Meet the 81-year-old politician who’s proving that it’s never too late for a comeback

By Steve Paikin - Published on September 25, 2018
Morley Rosenberg
A former mayor of Kitchener, Morley Rosenberg now wants to be a Toronto city councillor.

More than 50 years ago, Morley Rosenberg had a hankering to get into politics, but he couldn’t seem to find his stride.

In the 1965 federal election, he ran for the NDP in Waterloo North but came third. Two years later, he tried his hand at provincial politics in the same riding, but again he came up short. In 1968, Rosenberg tried again at the federal level, but the result was the same.

Rather than assume that three strikes meant he was out, Rosenberg refused to quit. He finally found his niche in municipal politics, successfully contesting a seat on Kitchener city council not long after his second federal loss.

In 1977, he became the mayor of Kitchener and a well-known maverick in the region’s political scene.

Now, following a 36-year absence from electoral politics, Rosenberg is trying to get back into it. But before we tell that story, let’s revisit a time when Rosenberg’s name caused a good deal of distress for the Progressive Conservative government of the early 1980s.

Although Rosenberg had run several times as a New Democrat, local PC officials in Kitchener-Waterloo convinced him to switch parties and contest the riding of Kitchener for the Tories in the 1981 provincial election. 

It was a tall order. The riding had been represented by the Liberals’ Jim Breithaupt since 1967. But Premier Bill Davis was popular, and the PCs seemed poised to regain a majority government, something they’d lost in 1975.

So Rosenberg ran for the Tories in that 1981 election. But, depending whom you talk to, it seems that Rosenberg gave the party one condition: that if he lost, Davis would appoint him to the bench so he’d have a soft landing.

The election went well for the PCs. The chorus to Davis’s campaign song was “Come on, people, let's keep the promise; Bill Davis can do it; let's keep the promise; help Premier Davis.” But while Davis did get his majority back, Rosenberg lost to Breithaupt in the March 19 election by more than 4,500 votes.

March gave way to April and then to June — and then to autumn, winter, and another spring. But Rosenberg’s judicial appointment hadn’t come through. So in June 1982, he wrote Davis a letter asking the premier to “help keep the promise” he’d made to Rosenberg a year earlier and give him the judgeship. Eventually, Davis appointed Rosenberg to the Ontario Municipal Board instead. 

Somehow, though, Rosenberg’s letter became public, and the ensuing headlines caused massive headaches for the Davis government and gave the opposition ample ammunition with which to attack the premier for having made an ill-advised patronage promise.

A man who would later become premier blasted the government during question period for its weak record on job creation: “The economy of this province has deteriorated,” said Liberal leader David Peterson in September 1982. “At this point, we see absolutely no evidence of any job-creation programs — with the exception of Morley Rosenberg.” 

The attorney general of the day, Roy McMurtry, insisted that there had been no promise of patronage made to Rosenberg.

“The letter that was written was obviously, to put it mildly, a very foolish letter,” McMurtry told the house. “I want to assure the honourable member that at no time was there any communication, either by letter or verbally, between the premier and myself with respect to the appointment of Mr. Rosenberg to the provincial court bench. That just happens to be a fact. There just has been no communication whatsoever.”

It might technically have been true that Davis and McMurtry had had no communication with Rosenberg. But Rosenberg alleged in his letter that the president of the local riding association and one of Davis’s key advisers, Eddie Goodman, had confirmed the existence of the deal.

The foofaraw became even more embarrassing when, a couple of days after that question-period exchange, Rosenberg claimed that the patronage promise described in his letter hadn’t been made after all and that he was merely frustrated at having been unable to win his election. This added an additional layer of confusion to the whole episode.

Rosenberg would spend two decades at the OMB and eventually enjoy a lower profile. Now, at 81 years old, he apparently still has the fire necessary to contribute to public life. He’s lived in Toronto for the past 30 years and is running for the vacant seat in Beaches–East York, Ward 19 of the city’s newly slimmed-down council.

I’d love to tell you why Rosenberg is putting himself out there yet again, more than 50 years after he first put his name on a ballot.

Alas, numerous efforts to secure even a brief conversation with Rosenberg were rejected by his daughter, who’s serving as his press secretary.

Given how topsy-turvy municipal politics in Toronto has been lately, it’s hard to know what Rosenberg’s chances of winning actually are. Matthew Kellway, a former NDP MP for Beaches–East York, is also one of the 16 candidates contesting Ward 19, and his name is certainly better known.

But it’s noteworthy that even at age 81, Rosenberg — three and a half decades removed from being in the papers for all the wrong reasons — still feels he has a contribution to make to politics in Ontario’s capital city.

Correction: There are 16 candidates running in Beaches–East York, not 11. regrets the error.