His campaign for city councillor may have momentum, but in Kensington Market on Saturday night, Desmond Cole’s campaign car was not going anywhere.
His beer glass emptying as he packed away a sandwich inside a nearby restaurant, awaiting CAA, Cole brimmed with ideas about bettering Toronto’s Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina.
He spoke excitedly about expanding bike lanes, encouraging green roofs on buildings to save energy, and working with businesses to use less air conditioning in summer. He gushed about forming ward councils to deal with local issues at the neighbourhood level, and about extending municipal voting rights to 16-year-olds and non-citizens.
Periodically, he would turn his head to scan the Leafs game on a television set. “Don’t dilly-dally with it,” he hollered at a defenseman at one point, before turning back to policy.
“There is no municipal standard right now to hold a landlord accountable,” he said, stressing the need for city-licensed landlords.
Cole, 24, is gunning for the city councillor seat vacated by Olivia Chow. He faces stiff competition from Helen Kennedy, Chow’s former constituency assistant, Adam Vaughan, a long-time City Hall journalist, and four other candidates. But Cole has benefited from the recognition, and team of volunteers, earned for being one of four winners of this summer’s City Idol competition.
The contest aimed to encourage change in the city by drawing in more young candidates to run for councillor. “He actually ran for City Idol on a bet that he would not be able to keep a speech under a minute,” said Joan Chung, a long-time friend. “He is often characterized as being long-winded.”
Cole was born in Red Deer, Alberta, where he lived until age four, before moving to Oshawa. He attended Father Leo J. Austin secondary school, in Whitby, where he was student council president and class valedictorian. “Des for pres,” was a slogan that made the rounds at his school, according to Chung.
Cole then attended Queen’s University for political science, but dropped out after two years. “University is now job training, and I think that’s nonsense,” he said. He taught French at a Durham region school for a while, but moved downtown two years ago, where his housing situation was initially precarious.
“I was couch-surfing, bouncing around from place to place,” he said. “It was rotten.”
These experiences got him involved in activism, working with at-risk people at Youthlink Innercity. And they drive his talk about connecting with people. He scoffed, for instance, when asked how many hundreds of doors he knocks on in an afternoon.
“That’s what’s wrong with politics,” he said. “I’ll give someone half an hour at the door if need be.”
While knocking on doors on Walmer Avenue on Saturday afternoon, Cole spent time chatting to whoever opened the door, eligible voter or not. He chatted at length with a teenager, and with a non-resident.
Cole’s campaign manager Geordie McRuer, a U of T graduate and close friend, flagged some addresses for follow-up visits. By nightfall, they hadn’t given out more than two dozen signs-out of their total of 210, all that their budget had room for-but Cole had spent quality time with nearly a dozen residents.
“You can’t underestimate the effect of one sign, or one conversation with somebody or a literature drop,” he said. But they ran into trouble while postering businesses in Kensington Market, when McRuer’s mini van refused to start.
“This does not help our mission,” said Cole. “Maybe we can have a fundraiser for Geordie’s car.”
Cole hailed a motorist for help, but their attempts to boost the mini van were in vain. After struggling in the cold for twenty minutes, McRuer called for assistance, and the team took shelter in a nearby restaurant.
“After having done this, I’m convinced you need more money to win,” said Cole, whose campaign volunteers helped raise $8,000 for his campaign. “You probably need another $10,000 for a campaign office.”
Still, Cole said his candidacy has connected with many community organizations with whom he may work in the future. “[It] has opened many doors to me,” said Cole. And he has earned plaudits in the Annex Mirror and the Globe & Mail for his performance in a candidates’ debate at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre last Monday.
“If I don’t win,” he says, flashing a smirk before turning serious, “I still accomplished something. I’ve built a base for myself and for my future in politics.
“This has been too much of a success to let it be a one-off.”