When your member of Parliament goes AWOL

Our Votes Count debate
Ed Holder’s seat sits empty at a London West candidates debate on April 26, sponsored by Our Votes Count.

When London insurance broker Ed Holder decided to run under the Conservative banner my riding, London West, in 2008, I was thrilled. I happen to be a big believer in the importance of integrity in local candidates, no matter their political stripe. Elect 308 scrupulous, principled and sincere candidates to the House of Commons and the rest, I figure, will take care of itself. It’s why, three years ago, I saw Glen Pearson, a Liberal in London-North-Centre, and Irene Mathyssen, a New Democrat in London-Fanshawe, as worthy contenders in their respective ridings.

I was especially delighted about Holder’s decision to run because I’d come to know him through my role as editor at The London Free Press. As chair of the newspaper’s editorial board, I kept a slot open for a community member, who would serve for one year. At one point, Holder was one of these.

I invited him to the post largely on the strength of his community involvement and leadership. He was regularly in the news, for all the right reasons — supporting important social causes, raising money to preserve a community tradition that was about to go extinct, and giving of his time in the service of local charities. I was pleased when he accepted and grateful for his sage advice.

What I remember most about his contributions to our meetings was his incisive mind and ability to probe, with business-like detachment, whatever happened to be the issue of the day. He was a stickler for precision, fairness and transparency. He insisted that politicians, chief executives and charities face scrutiny and be held accountable. He believed strongly in the importance of benchmarks and good, defensible standards by which to measure performance.

When voting day arrived in 2008, I was more sure of my vote than I’d ever been. His victory over longtime Liberal MP Sue Barnes, for whom I’d also voted more than once, seemed timely and deserved.

During the last Parliament, I called on Holder’s office for assistance on one occasion. I was serving as chairperson of charitable organization and was perplexed by some new rules being imposed by Ottawa. Within hours, Holder called personally to set me straight on a simple misunderstanding, brought about by a vacancy in our CEO’s office. Holder’s businesslike approach to the problem was exactly what I had expected of him.

Because he’d been such an proponent of accountability and openness, I looked forward to seeing him at candidates debates in my riding in the current campaign. I have been profoundly disappointed by his absences at many of them, including the one debate held specifically in London West riding for London West voters this week. Yes, he has participated in some meetings, such as the Rogers-sponsored debate that would be televised repeatedly through the campaign (best not to avoid that one). And he has appeared at debates in local high schools, where exposure to voting constituents with hard questions is minimal. He has not responded to my question about whether his absences are the result of a personal decision or party war room diktat.

I suspect it’s the latter. If so, London West’s MP must be chafing under the order. This is entirely unlike the Ed Holder I have come to know — the one who held up accountability in public life as an imperative. Absent other explanations, I resent the fact that the long arm of a control-obsessed prime minister appears to have absconded with my member of Parliament. He is absent without leave at precisely the moment — and I think he, in his heart of hearts, would personally agree — that he ought to be living out the notions he once so strongly advocated.

UWO debate posterUpdate: According to CBC.ca, Holder has also declined to attend the all-candidates meeting this evening at the University of Western Ontario, moderated by Huron University College political science professor Paul Nesbitt-Larking and sponsored by UWO’s Faculty Association, the Graduate Teaching Assistants Union and the University Students’ Council.

Update II: Indeed, Holder was a no-show at the UWO debate.

Update III (May 2): Holder was re-elected handily on election night, by a margin of nearly 9,000 votes over his nearest challenger, the NDP’s Peter Ferguson. Congratulations to Mr. Holder. Here’s hoping he finds effective and personal ways to stay in touch with his constituents.

London City Press Club needs reinvention

Berton at press club
London Free Press editor-in-chief Paul Berton bids farewell to newspaper employees at the London City Press Club on June 5, 2010. Berton is now editor-in-chief at the Hamilton Spectator.

I can’t say I was surprised by this morning’s story in The London Free Press about the imminent closure of the London City Press Club. Saddened and a bit nostaligic, maybe, but not surprised. Come to think of it, saddened and nostalgic are a bit of a stretch, too, since I was never a member.

