‘Fun, meaningful, purposeful’: Remembering David Caplan

The former Ontario cabinet minister died last week at the age of 54. On Sunday, family and friends gathered to celebrate his legacy
By Steve Paikin - Published on Jul 29, 2019
David Caplan
David Caplan had a long career as a Liberal MPP and cabinet minister.

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Some people happily move from politics into the private sector and don’t miss a beat.

David Caplan was not one of those people.

He was born to do politics. And when he wasn’t in politics, he never stopped thinking about politics — and figuring out how to get back in to politics. He was one of those folks who just knew life could never be as professionally fulfilling or fascinating outside the arena.

That explains why, after his first stint in politics was over, David tried twice more to get back in to that arena. The first time, he lost. The second time — well, we’ll never know. He was in the midst of a comeback attempt when he died in a tragic and untimely accident about which there are still many unanswered questions.

David Richard Caplan died last Thursday at the far-too-young age of 54. He leaves behind his wife, Leigh (whom David began dating at age 17, while still in high school, where the couple studied Romeo and Juliet together), and their two children, Benjamin and Jacob. His family released a statement that David had died in a fire at home, but it provided no other details.

They buried David yesterday, after a moving service punctuated by moments of great humour, at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. It wasn’t quite a meeting of the old Liberal caucus at Queen’s Park, but it darned near was. Former premiers Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne were there. So were Charles Beer, Jim Bradley, Michael Bryant, Donna Cansfield, Mike Colle, Michael Coteau, Steven Del Duca, Bob Delaney, Han Dong, Peter Fonseca, John Fraser, Mitzie Hunter, Jeff Leal, Deb Matthews, Reza Moridi, Steve Peters, Gerry Phillips, Sandra Pupatello, Lou Rinaldi, Greg Sorbara, and Charles Sousa. Ex-MP David Collenette and current MP Rob Oliphant were there, too.

Any one of those high-profile politicians could have delivered the eulogy, but the Caplan family chose Wilson Lee, one of David’s long-time policy advisers, to remind the 1,000 or so attendees of his achievements.

“David made it fun,” Lee said. “Meaningful, purposeful. He knew it was about people and bringing the best out of everyone.”

Lee was one of several advisers in David’s cabinet offices who wasn’t a card-carrying Liberal. “Someone in the premier’s office once asked me, ‘Is anyone in his office a Liberal?’” Lee recalled, to laughs. “While he was a partisan, he believed in finding common ground.”

Lee choked back tears when he said, “David told me politics is about a good time, not a long time. For David, it should have been both.”

Elinor Caplan, David’s mother, somehow found the strength to offer her own eulogy.

“He was taken from us too early,” she said. “It will be impossible to fill the void. So we will focus on how lucky we are to have had him in our lives for almost 55 years.”

Elinor, who herself successfully navigated the choppy waters of politics, set the example for her son. She started her political career in 1978 as a city councillor in North York, one of the inner suburbs of what was then Metropolitan Toronto. In 1981, she ran for the provincial legislature but lost; four years later, she won in the riding of Oriole and soon after became a cabinet minister in David Peterson’s Liberal government. In 1997, she completed the trifecta, becoming a minister in Jean Chrétien’s federal Liberal government.

Elinor and Wilf Caplan had four children. Three of them became interested in politics, but none took to it like David, the eldest, did. After six years as a trustee on the North York Board of Education, David ran for his mother’s vacated provincial seat in a 1997 byelection. His brother Zane (best known as the proprietor of Caplansky’s Deli) was his campaign manager.

Two years later, in the general election, Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservatives won a second consecutive majority government. But it was David who emerged victorious against senior Tory cabinet minister Dave Johnson.

Four years later, McGuinty led the Liberals to power, and David was rewarded with a seat at the cabinet table as the minister responsible for infrastructure. He oversaw a $30 billion program called ReNew Ontario that was responsible for the public-private partnerships that built 30 new hospitals and so much more.

I never saw him happier in public life.

“He wanted to stop urban sprawl,” Lee said in his eulogy. “He wanted to stop paving over paradise.” That’s why David brokered the Places to Grow Act, which somehow managed to find favour among developers, environmentalists, and many other stakeholders.

