, that means you hit home."

One of the people Layton hits home with is Paul Martin, says Jim Laxer.

"He gets under the skin of the Prime Minister and there are consequences when he says something.

"There was a long period of time in this country over the last 10 years when it seemed that the NDP existed off in a corner and you had the odd story about, you know, 'Is the NDP going to disappear altogether?' 'Is this the end of the left?'

"We don't hear that any more. And the reason we don't is because Jack does communicate effectively and people do listen to him."

In these final days of the campaign, Layton's still pushing to win. But he also knows that if one of the other parties forms a minority government, he may be asked to keep it alive with his support.

And that would put him closer to influence in Ottawa than anyone in the party dreamed was possible just a few short months ago.

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