Gomberg Trying to Make it a Real Race

Bill Taylor, Toronto Star – Monday, Oct. 9, 2000.

Driving home ecology message in mayoral bid

The quickest way to tick off the Tooker-Gomberg-for-Mayor people is to call their man a fringe candidate.

They’re on the phone to complain before the newsprint has dried on their fingertips.

Gomberg is less excitable about it, content to point out that you could regard Mel Lastman, with his $2,500-a-plate fundraisers, as being on a different kind of fringe.

“No one’s ever going to pay $2,500 to come to one of my events,” he says. “It’s just two extremes. Really, what constitutes a fringe candidate?” Gomberg managed to turn the Adams Mine garbage debate into a photo opportunity yesterday when he planted a large, black compost bin on Lastman’s front yard in North York.

Gomberg and about half a dozen supporters spread black soil created from the composting process, to show the benefits.

Gomberg has used the garbage controversy to boost his campaign.

“We’re at a crossroads. We could move into the 21st century and treat our garbage as a resource and create employment and protect the environment rather than ship it up north . . . and damage the environment,” he said.

Lastman, who says he doesn’t own a composter because his backyard has no grass, shrugged off the incident, saying stunts like that were “part of the job.”

City council votes tomorrow on sending the city’s garbage to the controversial Adams Mine site in Kirkland Lake.

The former Edmonton city councillor turned worm wrangler – Gomberg works part-time on the red wiggler composting project in the basement of Metro Hall – has just ridden a trifle breathlessly across Nathan Phillips Square on his battered bicycle, a hand-painted “Gomberg for Mayor” banner flapping gamely behind him.

With a cardboard cutout of Lastman looking down from a window above the entrance to City Hall, Gomberg sits on the base of Henry Moore’s sculpture The Archer, drinking coffee and eating a yellow Danish pastry. There aren’t enough hours in his day for a more structured lunch.

“We’ve put out 80,000 leaflets so far and we’re doing another 50,000,” he says. “There’s a real hunger, a real interest in what we’re doing.”

But does this newcomer to Toronto – Gomberg last campaigned in Montreal, an unsuccessful New Democratic Party candidate in the 1997 federal election – have a real chance of becoming mayor?

“Absolutely. I don’t know if it’s 1 in 1,000 or 1 in 10. But no one thought Jesse `The Body’ Ventura had a chance of being governor of Minnesota. No one ever dreamed that Nelson Mandela would be president of South Africa.”

He pauses and smiles.

“I’m not betting my life savings on it.”

Gomberg recently turned 45. He served as a councillor in Edmonton from 1992 to 1995. After his unsuccessful run for office in Montreal, he moved to Toronto with his wife, Angela Bischoff, to work for Greenpeace.

For anyone wondering where the name “Tooker” came from, he explains, “it was my made up by my mother when I was an infant and it stuck.”

“My name was Richard Daniel Gomberg. When I first ran in Edmonton in 1989, I didn’t want to appear on the ballot simply as that when everyone knew me as Tooker. So for $50, I added it to my official name.”

He’s twice so far spent $400 of his mayoral campaign budget on renting a streetcar, decorated with black balloons, to trundle around the city for three hours with a couple of dozen supporters and whoever else wanted to grab a free ride for a few blocks in exchange for listening to the “Go-Go-Gomberg” line.

“People got on not knowing what they were getting into. Mostly they were very receptive. People want politicians who are talking to them face-to-face about the issues.”

He told his captive audience on the first trip: “If we can use this election campaign as an opportunity to have some fun, raise the issues and not go into debt, we can’t lose.”

But if he actually won, is Gomberg up to being a fully functioning mayor of the city, rather than just an environmental gadfly? His answer is oblique.

“Let’s be frank. The mayor could go on vacation for three years and the city should run perfectly well. The mayor and council set the direction, but the administration runs the city.”

“The whole council could go on vacation for their whole term and water would still arrive in your tap, the streetcars would run, the air would be just as toxic.”

Asked what Lastman has going for him, Gomberg concedes the mayor is “brilliant with the media, he’s enthusiastic, he clearly loves the city.”

Does Gomberg, who lives in the College-Dufferin area, love the city?

“Absolutely. It took me a while to really appreciate it. Riding a bicycle is the best way to discover the sweet spots, the nooks and crannies.”

His own strongest asset, he says, is the enthusiasm of his volunteers.

“We’ve been getting 50 or 60 people a week walking through the door and saying, `I want to help.’ I’m blown away. A few weeks ago, the conventional wisdom was that this would be a coronation rather than an election.”

“We had 10,000 hits on our Web page within 10 days of setting it up. We’re kind of below the radar screens of some people but we have a lot of people taking this campaign seriously.”

“I’m not as well-known as Mr. Lastman. Few of us are. But it’s important to stand up for what you believe is right and to do it, if you can, with some colour, some humour.”

What does he see himself doing Nov. 14, the day after after the election? Gomberg chuckles and looks more elfin than ever.

“I don’t have a crystal ball.”

With files from Hamida Ghafour