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Toronto, get ready for a tamer, gentler George Smitherman Add to ...

A stone's throw from Church Street and Maple Leaf Gardens, George Smitherman's condo is a peculiar paradox. Modern with traditional elements, the home of Toronto's latest mayoral hopeful also feels sparse, the refuge of a workaholic who has little time to make a mess. If not for a framed print of two DNA strands on his wall, you'd almost think he lives alone.

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One half of the double helix displays Mr. Smitherman's genetic code. As if the people on the receiving end of his legendary temper had chosen its colour, it is black. The other half belongs to his husband of two years, Christopher Peloso. It is white.

It's a public display of affection that is fodder for pundits and politicians alike. What does it represent for Mr. Smitherman, the former raging bulldog of Queen's Park who recently stepped down from his job as the province's deputy premier? Can love mellow contrasts, creating a more tender grey? For someone with aspirations to jump into Toronto City Hall's more conciliatory setting, a little kindness might go a long way.

Friends say it already has. "He has put a lot of effort into softening his approach over the last couple of years," said Mr. Peloso, a retail operations manager for chocolatier Lindt Canada, who says he fell in love with Mr. Smitherman the day they met. "He has the full range. I don't think he gets enough credit for this."

"He's much more content in his life," said Max Beck, a close friend, who is the husband of former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall. "We're all a little different when we're single and high on testosterone."

The new political tack will suit him better in a setting that relies on wide embraces, not sharp elbows, said Myer Siemiatycki, a professor of politics at Ryerson University.

"He has already started to signal a more mellow municipal side to himself," he said. "That he understands you've got to be a conciliator and a compromiser."

But in next fall's election, peaceful, connubial bliss alone won't cut it. He'll also have to rely on the flinty political instincts he's honed for 30 years.

Raised in the white-bread stretches of Etobicoke, George Smitherman is the son of a tenacious man who built up his own trucking company while Mom raised the kids. His parents divorced when he was 11. Competitive by nature, Mr. Smitherman got hooked on politics at 15 while watching the televised defeat of Joe Clark's Conservative government on a non-confidence vote in 1979. The former student president landed his first paid political gig in the summer of 1986, answering phones in Premier David Peterson's office. A year-long stint as a field organizer followed, and Mr. Peterson won a majority. Mr. Smitherman was hired to his staff.

After the Liberals' surprise defeat in 1990, Mr. Smitherman took a break from politics, using his severance pay to buy a photo-processing shop with a friend at Church and Wellesley. He got into the Village's nightlife and developed an addiction to "gay party drugs" (he refuses to say which ones) that lasted several years.

After meeting Mr. Smitherman through an AIDS Walk fundraiser, Mr. Beck recommended the young man to his wife, city councillor Barbara Hall, to help with her 1994 mayoral campaign, which she won against incumbent June Rowlands. "He was 'Mr. Do Everything' and very enthusiastic and worked incredibly long hours," Mr. Beck said. Soon, Mr. Smitherman was the mayor's chief of staff.

Two years later, he made a remarkable leap, jumping out of the political shadows as an operative and onto centre stage. Surprising pundits, he won the provincial race for Toronto Centre Rosedale as the underdog Liberal candidate, a win that also made him the first openly gay person elected to the Ontario legislature.

Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty employed him as his attack dog of choice, a role he seemed to relish. He once called Health Minister Tony Clement a "schoolyard pansy"; on another occasion, he was escorted out of the legislature by the sergeant-at-arms after feuding with a Tory MPP.

His gay hockey league gave him the "Tonya Harding" award for his scrappy, combative play. "I'm demanding, yeah, it's true," he said. "I don't know very many people who get things done that aren't."

When, in 2003, Mr. McGuinty appointed him health minister in charge of a $28-billion portfolio, Mr. Smitherman quickly defined himself as the bull in the china shop of provincial health care, fighting to reform the system.



I'm demanding, yeah, it's true. I don't know very many people who get things done that aren't. George Smitherman


He chastised hospital administrators for building "Taj Mahal hospitals … with glass atriums in the sky." He called optometrists "terrorists" for fighting cuts in health insurance. (He later apologized.) "He didn't mind tipping up sacred cows or offending the mighty," said Hilary Short, president of the Ontario Hospital Association from 2003 to 2008. She said he was the most activist minister in her 35 years at the association. After two tumultuous years, he made peace with the doctors and the hospitals and found serenity in his private life. It had been a long time coming.

Mr. Smitherman met Mr. Peloso when he was "fresh off the bus from Sudbury," 15 years ago, the politician said. They dated on and off, with long breaks in between.

"I was just slow to mature," Mr. Smitherman said. "That Christopher's love was so enduring really saves me from being one of those people that could have been embittered by the regret that I just didn't get my shit together in time."

They married in 2007 at a wilderness retreat near Elliot Lake and moved recently to their downtown Toronto condo, which they share with three cats, including a stray, Ellie, that Mr. Smitherman fell for in Northern Ontario while planning their wedding.

Soon there could be a new, small resident in the condo: The couple has been approved to adopt through the Toronto Children's Aid Society.

"George and I both have a lot of love to share," said Mr. Peloso, who has a 16-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. "We are at a wonderful place in our marriage and, like many couples, long for the opportunity to expand our family."

Mr. Smitherman said the mayoral campaign won't change their plans to have a child. He is already laying the groundwork for the race.

Mr. Tory, his chief rival, has yet to declare. If he does, it's expected the men will compete for votes from the middle of the political spectrum.

But Mr. Smitherman refuses to talk hypotheticals. "Please don't ask me to define what the campaign is going to look like until I know who the challengers are."

One major albatross might be the scandal at eHealth, the provincial agency that creates digital health records for the province. Health Minister David Caplan, who took over from Mr. Smitherman in June, 2008, was forced to resign last month after a scathing report by the auditor-general found runaway spending and millions in untendered contracts.

"George, it's gonna dog ya," Mr. Tory said when Mr. Smitherman appeared on Mr. Tory's afternoon-radio gig earlier this week, giving Torontonians a sneak peak of the potential grudge match to come.

A recent poll found Mr. Smitherman trailing Mr. Tory at a distant second among decided voters. It's exactly where he wants to be, said Liberal MP Gerard Kennedy, who once competed with Mr. Smitherman when they were in Opposition at Queen's Park to see whose office lights went out last each night.

"George is always going to go work harder," Mr. Kennedy said. "He takes nothing for granted."

Still, expect to see more of his softer side, predicted Mr. Peloso.

"I am quite surprised that the 'Furious George' moniker is still being used for George. What people don't always get to see is that, although George can be strong, assertive and aggressive in his attempt to make things happen, he has such a warm, compassionate and generous side."

 

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