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One of the true nice guys of Ontario politics turns 80 – TVO



I’ve been covering politics for a living for about 38 years, and I can tell you this: the number of politicians about whom people have nothing bad to say would probably fit on the fingers of one hand. Maybe less than that.

You remember that TV show Everybody Loves Raymond?

Well, everybody loves Gerry. Gerry Phillips, that is.

Phillips turns 80 today. That’s as good a reason as any to remind people that there are still some good folks in public life, and Phillips is surely one of them.  

We spoke a few days ago. He’d just finished a round of golf and done his typical 15 to 20 kilometres of daily cycling in Ajax, where he now lives.

“They’ve got a great waterfront trail here,” he tells me. “You can see deer all the time.”

It’s a cute coincidence that the former veteran MPP for Scarborough–Agincourt now lives in a riding also represented by a guy named Phillips — Rod Phillips, that is — the current finance minister.

“Saw him the other day!” says Gerry, who still keeps his feet wet in politics as an informal, unpaid adviser to Scarborough–Guildwood MPP Mitzie Hunter, the Liberals’ current finance critic. “I’ve known Rod a long time. He’s a good guy.”

So is Gerry Phillips, who somehow managed to spend nearly a quarter-century at Queen’s Park without accumulating any enemies.

“I always found it took a lot of work to stay angry at someone,” he says. “If I carry a grudge, it negatively affects me.”

And, so, Phillips simply doesn’t carry grudges or impugn the motives of his political opponents. He just doesn’t.

“In a caution against excessive partisanship, he once told me, ‘You should never say anything publicly about another MPP that you wouldn’t be comfortable saying to them privately,’” recalls Dalton McGuinty, Ontario’s premier from 2003 to 2013, in an email.

Like so many successful politicians, Phillips lost his first time out of the gate, in 1975. He was chair of the Scarborough Board of Education and ran against one of Bill Davis’s most popular cabinet members, the education minister Thomas Wells.

“My campaign people were saying, ‘You gotta take him on more!’” Phillips recalls. “But Tom was a very decent human being. It was never about any dislike of him.”

Phillips narrowly lost that election and decided to immerse himself in his community. While being a father to four kids and running three businesses, he coached hockey and went on to chair the Metro Toronto School Board and the board of the Scarborough General Hospital. Yes, he was busy. He wasn’t actively looking for another shot at politics. But he hadn’t ruled it out, either.

It took another 12 years before political opportunity knocked again, but, when it did, Phillips never looked back. He rode a wave of massive popularity for Premier David Peterson’s government, which was returned to power in the 1987 election with the biggest seat count in Ontario history — 95 out of 130 seats. Phillips’s seat in Scarborough–Agincourt was one of those 95, and he would hold it for the next 24 straight years, winning six consecutive elections, almost all of them with well more than half the votes.

Peterson knew Phillips well and immediately put him into cabinet. How well did the two know each other? It went beyond Phillips’s chairing Peterson’s successful bid for the Ontario Liberal leadership in 1982.

“He was in Grade 13 at London Central [Secondary School] when I was in Grade 9,” Peterson says. “He was a great athlete back in the day. A great football player, especially. He was just one of the loveliest guys I ever knew in politics.”

People liked Gerry Phillips. He was solid. He was respected. Not a ton of charisma, but a great guy.

So no one was surprised when he announced in 1996 that he wanted to run for the vacant leadership of the provincial Liberals. However, shortly thereafter, chest pains took him out of the race, which was eventually won by McGuinty. Any regrets at not getting to finish that quest?

“The fact that I was going to run shows I’d have found that experience rewarding,” he says. “But I don’t look back at things I can’t change.”

The Liberals would spend a long time in the political wilderness — from 1990 to 2003 — and, for almost all of that time, Phillips was the soft-spoken, sober-minded Liberal finance critic. You got the sense that, when he said something, he wasn’t just spitballing to score cheap points.