“The next time you go to the Greenbelt,” Lee said, “think of David’s contribution.”

The next chapter of David’s political career was decidedly less enjoyable for him. Less than a year after McGuinty’s re-election, in 2007, Caplan got shuffled to the health ministry (the same portfolio his mother held from 1987 to 1990). Health is well-known as the career graveyard of cabinet portfolios. The average tenure of an Ontario health minister is less than two years.

David inherited controversy after controversy. The province’s attempt to digitize health records under eHealth Ontario had progressed slowly and poorly and gone dramatically over budget under George Smitherman, David’s predecessor. It was now his problem. So was another scandal, which saw eHealth’s executive director accused of cutting ethical corners in an attempt to make the progress that the premier had demanded. McGuinty intervened, fired both the chair and the executive director of eHealth, and then accepted David’s resignation in October 2009.

The consensus among Queen’s Park watchers was that the government had needed a fall guy for the health ministry’s problems — and it decided that David was that guy.

I remember having a private conversation with David after he stepped down. He could have — no, he should have — been bitter about the way he’d been treated, about having been forced to carry the can for problems not of his making.

But he was completely philosophical about things. He understood that politics sometimes requires a sacrificial lamb.

“Did the premier fire you?” I asked him.

“Absolutely not,” he insisted. “I offered my resignation and didn’t have to be asked to do so. That’s how it goes.”

David left provincial politics voluntarily, declining to run for re-election in 2011. He told me that he probably could’ve won his seat for as long as he’d wanted to contest it, but he feared that he’d never get back into cabinet, so he decided it was time to get out and try to make a go of it in the private sector. Still, even as a backbencher, he was relentless in trying to make a difference.

“By the end of 2010, he introduced almost as many bills from the backbench as the rest of the government,” Lee said.

He became vice-chair of Global Public Affairs, but he never took his eye off the political ball. He often told me that he loved reading my columns about Queen’s Park — but that didn’t mean he agreed with them. Every now and then, he would respond with a lengthy email about where he thought I’d been off base. I loved his feedback and kept some of the emails.

“Steve, I’m a fan of yours and would never imagine kicking you,” he wrote me in April 2017. “I wanted to take a few days to reflect before commenting on your article because I do think you might have a blind spot or two.” Note the tone: thoughtful, civilized, even charming. How much of that is there in politics these days?

David and I were acquaintances when he was in politics but became better friends after he was out. Yes, we shared an interest in public affairs. But we were also connected by virtue of our both having superstar mothers — his in politics and mine in the post-secondary world. In fact, our mothers worked together for the same charitable organization five decades ago.

I covered Queen’s Park when Elinor was a provincial cabinet minister in the 1980s. She always had a sharp sense of humour, which, even on the worst day of her life, she still managed to tap into. Referring to her son’s constant battles with his weight, she said in her eulogy that David just couldn’t stay away from “the endless calories that came with his passion for food.” Then she added, “We almost needed a larger casket.” That brought some much-needed comic relief to a thoroughly tragic day.

(A sense of humour clearly runs in the family: When David’s son Jacob eulogized his father, he mentioned that his dad had made him pancakes and bacon every day for breakfast. Then, after a perfect pause, Jacob added, “Sorry, Rabbi.”)

Even after he left politics, David couldn’t stay away. A year ago, he attempted what many other former Liberal MPPs had. He tried for a political comeback in municipal politics, seeking a seat on Toronto city council. But he fell short, losing to deputy mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong, who himself had lost in the 2018 provincial election, just months earlier, in David’s old seat, to current Liberal leadership hopeful Michael Coteau.

But David wasn’t done. He was in the process of contesting a federal Liberal nomination at the time of his death.

Now we’ll never know whether that second comeback attempt would have succeeded.

At the front of the synagogue sat an entire row of Special Olympians. When David’s son Ben spoke, we learned that Ben was a Special Olympian, too. He summed up his father’s political life when he quoted the Special Olympics’ motto:

“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

That was David Caplan to a T.

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