Surrounded by a sea of supporters, former Toronto city councillor Adam Vaughan bounded to the stage to celebrate his victory in the Trinity-Spadina federal by-election in June. One of the first people he embraced was a fellow winner: newly minted Trinity-Spadina MPP Han Dong.
The crowd cheered as Mr. Vaughan, Mr. Dong and federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau pumped their fists in triumph to mark the Liberal victory in the NDP stronghold recently vacated by mayoral candidate Olivia Chow.
The red tide was in full swing less than three weeks earlier in the long-held NDP provincial riding when newbie politician Mr. Dong snatched the Trinity-Spadina seat at Queen’s Park from Rosario Marchese, who had represented the area for 24 years.
“It’s obviously a huge victory for us given the nature of the riding,” Mr. Dong said. “It has always been a battleground between the two parties.”
The two candidates shared resources and canvassed alongside each other as the two campaigns overlapped, but Mr. Vaughan said Mr. Dong’s win in the riding helped bring the Liberals success at the federal level.
“It’s always easier to build on momentum than it is to change it,” Mr. Vaughan said.
Mr. Dong, 37, moved to Toronto from Shanghai when he was 13 and worked as marketing director of seafood company Chianti Foods and then with the non-profit Canada Shanghai Business Association. Since making the switch to politics, he has spent nine years at Queen’s Park serving as Ontario Liberal cabinet minister Gerry Phillips’s MPP liaison, and most recently as a senior adviser of community outreach under then Citizenship and Immigration Minister Michael Coteau.
His interest in politics developed years ago at age 19 when he began helping out with federal MP Maria Minna’s campaigns and constituency office.
“I was really fascinated by the democratic system that we enjoy here,” Mr. Dong said, adding he saw the difference he could make in people’s lives through politics. “I can’t help everybody but sometimes when you have some impact on someone’s life, it was very joyful to watch.”
It was becoming harder and harder for the NDP to hold on to Trinity-Spadina, Mr. Marchese said in an interview a few days after his loss. He placed some blame on strategic voting against the Progressive Conservatives and the riding’s changing demographics as new residents moved into new condominium buildings. “Many of these folks come from surrounding areas of Toronto and they normally don’t vote NDP,” Mr. Marchese said.
Mr. Vaughan said the demographic changes helped him win too, as more young, affluent professionals in the financial sector buy apartments in downtown condo buildings rather than rent.
“The irony there is that the neighbourhoods were all planned and designed and brought into existence by a trio of NDP councillors,” he said. "The neighbourhoods they’ve created are not neighbourhoods that have the economic diversity that creates an NDP stronghold; they’re neighbourhoods that have created a much more Liberal-friendly environment to campaign in.”
Mr. Dong, who can speak both Mandarin and Cantonese, said his immigrant background helped him gain support in some parts of the community.
“Being able to read and write and speak Chinese is a big advantage” said Mr. Dong. “People do appreciate someone that came with a family and is young and now involved in public service.”
In the 2011 census, about 12 per cent of Trinity-Spadina residents, or nearly 18,000 people, said their mother tongue was one of the Chinese languages. Cantonese was the most widely spoken non-official language in the riding.
“It’d be easy to think traditionally that a strong vote from the Chinese-Canadian community delivered the result … but his support was right across the riding,” Mr. Vaughan said. “If you watched him canvass in those areas, you’d know that he was speaking to young professionals like himself.”
As father of two and someone whose own parents retired on a fixed income, Mr. Dong said he was better able to pitch the Liberal platform on education and retirement pensions to young families.
“Some of the things that were said in the platform impact me personally,” he said. “[Voters] have that extra assurance that I will have to care. For a lot of them, I’m in their boat.”
Former MPP Mr. Phillips, who Mr. Dong worked under for six years, said, “I think his victory is indicative of him,” adding Mr. Dong is “eternally optimistic” and wasn’t deterred from taking on Mr. Marchese.
When Mr. Dong worked in his office, Mr. Phillips said, “I was always surprised at how much he could do and how fast he could do it. Sometimes it seemed there were two Han Dongs.”
Mr. Coteau recalled how Mr. Dong led a consultation process with various cultural groups to identify what challenges and barriers exist in the communities, which went on to inform the ministry’s policies. “I think Ontario is in a better place and his community is in a better place by having someone like Han Dong in that position.”