OTTAWA - It takes a bit of naked ambition to run for office, most politicians would tell you.
It also apparently takes a few naked voters, too, judging from the tales they tell of adventures at the doorstep.
Naked homeowners, people dressed only in their underwear, strange or angry pets — just another day on the job when political people decide to go meet the voters where they live.
Tony Clement has been knocking on doors for decades, from his provincial political days in the 1990s, to his current job as federal Treasury Board president and MP for Parry Sound-Muskoka.
He knew the lore of the naked voter and the inevitability of meeting one at the doorstep. Some seasoned male campaigners had even told him it wasn’t so bad if the bare-it-all voter happened to be an attractive woman.
“And what do I get?” Clement asked, shaking his head at the memory. “A 300-pound, naked man.”
Carolyn Bennett, the MP for St. Paul’s, also a family physician, has seen so many naked voters now that she has a ready response: “Don’t worry I’m a doctor — I’ve seen lots of naked people before.”
Eleanor McMahon, currently campaigning in the Ontario election as the Liberal candidate in Burlington, has not run into any naked voters yet, but she did years ago, when she was working as a young volunteer with former cabinet minister David Collenette in Don Valley East. She knocked on a door, it swung open and man, fully unclothed, stood there. “I turned 50 shades of red,” McMahon said. “Then I went and hid in a stairwell while Mr. Collenette spoke to the naked man.”
NDP MP Peter Stoffer was going door to door at a trailer park in his Nova Scotia riding, only to be greeted by a rough-looking fellow, with long, grey, matted hair, wearing a ragged purple sweater — and nothing else.
Stoffer decided he’d only get through this encounter if he fixed his gaze in an upward direction: “I looked into his eyes, gave him my pamphlets, said ‘Thank you sir, I hope you have a nice day.’ ”
Fellow NDP MP Malcolm Allen also found that same strategy useful in Welland when a homeowner, dressed only in jockey shorts, answered the door and wanted to talk about health policy. Allen, uncomfortably obliged. “We had a quick discussion and I moved on.”
Sometimes the politicians are welcomed eagerly into a voter’s home, only to find that someone else was expected.
“Come on in!” a friendly voice hollered when NDP MP Megan Leslie knocked on a door in her Halifax riding. Leslie poked her head in, and found the woman sitting on a toilet.
Leslie still gets embarrassed, thinking about it. “I said: ‘You know what? It’s not that important. I’ll come back another time.’ And I closed the door behind me.”
Dimitri Soudas, former communications director for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, had not done any door-to-door campaigning for more than a decade, until he decided to get involved in MP Eve Adams’ run for the Conservative nomination in Oakville North-Burlington. (That involvement cost Soudas his position as executive director of the Conservative party, but he says he has no regrets.)
Not too long ago, he and Adams were knocking on a door and just about to walk away because it seemed no one was home. Suddenly, a man clad only in underwear answered the door and unabashedly explained he’d been sitting on the toilet, “pooing,” and was unable to immediately answer the door.
Bennett says she’s often marvelled at the couples who will answer the door and blushingly explain that they were in bed, in the midst of making love. “Why do they even answer the door?” she asked.
Jennifer Hollett, a former journalist and now a highly active campaigner for the New Democrats in Toronto, says she’s now accustomed to encounters with voters in various states of undress. She was, however, somewhat surprised last fall when an apartment dweller in Toronto Centre, wearing a silk robe, greeted her warmly, with music playing in the background when she rapped on his door.
The warmth immediately dissolved, though, when Hollett started talking about the byelection. After being shooed away and moving down the corridor, Hollett looked back and suddenly realized who was intended to get that warm greeting — a professional escort, entering the apartment of the silk-robed gentleman.
Professional rendezvous aside, there is evidently something romantic about a stranger knocking unexpectedly at the door, at least for some people.
Olivia Chow is now campaigning to be mayor of Toronto, after years of on-the-ground canvas work in municipal and federal politics, often at the side of her late husband and former NDP leader Jack Layton.
“In really tall apartment buildings, I often end up canvassing with women,” she said. “Always, someone would proposition them or ask them on a date. It got to be so regular we’d make a game out of it — betting on how long it would take. Some nights there would be an offer for a date on the first floor where we knocked on doors.”
Family pets are always a worry — the cats who might slip out the door or the ferocious, territorial dogs who don’t like strangers. Guelph MP Frank Valeriote was terrified when a shouting man and his large, snapping dog chased him off the property during the 2008 byelection.
Clement, meanwhile, had an animal encounter of a whole other kind recently during his door-knocking rounds. He was talking about federal issues earnestly to a woman who answered the door, when out of the corner of his eye, he saw what he believed to be a large, hairy dog approaching.
“I always like to compliment people on their pets,” he said. But when he turned to look, it wasn’t a dog at all. “An adult male boar, tusks and all, staring at me!”
Wide-eyed, speechless, he looked back at the woman who had answered the door. “Oh, that’s not mine,” she said. “I’m looking after the place for my sister.”
Clement was still speechless. “As if that explained everything!”
It’s not just big animals politicians need to worry about either. During his first campaign to win a seat in the Ontario Legislature, in 1995, now Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was greeted by a tiny chihuahua, which promptly peed on him. In the campaign log for the day, one of his workers duly noted the encounter beside the address: “dog urinated on candidate.”
In 1999, after Baird had been serving for several years in former premier Mike Harris’s government, he had a delightful conversation with a woman who told him what a good representative he was and what a bright future awaited him. Baird asked if she would take a lawn sign. “Absolutely, anything to get rid of Mike Harris!” she said.
About those lawn signs — Bennett learned that if people are enthusiastically accepting them, in the largest size possible, from any party, their motives may not be political. “They were really just after the wooden stakes for their tomato plants!” she said.
So far, on the campaign trail, McMahon has encountered a talkative Scottish woman who told her to wait while she put her false teeth in her mouth, and another voter who wouldn’t give her support until the candidate agreed to an instant handwriting analysis. But like many politicians interviewed for this story, McMahon loves the door-to-door campaigning, seeing it as a chance to know voters as more than numbers in a poll or on a strategy spreadsheet.
Besides, she says, it makes campaigning a true adventure. “You never know what you’re going to get behind that door.”