Vito Sgro who announced his candidacy for Mayor of Hamilton last Wednesday, still remembers the day in 1979 when as a 14 year-old he took a bus from Stoney Creek to the John Munro campaign headquarters to volunteer as a campaign worker. “When I met John Munro then,” Vito recalls, “he was like a god—he had a presence—he was loved in Hamilton East.” Although Munro won his seat, it was the year Joe Clark eked out a minority win over Pierre Trudeau. In the 1980 election Vito switched to his home riding of Lincoln and worked on the successful campaign of parachute candidate Bryce Mackasey as Trudeau was returned to power with a majority. The 1984 election was the Mulroney sweep. In the 1988 election, Munro attempted a political comeback in Lincoln and lost by only 300 votes. “I learned a lesson then,” said Vito, “ never take a voter for granted—John spent too much time campaigning in Beamsville where the voters hated him, and not enough time in Stoney Creek where he was better known.” By this time Vito was enrolled at Western University where he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in finance and economics and a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology. He then enrolled in the Chartered Accountant program earning his C.A. designation. He did stints with local accounting firms and was an auditor for Revenue Canada before becoming a partner in the CBM accounting firm.
The move from campaign foot-soldier to organizer came in 1993 when Tony Valeri wrested the Liberal nomination for Lincoln from Munro. Vito was the Chief Financial Officer for the Valeri campaign as well as sign captain. “That was still the best campaign I’ve ever been involved with,” says Vito. “People were dedicated and organized. We took on Munro and then recaptured the seat.”
Outside of elections Vito rounded out his resume as a volunteer, serving on the boards of the Sons of Italy, Hamilton Port Authority, HECFI and most recently Infrastructure Ontario
Despite his nearly 25 years as a Liberal partisan, Vito says he has friends in PC and NDP ranks. “Especially in the past, you never really hated your opponent. It used to be much friendlier.”
The issue that propelled Vito into municipal politics was LRT, A year ago he met with a provincial minister to try to understand why LRT was being pushed ahead of an expanded bus system and he didn’t like what he heard. Essentially he was told that LRT was favoured because the province could amortize the cost over 30 years and thus keep the deficit lower. If money was provided for buses and other infrastructure it would have to be expensed in a single year. “So because of an accounting trick, rather than what was best for the community we were getting LRT. That got me thinking.”
Vito favours the Rapid Ready scheme—an expansion of the bus system into all parts of the city, including suburbs, coupled with GO expansion and the funding for conventional infrastructure promised by the new Ford Government. “I want to make sure with transit that the public is aware of all the facts. Once they are aware of all the facts and I have had a chance to explain why I think my position is the right one—if they still decide to go another way I am fine with that…but they’ve not been told all the facts. LRT is not a done deal, its nowhere near a done deal…a lot of the money that has been spent is for staff costs from 12 years ago… it sounds like somebody has just been putting in costs to make it look like a huge amount has already been spent.”
There are other issues besides LRT on Vito Sgro’s agenda. One is poverty—specifically housing. From his experience on the Infrastructure Ontario Board Vito sees an opportunity to ramp up affordable housing. “There is no reason why we can’t build thousands of units. We’ve got to bring in outside groups. It can be not for profits or development community. With Infrastructure Ontario there are programs that help with that. I don’t understand why the city hasn’t taken advantage of these.”
With regard to the Stelco lands, “ I find it unfortunate that the city wasn’t consulted on the sale of the Stelco lands…My fear is that Bedrock who is not a long-term owner is just going to package the land as a jewel to sell off and who knows what the new owner is going to do.”
He would also like to reopen the Niagara to GTA Corridor issue, shelved by the Wynne government. “There are 700 acres of industrial land near the airport. We’ve got to get together with Niagara to discuss an international trade corridor. There is federal money available to help with this. With a little tweaking of the 403 there’s no reason this corridor has to go through Flamborough.” Drawing on his accounting background Vito would like to see a fully independent auditor general function in Hamilton with powers to look at program efficiency as well as spending.
How does a lifelong Liberal get along with a new conservative government at Queen’s Park? Vito says he is comfortable with the sole PC representative in Hamilton. “I know Donna Skelly, and there is no doubt she has Hamilton’s best interest at heart. If I am lucky enough to be mayor there will be one position whose sole job is to spend two or three days a week at the ministries, searching for whatever programs we can take advantage of.”
While hardly a household name, Vito Sgro is well known in Hamilton business, professional and political circles. He also has strong ties with a number of ethnic communities besides his own Italian community. He has been busy for the past six months holding dozens of exploratory meetings with potential supporters. He has been approaching a potential campaign methodically. “I’m working towards a well-organized campaign. There is still time to do this properly. There were people who wanted me to go May 2nd,” he said. “That would have been a mistake. There were too many unknowns with the provincial election. The people who would be helping me were all busy with the provincial election.” Although he is aware that Hamilton civic politics can be dangerous he says this is the time to make a move. “It would really bother me to lose out on something that is a once in a five lifetimes opportunity (provincial $1 Billion funding). We have a chance to get good transit and take a big bite out of our infrastructure deficit. I can’t just let that go. This is probably the best chance for me ever in my life.”
Editor’s note: Vito Sgro is part of an investment group that provided initial funding for this publication.