“You had to respect the fact he always did his homework,” emailed Janet Ecker, one of the finance ministers Phillips shadowed as critic. “When he stood in the Legislature to ask you a question, you knew you had to be on your toes. And when he wasn’t in his opposition role, he was always the consummate gentleman.”

When McGuinty made his breakthrough in 2003 and returned the Liberals to power, one might have expected Phillips to move seamlessly into the finance minister’s job, given that he’d been the respected finance critic for so long.

It didn’t happen.

“I called Dalton after that election,” Phillips tells me. “I told him that if he did make the decision not to appoint me finance minister, I wouldn’t be unhappy.  I didn’t mind the lower profile. And I don’t mind playing a team game.”

How many politicians do you know who would make that phone call?

McGuinty named Greg Sorbara his finance minister. Phillips became chair of the Management Board of Cabinet, which oversaw all provincial expenditures. “I was happy,” he says. “I had lots of influence” (if not quite as much face-time on camera).  

Phillips’s stint at Management Board was one of eight different cabinet positions McGuinty gave him. 

“I took advantage of Gerry’s huge appetite for work and his steady demeanour by giving him a variety of cabinet postings,” the former premier emailed. Phillips had responsibility for energy, infrastructure, immigration, citizenship, seniors, and government services. And add chair of caucus that list, as well. “He never disappointed,” McGuinty added. “He knew where the political landmines were and always provided sure-footed leadership and good counsel.”

In fact, being at Management Board (now called Treasury Board) afforded Phillips an opportunity to have perhaps his greatest and most lasting impact in politics. He inherited oversight of a project that would have seen a small veterans memorial constructed near the subway entrance at Queen’s Park Crescent and College Street, in downtown Toronto. Something about it just didn’t sit right with Phillips. He wanted something bigger that would pay a more meaningful tribute to our veterans.

He first convinced all the parties at the legislature to allow the memorial to be moved right onto the grounds at Queen’s Park. Then he talked Canada’s most decorated veteran, Lieutenant-General Richard Rohmer, into co-chairing (with him) the committee responsible for bringing the project to completion.

It all got done rather splendidly, and, since 2006, thousands of Ontarians have gathered for Remembrance Day ceremonies beside the black marble monument. Rohmer, now 96, is always the star of the show, speaking “for the vets.”

“I’m quite proud of that,” Phillips allows. “There are precious few occasions in politics where you can look at something and say, ‘I think that wouldn’t have happened without me.’ But I think that’s one of them.”

During the McGuinty years, Phillips sat during cabinet meetings beside a future premier: Kathleen Wynne.

“He’d be sitting there in cabinet eating his lunch,” Wynne says, “and I’d hear him sotto voce saying, ‘Electricity prices. They’re gonna get us.’ He was like a Greek chorus.”

Of course, electricity prices did become a huge, debilitating issue for both McGuinty and Wynne. Many others in politics would have said, “I told you so” — not Phillips.

“I think that’s why people love him,” says Wynne, who was premier from 2013 to 2018.

In fact, after Wynne lost power and became an everyday MPP again, Phillips made it a habit to drop by her office, hang out, and just act as a sounding board for a former leader who was hurting.

“We joke that he’s our oldest intern,” Wynne laughs. “But he’s as close to a truly good person as exists in politics.” 

Phillips actually points to something he did while in opposition as perhaps his greatest achievement in politics. Twenty-five years ago this week, Indigenous protesters in Ipperwash Provincial Park were locked in a dispute with the newly elected Mike Harris government. A confrontation with the Ontario Province Police became violent, and an officer killed demonstrator Dudley George. The acting sergeant was eventually found guilty of criminal negligence causing death.

“For almost eight straight years, I worked on that issue,” says Phillips. “A day didn’t go by that I didn’t do something on that.” Phillips gave interviews, comforted the George family, dived into research, and essentially did everything he could to keep the issue alive. He demanded a public inquiry that would set the record straight on what had happened and offer recommendations on how to handle future confrontations.

