‘You can always come back’: Years after mayoral flame-out, Adam Giambrone keeps one eye on Toronto

As the decade comes to a close, the Star looks back at some of the period’s most captivating stories and reveals what’s been happening in the mean time.

Adam Giambrone burst into Canadian and Toronto politics like few others have managed to do. He was, at 24, the youngest person to head the executive of a federal party, when he became chair of the New Democratic Party in 2001. By 26, he was a Toronto city councillor and in short order the chair of the Toronto Transit Commission.

A multilingual archeology grad with boyish looks, he made headlines for many good reasons. And then, in the winter of 2010 and just a heartbeat deep into a campaign to become Toronto mayor, the headlines turned when it was revealed that he had had an affair with a 19-year-old University of Toronto student.

A morally quaint tryst compared to some of today’s spectacular debacles, cancellations and flame-outs, Giambrone gracefully withdrew from the race.

That may be a last memory of Giambrone for some, but he did not disappear from public service. Far from it. He steered the TTC in various positions for a time, and in 2013 unsuccessfully made a bid for a provincial NDP seat in a byelection.

Adam Giambrone steered the TTC in various positions for a time.

Unless you are a certified urban affairs and transit nerd, this is likely where the Giambrone trail goes cold.

At 9 a.m. Toronto time on a November morning, Toronto boy Adam Giambrone — he grew up near Bloor Street West and Dovercourt Road — picks up his office telephone some eight hours ahead, in Riyadh, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Giambrone, now 42, is general manager at Saudi Arabia Public Transit Company, which operates buses, limousines, a subway and trains.

“So,” he begins, and then sets out to fill in details of his professional life for the past half dozen years. But he steers clear of details of his family life, other than to say he is married (to Sarah McQuarrie, as detailed in a 2011 Star story) and has a daughter. They are in Toronto, and that’s as much as he wishes to share.

In this photo from February 1, 2010, Adam Giambrone and Sarah McQuarrie are seen at the Revival Nightclub on College Street.

Giambrone puts himself out there on Facebook and Twitter, posting pictures of himself at various spots around the globe but never ones of his family.

Giambrone has been based in Riyadh for nearly a year. The urban transit world Giambrone is part of — thanks to his start in Toronto — is a small one and when he was approached about the gig in Saudi Arabia, he was working for New York City on a new transit line there.

Fluent in Arabic, Giambrone, who was director of streetcar transit in the Big Apple, jumped at the chance to work in the Kingdom.

With a degree in archeology and African studies from McGill University, Giambrone knew the region well, having gone on digs in Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya, but mainly in Sudan. But he’d never experienced Saudi Arabia, which had until only recently been very closed to visitors, aside from business travellers and those on pilgrimages to Mecca.

“The region is generally familiar to me. And so the opportunity was amazing because what they’re doing here is incredible, like in this city. It has the largest metro construction as a single project in the history of the planet,” says Giambrone. “So right now, we are under construction on 86 stations over 180 kilometres of metro, and rolling out a new 1,200-bus network here and smaller projects are happening in the Kingdom’s other cities.”

(Somewhere, sitting in offices of transit power in Toronto, are a few people who might be thinking, it must be good to be a king.)

After leaving public life in Toronto, Giambrone worked on transit projects in Montreal and Milwaukee. The New York gig followed, beginning in the spring of 2016.

With a job now so many time zones away, his usual weekend retreats back to Toronto became a thing of the past. But he is home every five to six weeks, enduring the jet lag that comes with 13-hour Dubai-Toronto flights. It takes him about four days to reset his body clock.

His colleagues from other foreign countries face similar challenges, particularly being away from home for long stretches.

“It’s the most multicultural workforce I’ve ever been in,” he says. There are Jordanians, Lebanese and Malaysians, but very few North Americans or Europeans.

“You’re sitting around a table, and you’ll have seven or eight different nationalities. And people have come mid-career. They come with very different ways of working. It’s been interesting from (a) multicultural perspective.

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“Their families have stayed wherever they are. So in that sense, I’m not alone,” he says, adding that, “‘We’re mostly a male workforce because of the dynamics here.”

Of the 6,000 Saudi transit workers in his company, fewer than 10 are female, says Giambrone. But things are changing, he says, and notes that it would not have been too long ago that the TTC was extremely tilted toward male employees.

Politics and the transit file in Canada and Toronto are only a tap away for Giambrone, who streams CBC news and current affairs programs, morning and night, and wades into topics on Twitter, including the recent federal election.

And there has been Twitter love, with some calling on him to come back to Toronto to deal with the city’s often infuriating transportation woes and “help clean this mess up.” To which, Giambrone replied: “I have my hands full here in Saudi.”

He was recently in Calgary for the Canadian Urban Transit Association’s Annual Conference, where he gave a presentation on the Saudi projects and ran into colleagues from the TTC and Metrolinx.

He’s also in regular contact with people back here, including former Toronto mayor David Miller and others in political and urban transit circles. If all this hints at a comeback to Canadian politics, it’s not in Giambrone’s current plans.

He’s content for now to serve the public the way he has been since last being a politician, but relishes the experience he gained from holding a political office.

“I think it’s very helpful for senior bureaucrats to have some of that experience from the other side because that’s what you’re preparing materials for,” he says. “That decision-making mindset is important.

“And I think it really helps because sometimes bureaucrats who have grown up in the system, they came out of school, they won’t have had that perspective.”

Other benefits of not being a politician: “I don’t have to attend dinners I don’t want to attend.” And, not being yelled at, though that did happen in New York. But it was “because I was sent out to do some of those public meetings, but you know, it’s a lot less personal. Like I felt in New York, they weren’t yelling at me.”

Giambrone has no timeline for how long he will be working abroad, but says he will be coming home at some point.

Nearing the end of a the conversation from Riyadh, where the sky has darkened, Giambrone pauses when asked a tired but true question that sometimes unearths something fresh: “What advice would the older Adam give the younger Adam, the politician, with the public life?”

“I’d say pick up the experience, which I did. Don’t be afraid to just set off there into that professional career. Because you can always come back. I always say you can always try to come back. There’s an election every couple years if you decide,” he says.

“I have no desire, but maybe what makes me feel that way is I know that in the future if that were ever to change — I can’t see changing anytime soon — but if I suppose if it did, there’s always an election on the horizon.”

With that, Giambrone’s work day is done.

His method of getting to the gym for a post-work workout is an Uber, proving there is much work to be done right where he is, “because, there’s no bus routes that run that way, and literally no sidewalks.”

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