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Analysis: Mayor’s marriage woes illustrate delicate balance between public and private

According to a famous maxim, politics makes strange bedfellows.
Toronto mayor Rob Ford, a man familiar with having his private life made public, poses with Mayor Gregor Robertson at a photo-op a few years ago.

According to a famous maxim, politics makes strange bedfellows. But what happens when the story is about a politician and his ex-bedfellow?

As confirmed by the Office of the Mayor on July 5, Mayor Gregor Robertson and wife Amy Robertson have separated. They say the split was mutual and amicable. The “Bicycling Doula” is the mother of his three children and was his closest ally and confidante during his rise from organic farmer and juice tycoon to NDP MLA and Vancouver mayor.

Amy Robertson has, arguably, the highest-profile of a Vancouver mayor’s wife since Art Phillips was mayor from 1973 to 1977 and his wife Carole Taylor was a broadcast journalist. Amy Robertson chairs the society that runs Vancouver Farmers Markets and was a director with the Take a Hike Youth At Risk Foundation. She was a key part of the green, down-to-earth image that Vision Vancouver successfully sold voters in 2008 and 2011.

Now that the split is public knowledge, we are left to wonder whether the marriage breakdown was job-related and to speculate about how it may impact the performance of the mayor’s duties. Will it harm his chances to win a third term in November’s civic election?

All relevant points to ponder, as one media expert says it is unclear what the public interest angle of the story is yet.

Sean Holman, assistant professor of journalism at Mount Royal University in Calgary, told the Courier that reporters must be aware of a politician’s influential, personal connections and to “question them when it’s appropriate” before deciding what, if anything, to publish.  

“It’s too easy to say, ‘Well we don’t want to go down the pathway of the U.K., we don’t want to go down the pathway of the U.S.,’” Holman said. “But we also have to ask what not going down that pathway costs us, because there is a cost and the cost is that some things that should be reported on, may end up unreported.”

It can be a delicate balance. Public life often means less privacy and politics can be hazardous to marriages. But some political marriages are stronger than others.

Who can forget President Bill Clinton’s 1998 “I did not have sexual relations with that woman... Miss Lewinsky” denial? He later revealed the truth about the tryst with the intern, finished his presidency and remains married to Hillary Clinton, who is gearing up for a run at the White House in 2016.

Eliot Spitzer was New York’s governor for just over a year, until 2008 when he was caught in a prostitution scandal. Last January, wife Silda and Spitzer finally filed for divorce. John Edwards, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 2004, admitted in 2010 that he fathered a child with his mistress. He was cleared of charges that he used campaign donations to cover up his affair.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and wife Margaret separated in 1977, three months after she famously spent a night partying with the Rolling Stones.

Gordon Wilson took the BC Liberals from anonymity to opposition status in the 1991 B.C. election, but was out as leader in 1993 after an affair with fellow caucus member Judi Tyabji.

North America’s best-known mayor is Toronto’s Rob Ford. His wife Renata is often called “rarely seen” by the Toronto media. One of the several videos leaked of Ford’s misbehaviour includes him mentioning a divorce. He was a city councillor in 2008 when he was charged with assault and making threats against her. The charges were dropped.

Holman noted that it ultimately took an American website, Gawker, to push the Toronto Star into publishing allegations in 2013 that turned out to be true about Ford’s drug problems.

“That does, I think, say something,” Holman said.

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