Rev. Cheri DiNovo spent the latter half of the 1960s as a street kid, the 1970s as a student, the 1980s as a successful entrepreneur, and the 1990s as a theology doctoral candidate, then United Church minister. In between, she married twice, had two children, published a book arguing that gays and the transgendered are the new evangelists and performed Canada's first legally recognized same-sex marriage.
Now, after tripling attendance at her church, Emmanuel Howard Park in Roncesvalles -- largely through the force of her own often radical ideas and brash personality -- Ms. DiNovo, 56, has decided to take another turn: as the NDP candidate in this Thursday's provincial by-election.
"As a minister, you hit your head against a wall every once in a while," she says, sitting in her campaign headquarters on Dundas Street West. If she wins the Parkdale-High Park riding -- the seat vacated by Liberal leadership hopeful Gerard Kennedy -- she figures she might be able to turn that wall into a door.
And certainly, the provincial NDPs could use some personality. But now that the famously outspoken Ms. DiNovo is campaigning, she will not stray from her three-point platform: environment, waterfront, school funding.
For example, when asked what her favourite topics on her radio show, The Radical Reverend, have been over the years, she mentions the waterfront and the environment. When asked what she figures she'll be able to do as an MPP that she hasn't as a minister, she leans on the phrase "send a message" to the Liberals.
Last year, when Pope John Paul II died, Ms. DiNovo wrote an essay, printed in NOW magazine, in which she indicted the Catholic Church for AIDS deaths in Africa and noted the church's collaboration with Hutus in the Rwandan genocide and its history of sexual abuse. Now, she is reluctant to discuss the piece, calling it "politically sensitive." ("People were falling into lockstep after his death, and I think it needed to be said," she allows.)
In 2004, Ms. DiNovo wrote a book called Que(e)rying Evangelism, a left-field academic argument for the primacy of gays and the transgendered in religious and political life. But she does not list any of these issues when asked about her current priorities.
So which Ms. DiNovo is up for election?
Provincial NDP Leader Howard Hampton, for one, figures he'll be getting at least a little of the old DiNovo, and is thrilled at the prospect.
"She's done an outstanding job being a voice for folks who maybe don't have the highest incomes, or the most social connections," he says.
As a United Church member himself, he says Ms. DiNovo reminds him of Stanley Knowles, the United Church minister who won J.S. Woodsworth's federal seat after the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation leader died in 1942 and held it, with one four-year break, until 1984. "Cheri very much fits in with that tradition," Mr. Hampton says, "even though the words and concepts she uses may be very modern."
The product of a working-class family in the Annex, Ms. DiNovo had, by her admission, an at-times turbulent adolescence. But after a four-year stint living on the streets, she got back on her feet and headed to York University. By the 1980s boom, she was the owner of The Abbott Group, a woman-focused personnel agency that she says she took from a $5,000 start-up to a $500,000 business in a year.
But the death of her first husband in a motorcycle accident in 1992 recalibrated her life. Ms. DiNovo went back to school, got a PhD in theology and took a job as the minister of Emmanuel Howard Park in 1996.
She distinguished herself by encouraging the lower-income Parkdale side of the neighbourhood to join the established but dwindling collection of higher-income High Park congregants. During her lively sermons, she has been known to give her mentally ill congregants the time and space to get up and speak.
On Sept. 29, 2001, she performed the first legal same-sex marriage on the continent, between Paula Barrero and Blanca Mejias. It was a bit of a sneak: Hoping the Hispanic names might get past the marriage registry in Thunder Bay, she sent in the paperwork and, to her and the couple's delight, it went off without a hitch. It became above-the-board legal when the law was changed two years later.
With her campaign co-manager, long-time NDP bigwig Jill Marzetti, beside her, an interview with Ms. DiNovo goes as candidate interviews tend to. No matter what question she is asked, she brings it around to her platform. A question about spirituality and politics has her declaring the environment a spiritual issue. "Earth," she says, "to borrow from our native brothers, is mother to us all."
Ms. Marzetti grins throughout the half-hour.
Asked about the fact that she doesn't live in her riding, she says, "I live in the riding. I sleep at Queen and Beverley."
Ms. Marzetti's grin widens slightly.
(Ms. DiNovo adds that she and her second husband, Humber College liberal arts instructor Gil Gaspar, are on the waiting list for the John Bruce Village Co-op at King and Cowan, and that they lived in the riding from 1998 to 2003.)
The race will be tight; her main competition, Liberal candidate Sylvia Watson, is the city councillor in the riding. But Ms. DiNovo's chances, according to University of Toronto political science professor Nelson Wiseman, are good.
"The NDP is well positioned because they won in the federal election, which is the most recent indication of public opinion," he says, referring to MP Peggy Nash's victory in the riding in January.
The grassroots support Ms. DiNovo has developed as a local minister will also work to her advantage.
"In by-elections, the local candidate's personality can count more, because the number of people who turn out is lower," Prof. Wiseman says, estimating that it will probably be in the 35-40-per-cent range. "So getting 100 people out is like getting 500 votes out in a general election."
If Ms. DiNovo beats Ms. Watson and Conservative Michael Hutcheon on Thursday, she'll have to give up her ministry, but she's confident that the man who's already filling in for her while she's on leave -- a young ex-priest who left the Ukrainian Orthodox church because he's gay -- will carry on her work. But then, she's used to change.
"I'll just move from the front of the church to the back of the church," she says, sounding just like a candidate.