If you live in Montreal’s West End, don’t be surprised if one day soon a young-looking man with a spring in his step knocks on your door to talk politics.
Côte St. Luc Mayor Anthony Housefather, now seeking the nomination as Liberal candidate in the federal riding of Mount Royal, did just that as a 23-year-old in his first political bid beyond campus politics.
Then living with his parents in Hampstead, he was upset at being dismissed by town officials when inquiring about the repaving of a road near his parents’ home. He remembers calling a city councilor only to get the proverbial brush-off, with the comment, “Why not have one of your parents call me and I’ll explain it to them?”
“I was so insulted by that I ran in the next election (in 1994) against two candidates. I went door-to-door, to every house in Hampstead. People said, ‘you’re 23, you’re young’, but I convinced them by the presentation I made at the door and by going to every council meeting for a year, and reading up on the issues.”
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Housefather hopes to repeat his unbeaten record using similar tactics in Hampstead, Côte St. Luc, Mount Royal and Snowdon as he works to succeed MP Irwin Cotler, who has announced he will not run in the 2015 election.
Today, at 44, he looks like he’s still in college. He is fresh-faced, warm and enthusiastic as he greets a visitor in his shirtsleeves in Côte St. Luc’s wood-paneled mayor’s office. He gets right to the business at hand as he wraps up a piece of work on his laptop. He points to the liquor cabinet tucked away behind his desk, which holds files, not booze: The old way of politics is not his way.
His youthful and enthusiastic demeanor is not unconnected to his other passion, apart from politics—competition swimming, which he’s practiced since his teens. He trains six days a week, and has won medals at the Maccabiah Games in Israel. In January, he and three other swimmers established a Canadian record of 9:25 in the freestyle mixed relay.
Housefather has focused his energy on winning the nomination with his usual thoroughness and vigour. By February, he had signed up more than 800 new party members.
His selling points are his 20 years as a successful politician, his year as president of Alliance Quebec, and his broad experience as a senior executive at a multinational high-tech firm, Dialogic. He earned an MBA at Concordia and is a McGill graduate of civil and common law.
Housefather was infuriated in 1988, when then-premier Robert Bourassa used the notwithstanding clause in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to ban English from commercial signs.
“That is what got me involved in the Young Liberals of Canada. I’ve always been passionate about fighting for rights of minorities, better access to English schools, keeping our English-speaking young people in Quebec through youth employment services, keeping the Jewish community and all ethnic communities here in Montreal.”
When the PQ government introduced legislation to toughen the French language charter, Housefather credits himself with “leading the battle against Bill 14 from the municipal level.” The bill was dropped.
His pitch for the move to federal politics: “With Quebec’s Bill 60 on the horizon, there are a lot of decisions the federal government will have to make if the PQ wins power and if there’s going to be a referendum.
“The community needs a strong outspoken voice on minority language rights, on federalism, on religious and individual rights and freedoms, and that is something I’ve been doing for 20 years.”
A major challenge, as a Liberal, will be to win back the so-called Jewish vote in a riding where more than one-third of residents are Jewish. Cotler concedes he lost his majority largely because of Ottawa’s embrace of Israel, and the Conservatives turning Israel into a wedge issue. The strategy has worked for the Conservatives in such ridings as Thornhill and York Centre in Toronto, where there are significant numbers of Jewish voters. Both are now held by Conservatives.
Housefather says: “My goal as an MP will be to be unequivocally in support of Israel, and to do my utmost to influence party policy so it’s as supportive on Israel as the Conservatives, and so it doesn’t become a wedge issue.
Though Mount Royal was always considered a Liberal bastion, Conservatives whittled down Cotler’s huge majorities and with Saulie Zajdel as candidate reduced the Liberal margin to a 2,260-vote plurality.
Zajdel faces five counts of fraud, corruption, breach of trust and payment of secret commissions related to construction permits issued between 2006 and 2011 when he was a Montreal city councilor. There is no word from the riding association on who might seek the nomination, though there has been a suggestion it might be Zajdel if he’s acquitted.
Housefather is confident his personal support and standing in the community combined with Justin Trudeau as leader will put the riding back in comfortable Liberal territory.
“I think I will do very well in Côte St. Luc in Hampstead … I look at voters as individuals, and I have a relationship with the English-speaking black community, Filipino community, Pakistani and South Asian. I work with them on a daily basis. These communities do like me and respect me, and I have never limited myself as a voice for Jews.”
Given his numerous personal contacts, track record in Côte St. Luc and Hampstead, and significant profile in the media, Housefather is confident the “Liberal Party will get more votes with me as a candidate than anyone else.”