The morning after the Liberals won the 2003 election, the first question premier-elect McGuinty got at his news conference was about whether he’d now call the public inquiry Phillips had been demanding. Everyone was looking for the slightest bit of wiggle room in McGuinty’s answer. To Phillips’s relief, there was none. The inquiry was soon struck under Justice Sidney Linden, whose two years of listening to witnesses resulted in a 1,500-page report replete with 100 recommendations, almost all of which were implemented. It was considered a textbook example of a successful public inquiry. And it might not have happened had Phillips not been so dogged and determined to get justice for the George family.

“That was crucial for me,” Phillips now says. “It would have been an awful blow had we not proceeded.”

“Gerry may have had a pro-business bent,” recalls Wynne. “But it was always secondary to his passion for social-justice issues. Ipperwash proved that.”

In 2011, Phillips did something precious few politicians get to do — he orchestrated the timing of his own departure from politics.

“I knew it was time,” he says. “I miss it every day. But I don’t regret the decision. It was time to move on.” He opted not to run in the 2011 election and retired from elective politics. But he’s still “around” and on call if Liberals need him for advice.

Today, having turned 80, Phillips is preparing himself for a “surprise party” he suspects will happen tomorrow in his big backyard. Everyone around Queen’s Park has always known how important Phillips’s family has been in his life. Every year, the extended clan would dress in ever more imaginative garb for the MPP’s annual Christmas card. Three of his four kids live less than two blocks away. He’s got five grandchildren. And, in December, he’ll celebrate 58 years of matrimony with his wife, Kay, despite being in a business renowned for torpedoing marriages.

“I’ve had a blessed life,” Phillips says, concluding our call. “A fairly carefree, blessed life.”

Hard to think of anyone in politics who deserves that more than the former member for Scarborough­–Agincourt.

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Bipartisan Politics | Politics and Public Affairs – Denison University



But the ties that bind these four individuals are stronger than most. They, and several other Big Red alumni, are connected through Forbes Tate Partners, a bipartisan, full-service government and public affairs advocacy firm, founded by Forbes and his partner Dan Tate.

In today’s divisive political landscape it might be difficult to imagine that colleagues from opposite sides of the aisle can be, well, collegial. But according to Forbes, who has worked on Democratic campaigns since Al Gore’s presidential bid, that’s the whole point.

“People forget about the moderate factions in politics — and that’s where real work can be done,” says Forbes. So it made sense to build a firm that could work well with both parties and provide positive results for everyone.

And the work has become more complicated. “Lobbying has changed,” he says. “It’s not as much who you know – though that still matters. Today, you have to run a full-fledged campaign with traditional PR, social media, news updates. You have to make sure the people back home see the reason for what you are doing, to create that support before you move forward.”

So how did all these Denisonians find their way to Forbes Tate? You can credit another Denison tie, the Hilltoppers men’s a cappella group. Forbes was a member of the popular campus group, and several years ago a student Hilltopper reached out to him, struggling to figure out what to do for the summer. Forbes’ impulsive response, “Why don’t you come here?” became the beginning of an internship program that has brought scads of students from Denison’s hill to Capitol Hill.

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US vetted stars' politics to showcase Trump virus response –



The names were among the spreadsheets, memos, notes and other documents from September and October released by the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

The firms’ vetting came as political appointees planned to spend more than $250 million on a confidence-building campaign surrounding the virus, which has killed more than 227,000 people in the United States and is a core issue in the presidential race between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.

While government public health campaigns are routine, the ad blitz planned by HHS was mired from the start by involvement from department spokesman Michael Caputo, a fierce loyalist and friend of Trump with little experience in the field. In September, a spokesman for Caputo said he was taking a medical leave from HHS as he battled cancer.

Trump, a Republican, has repeatedly minimized the dangers of the coronavirus, even as the nation is in its third wave of infections, with tens of thousands of cases reported each day.

