Olivia Chow sweeps in with promise of change and hope

Election Night Victory Party has scary start as early results bleak

Arriving at the site of the Olivia Chow Election Night party at the Great Hall on Queen West Monday night, my committed progressive self is cautiously hopeful; my team generally loses more elections than it wins, but polls are all saying this is Chow’s race.

We’ll see.

I’m directed to the media room at check-in but I decide to take a calm-before-the-storm look at the currently-empty main hall. The grand room is bathed in purple and the words “Together We Can” are projected boldly on the stage’s backdrop. It feels like an empty club on the afternoon of a show day, dripping in possibility and anticipation.

Someone calls out, “Michael!” and I assume they’re after someone else. The call is repeated, and I turn to face Mike Layton. We both greet each other, wide-eyed and enthusiastically. As we chat, I insist on sharing only cautious optimism before getting lost in discussing “What ifs?” and the possibilities today represents.

We both chuckle at the novelty of being frontrunners in a race and then it strikes me: Layton looks like a million bucks. I’ve known him for years and he’s never looked better — and healthier. It makes me happy and sad because, clearly, public life really is physically crushing based on Layton’s mature, male model transformation now that he’s off city council, eats reasonably, gets some sleep and isn’t dogged by the tension of City Hall.

This reminds me of the first time I saw club owner friends a few years into the COVID crisis and they looked different too: tanned, rested and healthier than when they spend their days and nights inside, running venues.

“I can’t be the only person who’s pointed this out,” I say to Layton after noting his looks, and he almost sheepishly acknowledges that the evidence is pretty clear of the personal cost of politics.

Layton runs off to keep an eye on his kids as well as those of a few friends who are watching out for each other. A media rep spies me and gives me a rundown of how the night will proceed. I listen attentively and clinically and then, as it is explained that Chow will move through the crowd and before making her way up on stage to speak, the gravity of the moment hits me. Out of nowhere, I tear up and have to compose myself, hoping to avoid detection.

As my host points out the expected path, I’m overwhelmed by the idea that Chow may be making her way to the stage to give her victory speech if she becomes mayor.

Doors are now open, and a steady stream of supporters begins to file in, the city’s diversity immediately on view.

No one can accuse Chow’s crew of trying to bribe the media as the press room goodies are gone before the polls close. A bar-sized, silent TV screen shows various pundits soundlessly pontificating on CP24, the only local station bothering to cover the vote.

The gathered scribes all agree this should be a quick night, with only one election to count, we’re hoping for final numbers sometime after 9 pm. The Globe’s Marcus Gee and I reminisce about a wild trip we both took with Rob and Doug Ford on a music industry trade mission to Austin, TX, and I find myself hoping that tonight will see the end of this city’s reign of conservative mayors with secret lives.

Suddenly, I feel like a boxer taking punches, as the first results trickle onto the screen. Bailão ahead — bam. Shake it off, early still. More numbers, more Bailão in front — bam, bam. Could just be a few weird polls, nothing to worry about. Bam, the lead is getting bigger.

I head into the main room to see how the crowd is taking the news. Nothing; they’re not showing results on the stage’s big screen yet, which is surprising and not typical. I weave through the still-growing — and very excited — crowd. I suspect I’m photo-bombing awesome Ward 4 Councillor Ausma Malik as she’s being interviewed by a CP24 reporter. I head back to the media room and after a few minutes see a “live feed” from the party on the screen. When I see myself photo-bombing Malik, I know something’s up.

“Screen’s four minutes behind,” announces the Star’s Edward Keenan as he holds his iPhone to his ear to listen to results. “Too slow for me.”

The numbers keep piling up for Bailão and I get a sick, familiar feeling in my stomach. Am I going to process another loss snatched from the jaws of victory? I start imagining new ledes for my story and the conversations I will have with disappointed people.

Gee and I keep exchanging disbelieving glances. I finally say, “Is this really happening?”

“It appears so,” he says. “Didn’t see this coming.” We start discussing where the Bailão event is happening — Revival on College — and then agree, win or lose, this will be the place to be, a huge story either way. We all agree Ford’s pick, Mark Saunders, is doing surprisingly badly, leaving right-wing votes to be scooped by Bailão.

