by Dylan C. Robertson, Centennial Journalism
Liang Chen has had a long career, but was a first-time politician. Though she wasn’t elected, she’s taken a lot from her provincial election run.
The Progressive Conservative candidate for Scarborough-Agincourt lost to Liberal Soo Wong Thursday. Wong, a longtime school trustee, replaces incumbent Gerry Phillips, the area’s Liberal MPP since 1987.
“In the beginning I heard people criticize me, that I don’t have any experience and I have so many young people in my campaign,” Chen said in an interview last week. “I think they really underestimated the creativity that we have.”
Long familiar with education, Chen earned a bachelor of arts in English language and literature from Soochow University in Taiwan. She went on to complete a master of science in education at the University of Pennsylvania. Chen taught at a school for gifted children in Buffalo, N.Y., before moving to Toronto to complete an MBA from U of T.
Chen worked in accounting before teaching the discipline at Humber College for seven years. In 2005, she switched to UTSC. She then completed a doctorate of philosophy from OISE, focusing on higher education and internationalization. Since then, she’s devised courses, reviewed faculty, restructured whole programs, written a textbook and trained some of the university’s top students.
Last September, she was appointed as associate dean in charge of making the Scarborough campus more attractive to students and increasing international ties. A year after the promotion, she took a leave of absence to run for office. Many of her students helped the campaign through planning, office work and publicity.
It was through a student-led fundraising concert that Chen raised enough money to lease her campaign office. She said she pursued provincial politics because education is a provincial jurisdiction.
Scarborough-Agincourt has a high level of immigration, especially from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Chen, a Taipei native, became a Canadian citizen in the late ’90s, and often talked about the contributions immigrants make to Canadian society.
In May’s federal election, the Conservative party descended on the long-standing Liberal fortress of Toronto by targeting immigrant communities in the GTA. Though the federal Conservatives failed to shift the riding to the right, the provincial PCs hoped for better odds.
Locally, Chen focused on her riding’s precarious public transit.
“We don’t actually have a transit system, just two lines,” said Chen, who favours a subway extension on the Sheppard line. She thinks it’s an issue that’s often rushed.
“We need people with long-term vision instead of just wanting short-term gains,” she said. Chen had similar thoughts about the Liberal proposal to give a $10,000 tax credit to employers who hire highly skilled immigrants.
“There’s a large group of qualified people who don’t match that criteria,” she said. “Why help some and not other people?
“The issue is employing people, rather than just buying power (by attracting votes).”
Chen often thinks in numbers. She advocated for small business owners and focused her platform on how to fix Ontario’s economy. It’s one of many throwbacks to her experience in finance.
She says it was as a board member for the Certified General Accountants Association of Ontario that she learned how to affect change in her community.
“You don’t get angry,” Chen said. “You make things happen.”
Chen celebrated her campaign with family, friends and supporters at Sogo Bar near Kennedy Rd. & Sheppard Ave E. About 30 core campaigners sipped their drinks while staring at TV screens as CP24 apologized for a delay in poll figures.
“We worked as much as we could,” Chen said. “Now we’ll just wait and see.” Listen to the interview here.
The group cheered as the first round of polls put Chen ahead by 20 per cent. But subsequent polls put her chances lower and lower.
The number of visitors at the pub swelled to one hundred. Guests enjoyed dim sum finger food and socialized, still watching the television for poll results, but not reacting to them.
In the end, Woo beat Liang 14,903 to 10,216 votes with a 15 per cent lead.
“Win or lose, that’s not the primary focus,” Chen said. “The experience is more important. It was precious to have a strong team behind me. We were passionate about campaigning.”
Chen’s husband, Louis Lawrence, thanked campaigners and spoke about his wife’s experience.
“She stepped out of her comfort zone and comfortable, happy career,” he said. “A lot of people said she must be crazy; it’s a thankless task.
“But we feel we contributed to the democratic process. And who knows, we might be back to fight another battle.”
Chen is a new brand of provincial politician. Since Ontario approved fixed election dates in 2004, leaders with successful careers have been able to plan a campaign years ahead, instead of hoping the writ drops at an opportune moment.
Chen, who is in her 40s but keeps her exact age to herself, took a six-month sabbatical to run as a candidate. In a few weeks, she’ll return to her role as associate dean. She’s dipped her feet in politics. Will she run again?
“We’ll see,” she replied. “I’m taking things one day at a time.”