There are few things as damaging to the political ego as losing a cabinet post.
One day, you’re seated at the table in one of the most exclusive clubs in the country, helping make decisions that will affect the lives of millions. You work 14-hour days filled with meetings with interesting people, fascinating issues, and just plain fun events. And the job has the potential to make you feel special. You walk out the front door of the legislature, and people say, “Good afternoon, minister,” as you step into your chauffeur-driven sedan. Not bad.
Try enjoying that experience almost every day of your life, for years. Or decades. Then, the next day, it's all gone.
Suddenly, you’re not the "player” you once were. Your political career, which had always run along an upward trajectory, now begins its inexorable decline. Frankly, the blow to the ego can hurt like hell.
Three of Premier Kathleen Wynne’s former cabinet ministers have spent the past half a year trying to come to terms with this reality: Jim Bradley, Ted McMeekin, and Mario Sergio. Unlike in previous cabinet shuffles, none of them was technically dropped from cabinet by the premier — they all stepped down voluntarily. But the writing was on the wall: Wynne wanted an executive council that better reflected the population — one that was younger and included more women. So they all resigned from cabinet before they could be pushed out.
“Premier Wynne and I had a good conversation,” Bradley recalls. “I looked at the need. A lot of people want the opportunity I’ve had. I suppose I could have made a huge fuss, but I knew what she was looking for.” And so ended a career in cabinet that saw Bradley make stops as minister of the environment (twice), community safety and correctional services, municipal affairs and housing, transportation, and tourism, and as government house leader.
Bradley was such a class act, he showed up for the new ministers' swearing-in ceremony, and Wynne made a point of coming over to him and thanking him for being prepared to step aside for someone else.
Is there life after cabinet? Indeed there is. Not that all three wouldn’t still rather be ministers. But they are discovering how to remain useful, while no longer having the word “Honourable” before their names.
“I started a radical riding-reconnection tour,” says McMeekin, whose next birthday will be his 70th. “I head out at eight in the morning, three days a week, and have met 400 to 500 people [so far]. Happily, most everyone is excited to see me.”
It’s still a punishing schedule for the former minister of municipal affairs and housing, who twice beat back prostate cancer despite his demanding cabinet obligations. But not being in cabinet has also allowed him “to come home and focus more on the riding.” Quarterly meetings with student groups from his riding’s post-secondary institutions (McMaster and Redeemer universities, and Mohawk College), which he could rarely get to as a minister, are now locked into his schedule.
“And even though I’m not in cabinet, I still get introduced as "the always honourable Ted McMeekin,” he laughs. “A lot of people really care about me.”
Though not in cabinet, Bradley remains one of the legislature’s most extraordinary members ever. Earlier this month, he moved into third place on the all-time list of longest-tenured MPPs: as of today, he’s served 39 years, 235 days. He has won an astonishing 11 straight elections, representing the good people of St. Catharines, and has served in the cabinets of David Peterson and Dalton McGuinty, as well as in Wynne's.
“You do miss cabinet to a certain extent,” he acknowledges. “But you do have more time for constituency work and for reading things that aren’t directly related to the job.”
Bradley is now chief government whip, “which is onerous when the house is in session, but not when it isn’t.”
Funnily enough, both McMeekin and Bradley can still walk down the hallways at Queen’s Park and have people call them “minister.”
“I don’t correct them,” Bradley jokes, adding he hasn’t felt any particular loss of self-esteem with the loss of his title.
“I always took the job seriously,” he says. “But I never took myself that seriously.”
(The Canadian custom is that federal cabinet ministers keep the word “Honourable” in front of their names for life; ex-provincial ministers can’t.)
For Mario Sergio, the wait to get to the cabinet table was a long one. First elected in 1995, the York West MPP served nearly two decades before making it to Wynne’s executive council in 2013, at age 72. But last June, when the premier asked Sergio whether he intended to run for re-election in 2018, he demurred.
“Well then, I’ll have to make some changes,” he recalls the premier telling him during a private meeting in her office.
“Well, you’re the premier,” Sergio replied.
“We’re going to miss you Mario,” she added. Sergio, who backed Wynne in the 2013 leadership contest, announced his resignation from cabinet soon after. The premier never explicitly told him to, but he got the message.
Sergio takes satisfaction from the fact that his one-time area of responsibility — seniors’ affairs — is now a stand-alone ministry rather than an add-on to another. He thinks that gives Ontario seniors a more important place at the table. And like his other two colleagues, he now logs more hours at his constituency office, where the issues his constituents face are among the toughest in the province.
One of Toronto's "neighbourhood improvement areas" — communities that need attention because they've been chronically underserved — is in Sergio’s riding. And parts of the nearby Humber River Hospital closed recently, while the new full-service hospital is eight kilometres away.
“I’ve had 15 to 20 meetings with community organizations to let everyone know the province won’t abandon them,” Sergio says — meetings he might not have had time for had he still been in cabinet.
Now 76 years old, and with his wife Rose recovering from a year-long illness due to Guillain-Barre syndrome, Sergio could be forgiven if he were to consider quitting politics altogether. He assures me he’s not.
“I don’t want to leave mid-term and create a by-election,” he says. “Besides, wherever I go, in barber shops or coffee shops, people say, ‘Don’t you dare step down!’”
One fear ex-ministers no doubt share is a loss of access to the government’s top decision-makers. That hasn’t been a problem for McMeekin, who is now Wynne’s parliamentary assistant.
“We have a weekly one-hour meeting,” McMeekin says. “She’s asked me to take on the job of reviewing our rural poverty agenda” — which suits the MPP just fine, since he was a social worker before getting into politics.
Might McMeekin run again, knowing even if the Liberals do win, he almost certainly won’t be back in cabinet?
“The good Lord made the world round so we don’t look too far down the road,” is how the folksy former mayor of Flamborough, near Hamilton, puts it. “But not a day goes by when my wife doesn’t point out that we could visit our place in Arizona a lot more if I weren’t in politics anymore.”
For his part, there is one thing Bradley does worry about. He was well known by all three premiers he has served under as the cabinet’s most vociferous contrarian.
“They all thought that was a useful voice to have in cabinet — someone not always in sync with the premier or the rest of cabinet,” Bradley says. “I know I have been an irritant over the years, called the ‘Perpetual Prophet of Doom and Gloom.’ And now, I think that specific voice is missing.”
Bradley’s political views have always related to “what the folks at the Golden Pheasant Tavern (in St. Catharines) would think. They don’t necessarily watch The Agenda, but their views should never be discounted.”
He says the premier has told him to continue to speak up for those folks with his fellow Liberal MPPs, “even though I know there are days when they’d like to throw tomatoes at me.”
And will he run in 2018, seeking his 12th straight win?
“I’ll decide in 2018,” he says. “The fire’s gotta still be in the belly. It’s still there today.”
One thing that might motivate Bradley: entrenching his place in provincial history even more deeply. In March 2018, he’ll pass Farquhar Oliver as the second-longest-serving MPP in Ontario history. But he’d have to win the next election and serve another year to pass former premier Harry Nixon to make it to the very top of the list.
Something to consider for the soon-to-be 72-year-old dean of the Ontario Legislature.
Photo courtesy of the Ontario Liberal Caucus and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version)
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