The media rep in the press room plasters a stoic look on her face, but it’s clear she’s getting nervous. Back in the main room, still no results on the big screen as the party roars, and I feel bad for the folks making merry as their world might be falling apart unbeknownst to them.

Suddenly, the screen switches to live TV and results flicker on. There’s a roar as people see the news for the first time and Chow has squeaked ahead. After a while, the image disappears and it’s back to the “Together We Can” message.” I charge back to the media room, guessing this means Bailão is back in front and the feed has been cut, which proves to be true.

Turns out, the early results are all coming from staunchly Bailão western suburbs, but once the rest of the city reports, Chow’s march to the mayor’s office becomes inevitable — and CP24 stays up on the screen until the final result is called.

The steady stream of good news on the screen electrifies the crowd, which is now confidently sensing victory. Kudos to the DJ who has a great mix of anonymous beats mixed with classics from Beyonce and Whitney Houston, which get the crowd dancing and singing.

An excited union man – with the T shirt to prove it–hops on stage and whips the room into a further frenzy, leading cheers and pumping his fist in the air to ecstatic howls. High on adrenaline and the cheers of the crowd, he starts an “N-D-P” chant, which disappears before it can really get going as a sea of disapproving looks silence the cheerleader. The last thing Chow needs is a highly partisan display serving as election-night confirmation of right-wing fear-mongering of party rule.

I’m squished onto a corner of the stage with a bunch of photographers, my back to the screen when the announcement is flashed: “Olivia Chow Elected Mayor.” The room explodes with sound levels that exceed anything I’ve heard after a week in loud, live music venues at NXNE.

It is a mighty, victorious, gleeful roar and a mix of adrenaline and relief surges through me. I’ve known Chow since she was an assistant to progressive MP Dan Heaps in the ’80s, and she called my old magazine to get us to regularly drop copies at Heaps’ office. A consistent, passionate progressive voice, it is almost unbelievable that she will now lead the city for which she has worked so hard for decades.

Supporters are assembled stageside and then sent on stage to serve as a cheering backdrop for the mayor-elect’s eventual appearance. They’re all handed purple Olivia Chow signs but now, instead of saying “Hope” on one side, they say “Mayor.”

Layton, his wife, kids, sister and other family members, all beaming, gather at the steps leading to the stage, which they mount. First Mike and then his sister Sarah introduce their stepmother to the adoring crowd and then, as promised earlier, Chow snakes her way through the mob, her bright yellow dress occasionally flashing through the crush of people.

I’ve parked myself strategically beside the steps Chow must mount to greet her fans and, as people seem to boil and bubble in constant motion in front of me, Chow comes bobbing up out of the crowd, like a float flying up out of the ocean. As handlers gently push her forward, we share a quick, enthusiastic greeting and she mounts the steps and takes the stage, igniting even louder cheers.

She makes the perfect speech, full of hope and grace with a prevailing message of inclusion. She reiterates some of her campaign promises, including her vital pledge to fight to save both Ontario Place and the Ontario Science Centre, but most of all, she promises to work on housing. You could read a book in the dark from the light coming off the thousand-watt smiles that fill this room.

When Chow graciously mentions the losing candidates, the gathered throng shows more class than most and doesn’t boo when they are name-checked, as often happens at victory parties. Everyone’s feeling pretty generous tonight, and the “hope” referenced throughout Chow’s campaign fills this room.

She finishes her speech and bends to scoop up her granddaughters, who have been eagerly and patiently hopping up and down waiting to congratulate their grandmother.

Chow officially becomes mayor on July 12, in just over two weeks, faster than the normal post-election process because the role is currently vacant. Let’s hope this spirit of “hope” doesn’t wash away like a sidewalk chalk drawing in the rain.

Chow is a seasoned politician but one who manages to have fresh ideas. The city voted for change, it needs a change and, until further notice, I’m prepared to believe it’s changing for the better. It’s your move, Olivia.