I should have been (a member, that is). As one who worked as a journalist in London, Ont., for more than 20 years (two of them at London Magazine and 18+ at the newspaper, the last seven as its editor), I should have been a regular at the club. Maybe even served on its board. So when I read this morning’s story, the inescapable conclusion was that I — and dozens of people like me — was at least partly to blame. More than a few times, I held a membership application in my hand; each time, I set it down.

It was always an entirely hospitable place and I enjoyed each of my visits there over the years, whether it was a special function or just a swing-by visit at the invitation of one of the club’s members. And I might have joined had my commitment to a spouse and responsibilities as a dad to four kids not made a more substantial claim on my time — especially the all-too-precious time away from the office.

The London City Press Club, with its venerable history and a committed core of ardent supporters, also laboured somewhat under the stereotypes of what press clubs were a half-century ago: the early-hour, post-deadline refuge of hard-bitten reporters and editors, who, having let the presses roll or signed off the air, wandered into the club for their nightcaps. They told each other the stories behind the stories of the next day’s front pages (tales that often grew slightly larger with each telling), complained about their bosses or the rookies under their tutelage, and waxed nostalgic about the good old days when journalism was still real journalism.

The arrival of a new generation of journalists in Canadian newsrooms in the early 1990s, many of them women and many among both genders attuned to a different set of personal priorities, began to change the internal landscape of newsroom culture. Life-career balance became an imperative for many. The shrinking size of the city’s newsrooms — newspaper, magazines, radio and television — had an impact too. And those developments were mere precursors to the much more profound effects of more distributed types of community journalism through a much wider variety of delivery platforms, most of them Internet-based.

It would be a thrill to see the London City Press Club reinvented — not as a tenant or lessee that operates an establishment, dominated by a bar, around which rattle the ghosts of journalism past, but as an organization that promotes dialogue and collaboration around important political and journalistic issues within the city and its environs. An entity that looks forward as much as it looks back. Open the doors to journalists, both full- and part-time, who contribute in some manner to the growing diversity of media voices within the city, across all platforms. Sponsor the appearance of important speakers or workshops, seminars or panel discussions on emerging journalistic themes. Hold them in meeting spaces, banquet halls or private rooms in local sponsoring hotels or restaurants. Think meetup in terms of format; think Canadian Club of London in terms of organization.

The closure of the press club’s doors at Dundas and Colborne streets doesn’t need to signal the end of its life as an organization to promote collegiality, professionalism and (dare we think it?) transparency and accountability. The club simply needs a reinvention that will give it new life as London City Press Club 2.0.

Farewell to the last of the famous Lombardos

Rosemarie Lombardo Rogers

I couldn’t help but be saddened a bit this week by news of the passing of Rosemarie Lombardo Rogers in a small town in northern Ohio. The Lombardos were arguably the most famous family to hail from London, Ont. — a city that once boasted about that connection, but has long since allowed it to fade into memory, like the vanishing tones of a vinyl LP.

Rosemarie Rogers’ death at 85 bookends the musical family that dominated American popular music for much of the middle 20th century.

Rosemarie Lombardo with brothers Guy, Victor, Lebert and Carmen.

I immediately recalled my extended visit with Mrs. Rogers on a June afternoon in 2001. I had made an appointment to interview her for a column on the Lombardo musical story and her place in it. I arrived in Whitehouse, Ohio, in mid-morning and found her home near the end of a shaded street on the town’s outskirts. We talked for a couple of hours. She made us lunch, put some jazz on the Bose disc player in the kitchen, and we continued into the mid afternoon.

The most curious part of the visit was the fact that I seemed to be able to tell her stories she’d never heard. I’d read Guy Lombardo’s autobiography, Auld Acquaintance, a year or so earlier and brought a couple of used copies of it with me. She thrilled at some of the anecdotes I read to her from the book, reliving them and, in some cases, finishing the story.

By the time I left, we were friends. I asked her to autograph the page on which her picture appeared, and she obliged, adding a few words (see the photo above). As for the second copy of the book, I left it with her; she didn’t have one. The column appeared in The London Free Press a week or so later.

Her obituary, as published in the Toledo Blade, is here. Her 20-year-old voice is preserved by recordings like this one.