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Atwood for Mayor – an unlikely prospect

The mini boom in Canada’s largest city in support of Margaret Atwood for Mayor raises some interesting questions. Would the 71-year-old novelist, poet and sometime political activist ever seriously consider jumping into politics? And if she did run for Mayor of Toronto, could she win?

To this point, the gathering support for Atwood for Mayor is not much more than a lighthearted fling, a spontaneous outbreak of enthusiasm following her intervention in the debate over the future of the city’s library system.

The novelist is accustomed to taking stands on issues affecting arts and culture. She’s been a bitter critic of Stephen Harper. Now, in the wake of Mayor Rob Ford’s determination to “cut the gravy” from city spending, she’s become the prime proponent of saving the Toronto Public Library’s 99 branches that circulate more books than any other system in North America.

Ms. Atwood started it all with a Tweet to her 233,361 followers on July 21, responding to the KPMG report that identified library closings as a possible way of helping the city out of the $750 million hole that Mayor Rob Ford has dug it into in the first year of his term.

The Tweet heard round Canada: “Toronto’s libraries are under threat of privatization. Tell city council to keep them public now.” Her appeal drove readers to an online petition on a web site of the Library Workers Union. The site promptly crashed, and as I write (Sunday, July 31) it’s attracted 41,499 signatures.

More pointed Tweets followed, including this one:

“Twin Fordmayor cld fight for fair shake from ON, but that’s not the agenda? T(he)y want to trash old folks + readers + working moms instead?

The Twin Ford reference cleverly links in the Mayor’s witless brother, Doug Ford, who promptly denied any knowledge of who Margaret Atwood might be, or what she does.

“Good luck to Margaret Atwood, I don’t even know her. She could walk right by me – I wouldn’t have a clue who she is,”  Ford said in response to Atwood’s tweets. “Tell her to go run in the next election and get democratically elected. I’m happy to sit down and listen to Margaret Atwood.”

So how about it, Margaret Atwood. Would you run for Mayor?

Anyone who knows her knows that Margaret Atwood could never fill the role of a back-slapping politician. But she wouldn’t be the first artist to go for political office. I’m thinking of Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and poet dissident who was the President of free Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic. Or Jan Paderewski, the great Polish composer and pianist who was the second Prime Minister of an independent Poland after the First World War.

Would Ms. Atwood have the interest, the stamina, or the ability to withstand the inanities of a political life? Anyone who’s been through the ordeal of author tours as she has, surely has the stamina. Age is not a factor. Look at Hazel McCallion, long-serving mayor of neighboring Mississauga, and at 90 only now is in what will be her final term.

But let’s face it, Margaret Atwood running for Mayor of Toronto is a highly unlikely prospect.

Let’s suspend disbelief for a moment, and pretend Toronto voters could choose between Atwood and Ford in the next election.The campaign would be highly entertaining, pitting culture against the barbarians. However, like all things political, it probably wouldn’t be fought on any rational understanding of issues facing the city. The Ford forces would depict Margaret Atwood as a “tax and spend liberal.” She’d fight back, brilliantly, but perhaps not successfully.

The library controversy is a case in point. It would be nice to have a rational discussion of the cost/benefits of the city’s chain of libraries. Doug Ford claimed, erroneously, there were more branches in  his Etobicoke district than there were Tim Hortons coffee shops. Not true, but what’s that got to do with it?

With the city hard pressed to cover its costs, perhaps a rational analysis might turn up one or two libraries that could be closed without depriving anyone of reasonable access. Even if that were the case, the savings would be miniscule. But it would give Mayor Ford the spoon of gravy that he needs to feed the right-wing voters who put him in office.

As of today, Margaret Atwood is off Twitter for a week, busy on a writing project. Maybe she’ll tell us when she comes back how she would feel about becoming a politician.

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