According to one memo compiled by a subcontractor to Atlas Research, one of the firms hired by HHS, Caputo suggested a series of soundbites and taglines for the campaign, including “Helping the President will Help the Country.” The notes say that Caputo wanted the campaign to be “remarkable” and to rival Rosie the Riveter, the character who symbolized women who worked in factories and shipyards during World War II against Germany.

“For us, the ‘enemy’ is the virus,” Caputo said, according to the memo.

The documents also show pushback from some of the federal employees leading the work, who removed Caputo from an email chain and thanked one of the contractors for dealing with a “challenging” environment.

The Democrat-led Oversight panel said Caputo was overstepping his bounds, interfering in work that is supposed to be done by contract officers at the department and politicizing what is supposed to be nonpartisan.

“Of course, it is completely inappropriate to frame a taxpayer-funded ad campaign around ‘helping’ President Trump in the weeks and days before the election,” said House Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Reps. James Clyburn of South Carolina and Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, both subcommittee chairmen, in a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “This theme also ignores the reality that more than 220,000 Americans have died from coronavirus — a fact that should not be whitewashed in a legitimate public health message.”

Azar put the entire project on hold earlier this month, telling the Oversight subcommittee led by Clyburn that it was being investigated internally.

“I have ordered a strategic review of this public health education campaign that will be led by our top public health and communications experts to determine whether the campaign serves important public health purposes,” Azar told the subcommittee, which is investigating the federal government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Because public health policy around the coronavirus pandemic has become so politically polarized, it’s unclear how well a confidence-building campaign from the government would play.

HHS officials acknowledge a major challenge to any campaign would involve finding trusted intermediaries to make the pitch to average Americans. On health care matters, people usually trust doctors first, not necessarily celebrities. And Trump has alienated much of the medical establishment with his dismissive comments about basic public health measures, such as wearing masks.

The 34-page “PSA Celebrity Tracker” compiled by Atlas Research and released by the committee does not say whether the celebrities were aware they were even being considered or if they had agreed to participate. The report says that no celebrities are now affiliated with the project but a handful did initially agree to participate.

Singer Marc Antony, who has been critical of Trump, pulled out after seeking an amendment to his contract to “ensure that his content would not be used for advertisements to re-elect President Trump.”

Actor Dennis Quaid also initially agreed and then pulled out, according to a document from Atlas Research. In an Instagram video post last month titled “No good deed goes unpoliticized,” Quaid said he was frustrated that a taped interview he did with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, for the campaign was portrayed in the media as an endorsement of Trump.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Quaid said, noting that the interview was still available on his podcast.

Antony and Quaid were among just a few celebrities who were approved for the campaign, according to the documents. Others included TV health commentator Dr. Oz and singer Billy Ray Cyrus.

“Spokespeople for public service campaigns should be chosen on their ability to reach the target audience, not their political affiliation,” the letter from the Democrats reads. “Yet, documents produced by the contractors indicate that the Trump Administration vetted spokespeople based on their political positions and whether they support President Trump.”


Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.

Mary Clare Jalonick, The Associated Press

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How Virus Politics Divided a Conservative Town in Wisconsin’s North – The New York Times



MINOCQUA, Wis. — When coronavirus cases began to spike in Wisconsin this fall, Rob Swearingen kept his restaurant open and let customers and employees decide whether they wanted to wear masks.

Mr. Swearingen, a Republican seeking his fifth term in the Wisconsin State Assembly, didn’t require other employees at his restaurant in Rhinelander to be tested after a waitress and a bartender contracted the virus because, he said, nobody from the local health department suggested it was necessary.

Kirk Bangstad, Mr. Swearingen’s Democratic opponent, took the opposite approach at the brewpub he owns in Minocqua, 30 miles away. He has served customers only outdoors, and when a teenage waiter became infected after attending a party, Mr. Bangstad shut down for a long weekend and required all employees to get tested.

