No one has to tell Sarah Climenhaga how unfair politics can be.
As an eight-year-old, she read a newspaper story about the planet’s environmental challenges. It sparked a lifelong interest in the subject, one that would eventually lead her to pursue a degree in environmental studies at McGill University and later land a job at the World Wildlife Fund.
Fully one year before municipal election day — back in October 2017, when it looked as if incumbent Toronto mayor John Tory would cruise to re-election for lack of a high-profile challenger — Climenhaga announced her candidacy for the mayoralty. She wanted to champion a more affordable Toronto, a city that could offer better quality of life for all.
Her candidacy started to attract some attention; her soundbites began to appear in the media. She raised $15,000 for her campaign despite lacking a fundraising chair. She was adamant about bringing more awareness to the issues she cared about rather than filling her campaign coffers.
On October 22, 2018, Climenhaga placed sixth in the mayor’s race, receiving 4,765 votes. Undoubtedly, she’d have done much better had one political development not transpired: Jennifer Keesmaat’s 11th-hour decision to toss her hat into the ring (she filed her papers to run for mayor just minutes before the deadline).
Stay up to date!
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.
Keesmaat and Climenhaga have similar views on a variety of issues, but the media quickly focused its attention on the better-known Keesmaat, a former chief planner of Toronto with 75,000 Twitter followers.
“She took the wind out of my sails,” Climenhaga told me last week. “Had she not got in, there would have been no progressive alternative to John Tory, and I’d have been the option.”
Climenhaga comes across as a completely sincere candidate, if perhaps a politically naive one. So it’s easy to believe her when she says, “Even though I’d put a lot of work into my campaign, I felt conflicted when Jennifer Keesmaat got into the race. I admired her. She’s got the right attitude to city-building. So I felt more sad than angry with her, especially when she got so much more media attention.”
Climenhaga also learned a difficult lesson about how hard it is to campaign when you have a young family that’s not 100 per cent behind you. Her children are 16, 13, and nine, and she’s candid enough to admit that “they didn’t love the campaign. So they didn’t come out much. And it was more draining on me to try to motivate them to come out, so they only came to a few events.”
Climenhaga recalls her 13-year-old telling her, “You shouldn’t run. You’re always on your phone.”
And it was true.
“I wasn’t present,” she admits. “And that colours their view of politics.”
Without the resources to hire a campaign manager, her husband, Paul Meier, became her de facto sounding board. The entire campaign team consisted of four people — all of whom had day jobs — plus a group of volunteers that never expanded to more than a few dozen people.
Despite all the disappointments, Climenhaga won’t say that she’s done with politics. “I admit, the last few weeks, I didn’t want to run again,” she says. “Now, I think about what I’d have done differently.”
Climenhaga has never been a member of a political party and can’t imagine joining one now, so a federal or provincial bid is not in the cards. “I’m just not interested in politics for the chase or the game,” she says. “The parties all put party before policy. I put policy first. Besides, I’m not interested in a political career. I’m interested in solving problems.”