By Jamie Bradburn, originally published October 27, 2010
One of the dirtiest on record
Elections have a habit of bringing out the worst in people. Political rhetoric and rivalries reach levels of intensity that cause candidates and/or their supporters to resort to any means possible to influence the results at the ballot box. One of the nastiest races in Toronto history was the battle for the riding of St. Andrew during the 1955 provincial election. District returning officer Murray Caplan summed up the tricks employed during the campaign when he told the Toronto Star that “I’ve never seen it so low.”
In one corner of the ring was J.B. Salsberg, the lone remaining member of the Labour-Progressive Party (the label the Communist Party ran candidates under after it was banned in the early 1940s) at Queen’s Park. The likeable Salsberg had represented St. Andrew since 1943 and was highly regarded among the riding’s Jewish working-class constituents for his dedication to fighting for labour causes and for the rights of the socially and economically disadvantaged. Salsberg had successfully fought off a number of noteworthy challengers over the years, including future mayor Nathan Phillips, but by 1955 cracks were beginning to show in his armour. Despite growing doubts in his mind, Salsberg publicly continued to support the Soviet Union even as reports of purges, including those against Jews, filtered out of the country. A growing number of Jewish community leaders felt Salsberg was an embarrassing throwback that made others link faith with Communism. As Peter Oliver noted his book Unlikely Tory, “so long as Salsberg represented the community as the member for St. Andrew, Jews were double losers: they were being exploited on behalf of a totalitarian and anti-Semitic ideology; and they were disliked and distrusted by many Canadians for their support of the Communist cause.” What was needed was a candidate who lacked such a taint and who could provide a face that represented the growing middle-class among Toronto’s Jews.
Enter Allan Grossman, the sitting alderman for Ward 4. To Grossman, taking on Salsberg was a sacred battle between good and evil. Beyond a belief that Communism was a system that ruthlessly disregarded human life, Grossman was well aware of the party’s campaigning techniques: when he first ran for alderman in 1951, he had problems keeping his signs in store windows.
You’d put your card in a store window, for example, and a few days later you’d find it had been removed. If you knew the merchant well enough, he’d confide in you that he’d been visited by a communist worker who’d tell him that if he didn’t take that card out of the window, none of their people would ever shop in that place again. They had enough of a following to carry through with that threat.
Grossman’s deep dislike of Communists was also fuelled by stories about living under Stalinist regimes that he heard from the increasing number of immigrants from Eastern European countries who lived in his ward. Though he ran as a Progressive Conservative, Grossman played down the party label. He quietly received support from federal and provincial Liberals who hoped he would oust Salsberg (the Liberal party ran a token candidate).
As the campaign wore on, mud flew freely as Grossman and Salsberg accused each other of a long list of dirty tricks. Grossman’s family was besieged with threatening phone calls from Salsberg supporters, which resulted in a policeman living with them for the duration of the campaign. Enumerators supplied by Salsberg offered to save time by typing up voter lists, free of charge, in their own homes. Grossman was accused in the Communist press of consorting with anti-Semitic groups, which led Grossman to mention Salsberg’s glowing eulogy for Joseph Stalin at Queen’s Park in 1953 in his campaign literature. Salsberg felt too many election officials in the riding belonged to the ruling Tories, so he called for an “Honest Election Committee” to be drawn from representatives of the major religious faiths and employees of the city’s daily newspapers.
Just as nominations were about to close, a last-minute independent candidate entered the race: Elizabeth Sarah Langfield, who ran on an anti-liquor platform. Most of her charges were aimed at Grossman’s interest in the 300 Tavern on College Street, even though he had sold that interest months earlier. When both newspapers and Grossman’s camp dug into Langfield’s background, they surmised she was a Communist “stooge” candidate who had entered the race solely to split the vote in Salsberg’s favour. All evidence pointed to her having been a campaign worker for Salsberg during the previous election under the name “Sarah Langfield” (when asked why she decided to use “Elizabeth” as her first name for her own run, she claimed “Sarah is old-fashioned”).
On the eve of the June 9 election, mysterious letters surfaced which were intended to inform voters that Grossman had pulled out of the race. In response, Caplan commissioned ads which declared otherwise. This raised the ire of the other candidates in the riding, especially the CCF’s Boris Mather, who felt that rather than singling out Grossman, all eligible candidates should have been listed. That Caplan was also a Tory riding official alongside his official electoral duties did not go uncommented upon.
The polls had barely opened on election day when Salsberg nearly came to blows with Tory riding association vice-president George Shear after the incumbent noticed that the cars hired to deliver forty special constables to oversee polling stations bore Grossman posters. Salsberg ripped one off Shear’s car and yelled “I demand an honest election, a fair election.” Caplan countered that since the Election Act didn’t have provisions for transporting the constables, they had every right to be in such vehicles. Around 9:45 a.m., two policemen noticed that the fuel tank on Salsberg’s car was open and soon discovered sugar scattered around the fuel pipe. Salsberg, thinking he was receiving a parking ticket, went over, took one look and declared ‘those dirty Tories. What they won’t do next.'” Caplan was reported to have replied “That’s a really dirty trick.”
By early afternoon three trucks were sent around the riding to tell constituents that no candidates had withdrawn after several voters complained that they had received phone calls from men with British accents advising them that Grossman had dropped out. Caplan also received an anonymous phone call which indicated someone would attempt to intercept the ballot boxes before they made it to his office on Spadina Avenue if the vote was close. Caplan contacted the police subversive squad and secured a fleet of uniformed and plainclothes officers to escort the boxes that evening.
The bitter race ended with Grossman defeating Salsberg 5,060 votes to 4,380. Langfield’s impact was negligible, as her 150 votes placed her well behind the CCF and Liberal candidates. Grossman would represent the riding (which became St. Andrew-St. Patrick in 1967) until 1975, when he was succeeded by his son Larry.
In the midst of the anti-Communist material thrown against him, Salsberg was experiencing doubts about his continued belief in the political theory. Disillusioned after a visit to the Soviet Union the following year, during which he witnessed a high degree of anti-Semitism, he left the LPP, Communism and politics. Despite many overtures from the three mainstream parties to persuade him to run under their banner, Salsberg dedicated himself to social activism rather than party politics until his death in 1998.
Additional material from Unlikely Tory by Peter Oliver (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1985), the June 6, 1955 and June 7, 1955 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the June 9, 1955 and June 10, 1955 editions of the Toronto Star.