Better Ballots Mayoral Debate 6 + 2

June 2, 2010

Attending my first mayoral debate last night, thrown by the folks at Better Ballots at the University of Toronto’s Hart House, it’s difficult to properly assess the proceedings. There’s no baseline to measure it against as the scientists say. Are they all like this because if that’s the case, debates are a lot of fun. More people should make a point of attending them. It was infinitely more entertaining than, I don’t know, Iron Man 2, although in reading that sentence I realize it could be taken as less than complimentary toward political debates.

I do know that this one was different than previous debates so far as it introduced some of the other 22 candidates who have registered to run for the office of mayor. Two, Rocco Achampong and Keith Cole, had won an online poll to join the 6 main contenders up on the stage while the other 20 were given the opportunity to give a 1 minute speech throughout the course of the evening. (We’ll go into more detail about how the “other” candidates fared in our Friday ‘Meet A Mayoral Candidate’ post, only to say now that Mssrs. Achampong and Cole acquitted themselves very, very well on stage last night.)

Held in the very proper Debates Room, the atmosphere was both stuffy and almost carnivalesque. Stuffy, owing mostly to the lack of A/C in the place. It was warm, close. To the point where I was half expecting a wet-pitted Huey Long to appear on the podium, exhorting a radical redistribution of wealth.

Yet, at least metaphorically speaking, the event felt light and airy. Finally allowed access to a wider audience, many of the previously overlooked mayoral candidates who were present took the opportunity to mingle with the crowd, some handing out their campaign literature, others promenading down the middle aisle of the room, holding up handmade campaign posters. Candidates on parade! Place your vote for mayor here!

Doing their level best to dampen the upbeat mood, however, was the Red Menace. A group of youthful red t-shirted Rocco Rossi supporters, hogging up chairs by the row full, wrestling the loose vibe in the room to the ground, harshing the mellow. As the jostling swirled around me, I realized they were in a pitched battle with equally young but perhaps even more doe-eyed, undercover George Smitherman (only one of them sported their team’s purple shirts which he quickly removed) backers. I fought the urge to ask one of these youngsters why on earth they were wasting their formative years working for such soulless candidates but fortunately resisted, not wanting to ruin the evening with fearful thoughts of our future well-being.

As for the debate itself, it was a tightly run operation based around the 14 electoral reform proposals that Better Ballots have been working on, ranging from extending the municipal vote to permanent residents and online voting to term limits and campaign finance rules. If I can offer up two bits of constructive criticism, it would be as follows:

  • One, since Better Ballots had held 4 town hall meetings throughout the city in April for interested members of the public to discuss and vote on, I might’ve used the numbers to eliminate the issues that least caught peoples’ attention, i.e. municipal parties, at-large councils, even possibly term limits. That way, there would’ve been more time to discuss the remaining issues in more detail and not allowed any of the candidates to simply agree or disagree without giving the reasons why.
  • Two, again to afford more time to delve further into details, I would nix the 6-10 minute open portion after each of the candidates were given their 1-1½ minutes to speak on a specific issue. It only opened the door to pre-packaged digs between candidates and empty, rhetorical posturing that often had little to do with the issue at hand.

That said, for much of the evening all the candidates seemed to be in the spirit of things, offering up thoughtful opinions on electoral reform. Except maybe Rob Ford who came across as completely uncomfortable and out of his element. To be fair, he was the main target of shots from the other candidates and the Hart House crowd was not his crowd and the room grew increasingly hot so he was sweating a lot but I still half expected him to break out into a Chris Farley “I live in a van down by the river!” routine. Ultimately, if I were voting for the candidate who I thought would make the best Walmart manager, Ford would be my candidate.

Sarah Thomson struck me as a high school valedictorian. Whenever she kept pointing out that she’d built a multi-million dollar business, I wanted to stand up and scream, “But government isn’t a business, Ms. Thomson!!” Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti drifted in and out of lucidity, constantly badgering Ford, dismissing his incessant call to reduce the number of councillors to 22 as nothing more than empowering the unelected bureaucracy and calling for (I think) publicly funded elections. George Smitherman was smooth, said pretty well next to nothing (a voting reform package sent to a council committee) and struck me as extremely unlikable.

I must admit that, despite the presence of his Redshirts, Rocco Rossi caught my attention with his thoughtfulness and passion. So much so that whenever he talked I found myself thinking, if we only could get him off this whole selling of public assets nonsense… Then came his final statement where he tried to convince the audience that the real reason for voter disaffection is due to the choices the current mayor has made, and then proceeding to dismiss plastic recycling and public toilets as unimportant. Clearly the man had no read on who he was talking to on this particular evening and his ideas of civic engagement are wildly antithetical to mine.

Leaving us with Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone. Neither here nor there, pretty well lost in the shuffle, he didn’t seem out of place so much as content to go along, surf the various tides as they swell up in order to be one of the last candidates standing come October. He seems non-ideological and cordial enough to work well with a fractious council. But I just wish he’d stand up (no pun intended) and be more forceful about why he thinks government matters, why he would be a good mayor and that after 29 years in office, the city he’s represented is not doing too badly despite what the gaggle of naysayers on the stage around him are saying.

It is still just June yet. Lots of time remaining for policies, platforms and personalities to coalesce. Onward and forward to future debates!

dutifully submitted by Cityslikr