Thursday, August 7, 2008

A King Ready to Serve the People

Tom King is standing outside his home, getting his picture taken by a Macleans photographer. Caught between a busy campaigning schedule and a healthy lunch of a sandwich and fruit, I sat with King at his kitchen table to talk shop. “I’m happy that we finally have a by-election at last,” he says between bites. And after a year a half of solid, “unofficial” campaigning, who could blame him.

This is King’s first go at elected office; the latest in a long line of odd jobs and careers that started with working as a stock boy at J.C. Penny at the age of 17 and went on to include selling shoes, working on a tramp steamer, being an ambulance driver, a photojournalist, a bank teller, even a door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman. “I know what the ‘McJobs’ of the world are like, I’ve done them,” he explains. “I [also] know what being poor is like and that there’s no romance in being poor.”

Lately, King is best known as renowned author, radio host and community activist. He’s a member of the Order of Canada, a Massey Lecturer and a University of Guelph professor. He says that he’s been a “political animal” for most his life and that running for office now represents a change from doing “nightshift politics” to doing the “dayshift.” “You’re never sure how much a change you’ve actually make and the question I’ve always had is ‘Are there other areas I can get engaged in where I can be more effective?’”

One of the places where King is already effective is his role as a satirist. He says that having humour is an important character trait when dealing with politics. That and a “decent brain” along with a willingness to back anyone with a good idea, King says, makes him a good candidate. “I’ve gotten to an age where I’m reasonably fearless,” he adds. “I want to do it because I think it should be done well.”

When King was asked by an Ottawa reporter about why he wanted to run, he said, “It was high time we elected someone to Parliament that’s trying to be funny,” adding that “the poor guy looked at me and said, ‘That’s a joke, right?’” Great lines like that are characteristic of King’s wit, but it represents what he’s serious about: changing the tone in Parliament specifically and the people’s views of politics generally.

“We live in an era where politics has a dirty name, something that’s to be practiced in the shadows,” he says. “One of the things I believe in is that politicians cannot make the kinds of changes we need to make until you get the community energized and up and looking at politics as a community activity and making it fun again. […] We can’t lead you anywhere unless you want to go.”

And leadership hasn’t been a problem with King’s campaign. It’s been a source of some humour at just how often NDP leader Jack Layton rolls into the Royal City in order to support his party’s nominee. King says he’s been thrilled by that support and the backing of other prominent members of the party. “[Layton] went door-to-door with me last night, and that’s fairly unusual for a national leader, but he makes the time to do that. I think it says to the electorate that I have the respect of the NDP and the NDP caucus.”

As for his stand on the issues, King says that they’re not hard to figure out because he’s been articulating them for years. “The good thing is that if you want to know what I think about on any of these issues, you can go down and get a book of mine and look it up,” he explains “You don’t have to guess, you don’t have to believe my promises or what I say in speeches, I’ve actually put that into print and I’ve done that for years.”

But King says above all, he hears the call for a change in direction from the average citizen on the street. “I talk with people, sometimes desperate people, who all they want is a fair share of the wealth of the nation. So in some ways, I’ve listened to the voices that I’m going to hear as an MP.” As for his own voice, King says he’s had over 20 years on the national stage to hone it and he’s ready to use to represent Guelph. “I think I have that voice and the willingness to use that voice.”

Stay tuned next week for another candidate profile. And for ongoing developments and commentary of the by-election, check out my by-election blog at

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