PROFILE

‘Nerds in love’

Politics makes strange relationships

BRUCE WALLACE March 22 1993
PROFILE

‘Nerds in love’

Politics makes strange relationships

BRUCE WALLACE March 22 1993

‘Nerds in love’

PROFILE

Politics makes strange relationships

BRUCE WALLACE

In public, she calls him Mr. Wilson. In private, she writes that he is “part of my soul,” and that she is “obsessed by wanting to hold your hand, stroke your forehead and kiss you.” He is Gordon Wilson, a scrappy 44-year-old former teacher who is fighting to save his job as B.C. Liberal leader even as he goes through an admittedly “messy” divorce from his wife, Elizabeth. She is Judi Tyabji, a 28-year-old separated mother of three, formerly Wilson’s handpicked house leader—and now the woman he plans to marry. Together they are at the centre of one of the most bizarre political soap operas in Canadian memory. Their love, they say, sprang from an attraction between two politically compatible minds. And although they fell for each other last fall, they claim that they have yet to consummate their relationship. “We’re wierdos,” Tyabji acknowledges. “We are just two nerds in love.”

That love has exacted a high political price. Publicity over the relationship forced Wilson to resign as Opposition leader last month and call a leadership race in which he may—or may not—be a candidate. Last week, the couple embarked on a Toronto media tour—which included a visit to Maclean ’s—to explain their personal and political partnership. They call their crusade a “civilized revolution and say that they are out to prove that Canadians are interested in what politicians have to say about issues, not in their sometimes-turbulent private lives. “The real question,” declared a defiant Wilson, “is whether Canada is ready for love in politics.”

With Wilson and Tyabji, the political and the personal are inextricably intertwined. While in Toronto, a new storm broke over the publication of a love letter that Tyabji sent to Wilson on Oct. 11,1992, just two days before Wilson’s controversial decision to appoint Tyabji to the coveted post of house leader. When asked about the letter^— which he said he did not receive until November—Wilson initially denied knowing anything about it; hours later, he produced the original from his jacket pocket. Its existence cast a shadow over the couple’s repeated claims last fall that they were not romantically linked.

But to the couple, the letter’s release was just another sign of the political and personal

forces conspiring against them. Wilson’s leadership is under attack, they say, because he has balked at leading the Liberals into an alliance with Social Credit, British Columbia’s other opposition party. Such a coalition, they contend, is being promoted by monied interests in Vancouver who have made it clear that Wilson is too much of a maverick to spearhead the required united opposition against Premier

Michael Harcourt’s NDP government. And they insist that stories about their love affair have been spread by their enemies to smear and discredit them. Those enemies, they allege, include Wilson’s estranged wife—he said that she may have photocopied and leaked Tyabji’s letter—and relatives of Tyabji’s estranged husband, Kim Sandana, who she claims have Socred connections.

But even Wilson acknowledges that he and his companion have handled their affair poorly. “This letter proves that we did not have a sexual relationship,” he said while relaxing in a Toronto bar after a day in which they fended off questions about the love letter. “But I admit that there may be a perception that we lied.” Wilson told Maclean’s that he should never have revealed his feelings for Tyabji to his rebellious Liberal colleagues, who simply used the information in their campaign against him. “Gordon will be the first to admit that he has some things still to learn about leadership,” said Toronto lawyer Howard Levitt, a federal Liberal who squired the couple through their appointments last week. That was certainly the opinion of some of Wilson’s B.C. Liberal colleagues after the latest revelations. “He should simply resign and get out of politics,” declared Liberal housing critic Art Co wie.

But Wilson and Tyabji say that B.C. voters, not the Liberal caucus, will decide their futures. And they add that supportive calls to radio call-in shows have encouraged them to fight on. As a result, the couple decided this month to let their love out of the closet: they announced plans to marry as soon as their divorces are final. “It has been frustrating not to be able to be together in public,” Tyabji said.

On a recent Saturday night, they used that freedom for the first time to go dancing at a downtown Vancouver nightclub. “Judi was afraid that we would go out and people would ask, ‘Is that your daughter?’ ” Wilson recalled. “And she was worried that a serious guy like me wouldn’t be able to dance.” But when the disc jockey announced a twist contest, Wilson declared happily, “This is a dance I can do.” The couple won the contest. But even in that setting, they could not escape their celebrity. When Wilson went to claim the prize, a bottle of champagne, § “the disc jockey looked at me I and went, ‘Holy Jesus, you’re g Gord Wilson.’ ”

Tyabji appears sanguine g about the extraordinarily “■ public nature of their relationship, although she expresses regret over any humiliation it has caused her estranged husband. She also says that she no longer starts her days by listening to radio news. The media, she argues, are out of touch with the public. “I’m waiting for the press to realize that people want a happy ending to this,” said Tyabji. But politics does not always allow for fairy tale conclusions.