Toronto federal vacancy attracts media stars for Liberals, NDP

The upcoming federal byelection in Toronto Centre is shaping up as a battle between two media stars. If Chrystia Freeland (Liberal) and Jennifer Hollett (NDP) can win the nominations for their respective parties, they hope to replace Bob Rae as MP.

Retirement of MP Bob Rae draws media personalities to Toronto Centre

Chrystia Freeland, a journalist and author, left, is moving to Toronto from New York to run for the Liberal nomination in the upcoming Toronto byelection. Jennifer Hollett, right, a former MuchMusic VJ, documentarian and social media writer, is running for the NDP nomination.

The upcoming federal byelection in Toronto Centre is shaping up as a battle between two media stars who are both political neophytes, but highly accomplished in the worlds of journalism and social media.

Chrystia Freeland (Liberal) and Jennifer Hollett (NDP), if they can win the nominations for their respective parties, hope to replace as MP former Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae, who has announced he’s vacating the seat by the end of July. 

The diverse downtown Toronto riding would be a prize for either the NDP, seeking to shore up its increasingly orange-tinted section of Canada's largest city, or for the Liberals, who need not just to hold on to the riding but show that their new leader Justin Trudeau is a magnet for successful candidates.

So far, no one has announced an intention to seek the Conservative nomination in Toronto Centre.

Freeland, who revealed her intention to seek the Liberal nomination Tuesday, is a bit of a surprise.

George Smitherman, a former Ontario cabinet minister who had expressed interest in running in the upcoming Toronto Centre byelection, pulled out of the running Monday. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

Two Liberals who had been expected to show interest — former provincial Liberal cabinet minister George Smitherman and former political staffer and businessman Sachin Aggarwal — have stepped away from running, and Aggarwal has thrown his support to Freeland.

On Monday, Smitherman appeared to pen his own political obituary in an article for the Huffington Post titled, "Why I Won't be Running in Toronto Centre." Citing mainly the needs of his young family, Smitherman wrote that "I won't be a candidate now. I won't be contesting a riding in the 2015 general election or any other."

Smitherman’s former longtime assistant Todd Ross has announced he’s also running for the Liberal nomination.

Freeland moving to Toronto from New York

Freeland has quit her job as managing director and editor of Canadian-owned Thomson Reuters and is moving her young family — ages 12, 8 and 4 — from New York to Toronto.

Freeland is the author of an award-winning book called The Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, which is said to be a big influence on Trudeau, who has named the plight of the middle class as his core issue.

Speaking by phone from Toronto, Freeland said her life right now is "the perfect working mother's schizophrenia — sort of simultaneously looking for schools and starting to fight for the Liberal nomination."

Freeland, a former deputy editor of the Globe and Mail, denies she was hand-picked by Trudeau, who has promised open nominations, though she acknowledges meeting with him recently in Ottawa. When asked about who approached whom, she said the decision was "probably mutual."

"The people I need to be chosen by are the Liberal Party members in Toronto Centre, and I am not really taking anything for granted. It's a real race. I've quit my job, I've put my life on the line," said Freeland.

Her Canadian background, especially her Western roots, are "a big part of who I am," said Freeland. Her father is a farmer in Peace River, Alta., and her great-uncle was '60s-era Progressive Conservative MP Jed Baldwin, a "Red Tory," she said.

Her mother, who died of cancer a few years ago, was a feminist and activist who ran for the NDP in Edmonton in 1988, when Freeland canvassed with her.

Her French is "a work in progress" she said, but points out that Ukrainian is her first language.

The decline of "broad middle class prosperity," which Freeland said underpins democracy, is the reason she's running now. "That sounds like a highfalutin kind of point, but that's what I've been writing about and thinking about."

It’s the "big challenge of our generation," she said. "I think it should be at the centre, really, of all political discourse." Solutions can't be boiled down to a "five-page position paper," Freeland said, but she mentions social mobility, entrepreneurship and aligning large corporations with the public good as a way of returning the middle class to something like "the golden post-war era."

Hollett, a former MuchMusic VJ, invented a popular iPhone app

Jennifer Hollett, who launched her nomination bid for the NDP a week ago and is already going door-to-door in Toronto Centre, said one of her main issues is the problem of income inequality and the growing gap between "haves and have-nots".

Hollett, who just finished a degree in public administration at Harvard, is a former CBC journalist on the now cancelled show Connect with Mark Kelley, but is best-known as a former MuchMusic VJ. 

Hollett would like to bring her social media expertise to politics. For the U.S. election, Hollett, along with a co-founder, invented a phone app called Super PAC App. The idea grew out of a class in social television she was taking at MIT’s Media Lab. "I thought, what if you hold up your iPhone to a political ad and find out what's going on … and find out who's behind this, how much money [it cost] and is it even true, what they're saying."

Growing up in St. Catharines, Ont., in a single-mother family, Hollett said she first became attracted to politics when she met NDP leader Jack Layton. But she wasn’t sure about entering politics, she said, until she found out about Layton's death. "I wasn't sure what I was waiting for … it's a reminder when someone dies. The time is now."

Although Toronto Centre has been owned by the Liberals for a decade, Hollett points out that the nearby ridings of Trinity Spadina and Davenport, also once said to be safe Liberal seats, fell to the NDP in recent elections. "If you're standing in Toronto Centre and you look east and you look west, it's orange."

Asked about the Liberal focus on the middle class, Hollett said, "As someone who grew up in a very modest middle class upbringing, it's something I connect with." In Toronto Centre, she said, at the door, the issue comes back to joblessness, especially for youth, and especially for immigrants who came to Canada hoping to become members of the middle class.

So far, no one else has come forward for the NDP nomination in Toronto Centre.

The dates for nomination contests have not yet been announced, and the government has six months after a seat is vacated to announce the timing of a byelection.