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How Hamilton city council produced a rare political friendship

Different parties and different views on issues haven’t stopped Terry Cooke and Dave Christopherson from being BFFs, writes friend and journalist Steve Paikin.

Four decades ago, they were two newbies on Hamilton city council and couldn’t have been more unalike.

Terry Cooke was a 25-year-old red-Tory university graduate who tended to see the world through management eyes. Dave Christopherson was six years older, a high-school dropout, and a labour leader who favoured the New Democratic Party.

“So, naturally, we’d form a friendship and partnership that would last for 40 years!” Christopherson said.

Christopherson made the comments at the Art Gallery of Hamilton last week at a farewell event for Cooke, who was leaving the presidency of the Hamilton Community Foundation after 15 years. In fact, Christopherson travelled from New Brunswick, where he now lives, just to welcome his pal to a new club.

“Terry, the motion passed,” Christopherson joked. “You’ll be inducted into the Canadian Association of Washed-Up Former-Has-Been Wannabes. Your baseball cap is in the mail.”

Yes, these two know and love each other enough to roast each other in public.

David Christopherson, Terry Cooke and Mayor Andrea Horwath at Cooke's retirement party. PHOTO: Steve Paikin

Cooke and Christopherson remember their first conversation outside city-council chambers. “I don’t think either of us was too impressed with the other,” Christopherson recalls.

Despite their ideological differences, both men discovered they loved their home city and had a burning desire to make it the best it could be. Christopherson’s respect for Cooke went up immeasurably when he saw Cooke champion an affordable-housing project in Cooke’s own ward. He watched his friend hanged in effigy. “I watched Terry stand firm,” Christopherson added. “He said we needed housing for everybody, and if we have to share a little bit, so be it. At that moment, I didn’t just have a new political partnership. I had a lifelong friendship with a man of incredible integrity.”

Cooke followed up on his time at council by becoming regional chair of Hamilton-Wentworth, again at a precociously young age: 34. He championed the Progressive Conservative government’s attempt nearly a quarter of a century ago to amalgamate Hamilton and its suburbs into a “super city,” akin to what Toronto had experienced with its own “megacity.”

At the time, many people took note of Cooke’s experience, political skills, and smarts and thought he had the chops to go all the way to the premier’s office, if he’d wanted to. When I asked him about that last week, he said it simply wasn’t on his agenda.

“I never had the burning desire to do it,” Cooke said. “I didn’t love the retail politics. I only ever aspired to be Hamilton regional chair. I liked the policy, the influence, and having impact without all the headaches.”

As I watched Cooke and Christopherson laud each other and then hug, I wondered whether such a relationship could be possible in today’s politics. I asked Cooke’s wife, Maureen Wilson, a current member of Hamilton city council, who didn’t pause a millisecond before answering. 

Steve Paikin, Terry Cooke and David Christopherson. PHOTO: Donna Waxman

“No,” she said. “Politics is too nasty today. And they don’t make them like Terry Cooke and David Christopherson anymore. We are all poorer for it.”                                                                                          

“Dave,” Cooke began in his farewell speech, “you are my oldest and closest political friend. Who’d have thought a red Tory and a New Democrat could have honour among thieves and do good things together. I think we provide a good example of civility and decency in politics.”

Cooke spoke for nearly 20 minutes at his farewell bash, without a single note, and had the room in the palm of his hand. He reminded everyone why he was once considered a bright rising star in politics. Today, as he ponders his next mission in life, he leaves the business of politics to his city-councillor wife and revels in the achievements of his two daughters and one son. He loves his life with the fervour of someone who, only a year and a half ago, survived a sextuple-bypass heart operation.

As I watched the two friends continue to reminisce over dinner after the official ceremonies were done, I tried to think of other Tory-NDP friendships that were this close. Former Ontario premier Bill Davis and then-NDP leader Stephen Lewis come to mind. But that was half a century ago. I couldn’t think of any others, which may indicate I’m out of touch — or, even worse, that there simply aren’t any.

What a shame.

Published with permission of Steve Paikin and TVO. Paikin is the host of TVO's flagship current affairs program, The Agenda with Steve Paikin. He co-hosts the weekly provincial affairs #onpoli podcast and contributes columns to Paikin was born and raised in Hamilton.