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st. paul's by-election

In the era of identity politics, Sue-Anne Levy is an inspired choice for the typically white-bread PC Party; a fiercely conservative, Jewish lesbian.Della Rollins

Sue-Ann Levy, the Toronto Sun's City Hall scourge turned Progressive Conservative candidate, is in the heart of Liberal country surrounded by a plague of wasps.

"These Liberal wasps won't stop buzzing around me," she says, trying to fight them off without compromising her suitably refined posture. Prospective voters trickle past the polished Mercedes and BMWs that line the streets of Forest Hill Village, and Ms. Levy seems reluctant to spoil the calm of this charmed enclave.

Ms. Levy is running in the St. Paul's by-election set for September 17, trying to break the Liberal stranglehold that has shut the Tories out of Toronto for the better part of a decade.

Actually, she confides with a smile, the wasps are really David Miller's fault - they were nurtured by the garbage strike. The mayor - or "His Blondness," as she calls him - is a favourite target of Ms. Levy's, and it was anger over the city's five-week strike that ultimately propelled her from the safety of the press gallery into the live-fire zone of electoral politics.

She had mused about running for years, but when the call came from Conservative leader Tim Hudak she nearly fell out of her chair, she said. He made his pitch just as the strike ended, and Ms. Levy needed only the weekend to think it over before taking the plunge.

In a political era where identity is scrutinized as closely as policy, Ms. Levy is everything the provincial Conservatives could dream of. For a party beset by a frumpy, rural image, she is the rarest of candidates: gay, Jewish, fiercely conservative and a resident of downtown Toronto, all in a feisty, combative package.

"I was thinking it was time for me to put my money where my mouth is," she said. "There's a philosophy [at City Hall and Queen's Park]that 'We are operating for the greater good. We are on a crusade' - this nanny-state mentality … I think Dalton McGuinty and David Miller are two birds of a feather."

Having spent 11 years as the Sun's City Hall columnist, there's no shortage of clues to Ms. Levy's political philosophy. She typically refers to Mr. Miller's government as Socialist Silly Hall and the mayor himself as the Esteemed Leader of the Socialist Republik of Toronto.

She can be a funny and engaging champion of the little guy, but her critics grind their teeth at what they see as a small-minded focus on the minutiae of spending.

Councillor Kyle Rae doesn't mince words when describing Ms. Levy.

"The only opinion she values is her own," he said. "I've had to deal with her for 10 years. She comes in with a pre-conceived idea and she is not interested in the facts or perspective.… Absolutely no vision. She is a penny pincher. She knows the cost of things but she doesn't know the value."

Mr. Rae said he stopped returning her calls four years ago. A year earlier, the Ryerson Review of Journalism said a survey of city councillors found that Ms. Levy was rated lowest among the 18 city hall reporters for accuracy, fairness and knowledge. She chalks that up to her uncovering unpopular truths.

There was no thawing of her relationship with Mr. Rae, the city's first openly gay councillor, when Ms. Levy rather spectacularly came out of the closet on the front page of the Sun in 2007.

"Just because she's a lesbian doesn't mean she's a good person," Mr. Rae said.

Ms. Levy calls that article one of the most difficult she's ever written. It was a response to a piece in the Sun that treated homosexuality flippantly, in her view.

Having lived in a closeted relationship for 20 years, and having struggled to tell her own family, Ms. Levy wrote that life is not "one big picnic if you're gay."

"It wasn't done to promote myself in any way. It was done in the hope that I could encourage other young women, women my age, men, and to show readers who had been following me for years, and would never have suspected that this is the face, that we're not all the Church Street crowd," she said.

Ms. Levy, 52, was married in June of this year to Denise Alexander, a woman she met while writing one of her crusading columns about bureaucratic intransigence. Ms. Levy proposed on her partner's birthday at the chic Canoe restaurant by having a waiter deliver the ring under a dessert dome.

"They told me after it had been done a million times before. I was so disappointed," she said.

But Ms. Levy didn't actually pop the question, thinking the ring itself made her intentions clear.