Mr. Bangstad has since turned his entire campaign into a referendum on how Republicans have handled the coronavirus. On Facebook, he has served as a town shamer, posting lists of restaurants and stores in Wisconsin’s Northwoods that have disregarded state limits on seating capacity and don’t require masks.

With just days until the election, the contest for Mr. Swearingen’s Assembly seat in this lightly populated area in the Northwoods of Wisconsin serves as a microcosm for the way coronavirus politics are playing out across America. Mr. Bangstad is unlikely to prevail in a Republican-heavy district that covers parts of four counties stretching south from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but his effort to make the campaign a referendum on the virus echoes that of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has sought to make President Trump’s handling of the pandemic the central issue in the presidential contest.

Mr. Bangstad, a 43-year-old Harvard-educated former professional opera singer, moved back to Wisconsin six years ago from Manhattan, where he was a technology consultant and served as the policy director for Anthony Weiner’s 2013 mayoral campaign. Like Mr. Biden, he has eschewed traditional campaigning. He has moved his entire effort online, including in email and on the Facebook page of his brewpub, the Minocqua Brewing Company.

But unlike the former vice president, Mr. Bangstad has made little effort to win over voters who aren’t already appalled by Republicans’ handling of the coronavirus. Many of them, he said, are being duped by false or misleading statements by the president and the conservative news media.

“A lot of them, I feel, haven’t been equipped with the tools of media literacy or critical thinking skills to be able to discern if they’re being told something that doesn’t quite jell or is not true,” he said during an interview this week at his shuttered restaurant overlooking Lake Minocqua.

Rob Swearingen, a Republican State Assembly member, does not require staff or customers to wear masks at his restaurant in Rhinelander.
Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Wisconsin’s 2020 campaigns are concluding while the state is in the midst of one of the nation’s worst coronavirus outbreaks. On Tuesday, as the state set records for the most new cases and deaths, Gov. Tony Evers said Wisconsin faces an “urgent crisis” and urged citizens to stay home.

Oneida County, which includes Minocqua and Rhinelander, where Mr. Swearingen operates the Al-Gen Dinner Club and has lived his entire life, has a virus rate nearly twice the state average over the past two weeks.

Scott Haskins, whose wife, Pamela, is a waitress at the Al-Gen, is among the county’s recent fatalities. Ms. Haskins contracted the virus after working a restaurant shift in mid-September and was hospitalized in early October. Mr. Haskins, 63, checked into the hospital with the virus four days after his wife, according to his daughter, Kelly Schulz.

Two days later, Mr. Haskins suffered a stroke and died.

“The day after my dad passed, Governor Evers put in the 25 percent capacity limit, and they weren’t abiding by it,” Ms. Schulz said of the Al-Gen. “People were posting pictures of themselves there on Facebook and it was pretty busy for a Friday night.”

Republicans who control the state legislature this month successfully sued Mr. Evers to overturn the capacity limits on bars and restaurants he ordered. In Oneida County, local sheriffs and town police departments weren’t enforcing them anyway.

Before winning election to the Assembly, Mr. Swearingen, 57, was the president of the Tavern League of Wisconsin, the powerful lobbying group for the state’s bars. He fought the state’s efforts to ban smoking indoors at businesses, lift the drinking age to 21 from 18 and increase the legal blood alcohol limit to drive.

Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

He said his restaurant is not responsible for employees who caught the coronavirus. No one from the local health department ever called with questions, he said, and no contact tracers contacted the restaurant. Mr. Swearingen said he has not had a test himself.

“There’s been no connection to the restaurant to all these cases,” he said during an interview in the dining room of the Al-Gen, which is bedecked with taxidermied heads of deer and black bears. “These people are part-time, coming from different jobs and different things.”

Of all the places where Democrats barely bothered to compete in 2016, Wisconsin’s Northwoods may have been the most neglected. Not only did Hillary Clinton skip Wisconsin altogether, county Democrats in this region didn’t even have yard signs to distribute, not that there was much demand for them.

