Citizen Peter Kelly walks into Izzy’s Bagel on the Bedford Highway with the practiced friendliness of a professional politician. He says hello to each patron and chats with the lady behind the counter while ordering green tea. When you spent 32 years in politics, it’s hard to shake the habit.
But Kelly’s trying. After ending his term as Halifax mayor in 2012, he took a year-long vow of public silence. The man who was seemingly everywhere was suddenly nowhere.
But his silence has ended. And Citizen Kelly has a lot to say. In a wide-ranging interview with Halifax Magazine, he offered insights into what comes next and set the record straight on his time in office.
Kelly retired on an eight-election winning streak and has not lost a vote since 1983. Will he contest a spot in the provincial legislature or federal parliament? “There is never a day that goes by that people don’t say you should get back into it,” he says. “If I feel that I can bring benefit, I may look at it, but right now that’s not high on the agenda.”
For now he’s settling into an elder statesmen role. He seems more relaxed, or at least a Peter Kelly version of relaxed. His eyes still have that dark intensity and he can still speak at length without answering your question.
He runs a low-profile consulting business guiding landowners through the development process, blending his insider’s knowledge of politics with his MBA. He goes to public meetings and helps his former constituents when they ask.
He’s dead against changes to the Otter Lake landfill. The promises HRM considered in January are promises he made. “I’m watching that one very closely. That was a sacred promise,” he says.
Kelly offers vague praise for Mike Savage, his successor, which is not surprising for a man who rarely used negative campaigning. He says the smaller council seems to be working well (noting he always supported a smaller council) and celebrates the plethora of development in the city, from Dartmouth Crossing to the convention centre. “Those cranes came from our councils,” he says.
Insiders say he’s writing a tell-all memoire. He admits he’s been approached by a publisher. “Right now I feel I’m too young to do a book,” the 57-year-old says. “Life’s not complete.”
But it’s clear he’s thought a lot about how to balance it. Will it detail his personal struggles, or just be about work? He’s undecided.
As mayor, he put in 80-hour weeks and was often spotted picking up litter (including at least one bullet) in his spare time. When constituents called his home on weekends or evenings, he answered. Quiet evenings with family evaporated. “It has taken its toll. I love to work and I put everything into it,” he admits.
His marriage collapsed and other relationships suffered. One of the main goals of the year’s sabbatical was to rebuild his private life. Instead of speeding through life at 200 miles an hour, he slowed to a pace that allows observation and adjustment.
Few people are as well-positioned to understand Kelly as Gloria McCluskey. Like him, she won her first political seat in 1985 (as a Dartmouth alderman), rose to become mayor (Dartmouth) and served with him on HRM council. She’s one of the hardest-working politicians in the province.
She describes a man who could never work hard enough. She would accost him: “Your Worship, take some time off.” But he didn’t. On long days, she took him food. “I was concerned he wasn’t eating,” she recalls. “He ran non-stop.”
McCluskey saw him participate in three Pride parades in a day, help light the Christmas tree and clean the tables after public events. “He was one of a kind and people really like him,” she says. “[But] he was overextending himself all the time.”
When told he’s slowed down from 200 miles an hour, she jokes, “He’s probably down to 100.”
McCluskey has a chilling reminder for those who throw themselves into work at the expense of their family. “Put your arm in a bucket of water. When you haul it out, you’ll see how much you’ll be missed,” she says. “People like you and you work hard for them, but you can be replaced and in a couple of years people will probably forget that you were there.”
But your family will notice that hole in the water.
Kelly admits he made the mayorship an all-encompassing job. “I’ve probably had more family time in the last year than the last five years. That gives you a better appreciation of the importance of family. Sometimes lessons are learned too late in life.”
That family life includes a new son. A couple of years ago he learned he had an adult son living out west. The man reached out to him and has travelled east, while Kelly has gone west. He won’t elaborate much on that paritcular bombshell. “He’s a great guy and he has a great family. It’s an evolving relationship,” Kelly says.
That, plus his other two children and three grandchildren, have kept him busy.
He’s enjoying the fruits of his labour. Asked about his proudest achievements, he starts with Remembrance Day. No, not the Occupy Nova Scotia eviction on November 11, 2011. As a politician, he led the charge of veterans to keep the stores closed on November 11. He also marks his role in relocating the East Coast Forensic Hospital from Bedford to Burnside in 1999, opening Harbour Solutions in 2008 and delivering the landmark Africville apology in 2010.
Kelly has regrets, too. He starts with the concert scandal that dogged his final years. He says he wished he had had a better grasp of how the deals worked (critics would say he knew exactly how the shady deals worked) and “more definition” of how such deals were supposed to happen.
And then there’s the Mary Thibeault estate. Kelly’s placid demeanor stirs and he cuts off the question. “Again, when you’re focused on the job, the personal things will often get under the table. Certainly the timeliness is one that I could have done better,” he says.
The Coast accused Kelly of improperly transferring money from Thibeault’s account to his. He sticks to the line he’s long toed: it’s a legal matter and he has never been accused of wrong-doing by the police or any other agency. “The process is complete. The courts signed off on it and it is done with,” he says. “I’m sure if there was [wrong-doing], then it would not be complete. The issue is a matter of law.”
Kelly warns new politicians. “It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s not for those who like their personal space. You become very public. Your actions are watched and your commentary is analyzed,” he says, “and that should be the way. Anything you say or do in the public forum … in which you serve, it is there for the public.”
It’s a price worth paying, Kelly argues. “I think anybody who has the desire to improve the quality of life and the collective community should strive to serve.”
He just hasn’t decided how his future service will unfold.