"I guess because I didn't say the words or get down on one knee - well, there were a lot of people around, it's Canoe restaurant, and we are a gay couple, and I got a little bit shy I guess. So she didn't realize until the next day that I had actually asked her to marry me."

Ms. Levy shrugs off the notion that some in her party might be uncomfortable with her unconventional family.

"It's a wide tent," she said, adding that half the PC caucus has already canvassed with her.

Somewhat surprisingly, she lists Hillary Clinton first among her political role models, saying she admires her worldliness, fiscal conservatism, and strong support for the state of Israel. Since she's running in a riding with many Jewish voters, Ms. Levy is keen to point out that she has visited Israel twice in the last two years and is a staunch supporter of Israel and Jewish causes.

Her principal opponent is Liberal candidate Dr. Eric Hoskins. He is the founder of War Child Canada, a family physician and Rhodes scholar as well as a former policy adviser to foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy.

He is the unquestioned front-runner, but the lawn-sign battle is close, and at a time when frustration with the McGuinty government is rising, the nature of by-election protest votes could make Ms. Levy a serious threat to Dr. Hoskins.

"His resume is impeccable, there's no doubt about it," Ms. Levy said.

"The one thing I'll say is he doesn't live in the riding. I live in the riding, and I'm very committed to the people of St. Paul's."

Her editor at the Toronto Sun, Rob Granatstein, said the voters will know what they're getting if they elect Ms. Levy. He describes her as the kind of journalist who elicits either love or hate, but who has the courage of her convictions.

"She is bold, she is smart and she is in your face," Mr. Granatstein said. "I love her because she is the biggest critic around, but the day after calling someone out, she will be right back in their face. She doesn't back down from anything."

One might expect Ms. Levy to be a journalist's dream on the campaign trail, accustomed as she is to shooting from the hip. But already there are signs of a grey campaigner begging to escape the colourful journalist's shell.

She sticks to her talking points and tries to find common ground. She plays down the haunting spectre of Mike Harris - that was then, this is now - and says personally she would have gone about governing in "a more reasoned, compassionate way."

At a candidates debate on Thursday night, Ms. Levy did her best to tiptoe around a question on enshrining the rights of transgendered people in the Human Rights Code.

"I do not make promises I can't keep," she said, addressing the questioner by name and offering her sympathy. "I'm not going to make promises tonight that will come back to haunt me later on."

Ms. Levy has faced some harrowing episodes in her life that have made her a tough-on-crime law-and-order advocate, as well as a vocal critic of police. She wrote in 2005 about being sexually assaulted in her apartment by a young man installing furniture.

The man was eventually convicted, but along the way, the police and justice system treated her very badly, she wrote, ignoring many of the policies put in place to protect victims of sexual violence. She also suffered a horrific attack as a young woman, during which she was beaten with a pipe and choked unconscious by a prospective tenant.

Having grown up in Hamilton, her accountant father perhaps instilling the relentless focus on the bottom line that still drives her, she studied journalism at Carleton University before going on to work in government.

She toiled at Queen's Park for another journalist-turned-politician, former Tory cabinet minister and Toronto Telegram man Frank Drea, someone who taught her a great deal, she said, though unlike the racing-form devotee, she has no love of gambling.

At night she earned her MBA from the University of Toronto, and went on to a career in public relations. But mid-career she felt she was missing out on something, and quit her safe, $40,000-a-year job in Toronto to write for the Bracebridge Examiner for $300 a week.

Her strongly worded editorials soon caught the eye of the Toronto Sun. A colleague there gave her the nickname Cruella when she was education reporter, because of the way she held administrators to account.

City councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong said there are many at city hall on both sides of the political aisle who would be thrilled to see Ms. Levy elected to Queen's Park. He and most other right-wing councillors have campaigned on her behalf, he said, while the mayor and company might be glad to be rid of their harshest critic.

While 10 city councillors have so far backed Ms. Levy, she said she's still waiting to hear from Mayor Miller.