Mrs. Clinton was a “polarizing’’ candidate, said Matt Michalsen, a high school social studies teacher who ran against Mr. Swearingen in 2016. “Personally, did I support her? No.”

Four years later, Mr. Bangstad has few expectations that he will win. He sees his campaign largely as an effort to increase Democratic turnout for Mr. Biden and cut into Mr. Trump’s margins by focusing attention on the impact of the coronavirus on northern Wisconsin.

Mr. Bangstad wrapped the side of his restaurant in a giant Biden-Harris sign that attracted the ire of the Oneida County Board, which sent a letter informing him that it exceeded the allowable size of 32 square feet. After Mr. Bangstad used the fracas to raise money and get more attention for himself in the local press, the board backed down.

At the same time, the Biden campaign and local Democrats have put far more resources into northern Wisconsin than they did four years ago. There are twice as many organizers focused on the area than in 2016. And though the Clinton campaign swore off yard signs as an unnecessary annoyance, the state party has made efforts to get them in every yard that would take one.

Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

“We distributed approximately 50 Hillary yard signs four years ago, and we’re at more than 1,200 so far for Joe,” said Jane Nicholson, the party chairwoman in Vilas County, just north of Oneida County.

There’s some evidence that Mr. Biden is making up ground. A poll taken for Mr. Bangstad’s campaign this month found Mr. Trump leading Mr. Biden in the district by five percentage points — a far cry from his 25-point margin of victory in 2016. The same survey found Mr. Swearingen ahead by 12 points, less than half his 26-point margin over Mr. Michalsen four years ago.

Mr. Trump won Wisconsin in 2016 by less than 23,000 votes statewide. His gap in Mr. Swearingen’s district alone was 14,000 votes.

“If we’re in the low 40s there, that means that we have blocked Trump’s path to pulling in the votes that he’d need to cancel out other areas of the state,” said Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

The Assembly race has engendered hurt feelings and worsened political divisions in Minocqua, a town of about 4,000 full-time residents. Down the street from the Minocqua Brewing Company, Tracy Lin Grigus, a Trump supporter who owns the Shade Tree bookstore, shook her head at Mr. Bangstad’s attempts to shame local businesses.

“On his Facebook, he’s calling all of us up here idiots, like a mini Joe Biden,’’ said Ms. Grigus, who doesn’t wear a mask in her store and doesn’t ask her customers to do so. “It’s insulting to people that share the space with him and other business owners. He’s like the only one in this town and surrounding towns that went this far.”

Across Oneida Street, the main drag through Minocqua’s small downtown, Casie Oldenhoff, an assistant manager at the Monkey Business T-shirt shop, where signs instruct customers to wear a mask, said Mr. Trump was to blame for the current wave of the pandemic.

Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

“He’s just not taking care of us,” Ms. Oldenhoff said. “He doesn’t care about what’s going on with the pandemic.”

Mr. Swearingen said he had little doubt that Mr. Trump would do just as well in the Northwoods on Tuesday as he did in 2016. Enthusiasm for the president is higher, he said, as evidenced by the regular boat and car parades adorned with Trump flags and carrying young men concerned foremost about a Biden administration taking away their guns.

But he said he had never been involved in a campaign as ugly as his own this year.

“We’ve been targeted by my opponent as a den of Covid and all sorts of rumors in Facebook,’’ he said. “I’ve never quite had to fight against Facebook in an election. He went after a couple of other bars in the area, and one of the bar owners was livid that that bar was on the list. It’s like, ‘Well, who are these people? It’s the mask police or something.’”

For Mr. Bangstad, shaming Mr. Swearingen and other Republicans who have fought against public health guidelines is exactly the point.

“If you’re a citizen in this state, and there’s one branch of government that’s trying to keep people healthy from Covid, and you have the legislative branch and the judicial branch trying to stymie him every single time he does it, it’s the saddest thing you’ve ever seen,” he said. “As a Wisconsinite, I’m just completely ashamed.”

Andy Mills and Luke Vander Ploeg contributed reporting.

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