While I am of that vintage I did not grow up in Toronto during the halcyon days of the David Crombie rein. I came to the city late in his political career, as an MP in the Mulroney administration. For the past 25 years or so, it’s been one honorary position after another, in a steady trajectory toward canonization. St. David, the urban legend.
There are some dissenters or, at least, there were, back in the day, people who probably haven’t taken a crack at editing Crombie’s Wikipedia page. The Tiny Perfect Mayor was a book written by journalist Jon Caulfield in 1974, 18 months into Crombie’s first term in office, and it views the tiny mayor’s contributions to the city in less than perfect light.
The book’s subtitle, David Crombie and Toronto’s reform aldermen, points to the author’s actual intent. Crombie is only part of the equation. Caulfield really sets out to examine the rise and ultimate failure to launch of a more widespread, community based reform movement at City Hall.
To be sure, Caulfield holds Crombie partially responsible, asserting from the outset that Crombie was a reform candidate only in his own mind and that of the local media. Members of the real reform group who first were elected to City Hall in 1969, the likes of John Sewell and Karl Jaffary, never regarded David Crombie as one of them. He was young and stood outside of the old guard establishment represented by the two men he defeated in the 1972 mayoral race, Aldermen Anthony O’Donohue and David Rotenberg. But that didn’t necessarily make him reform-minded to many.
Caulfield asserts that Crombie was too beholden to the Progressive Conservative party that had long been in power at Queen’s Park to stick his neck out to much in defense of the city when the two levels of government butted heads. He was also too quiet in his dealings with the Metro Council chair and fellow PCer, Paul Godfrey who makes a villainous cameo in the book. Although a self-proclaimed seeker of consensus, Caulfield maintains that Crombie actually concentrated power in the mayor’s office, making behind closed doors deals on various development projects and announcing the results as the best the city could expect.
(In an early iteration of Matt Elliott’s Council Scorecard, Caulfield tabulates the voting records on a number of key issues during the 1973/74 time span which shows Mayor Crombie voting much more consistently with the old guard of city council than he did with the reformers.)
Rather than reform anything, David Crombie was more interested in refining things, smoothing out rough edges, ensuring in his inaugural address that ‘the haves don’t have less and the have-nots have more’. This, in Caulfield’s opinion, resulted in a mayoralty of half-measures and rearranging of the furniture. Actual reform was too divisive for David Crombie’s constitution.
If the author is dismissive of the idea of David Crombie as a reformer, he’s much more disappointed with the performance of the actual reform candidates. In the end, as we know 40 years down the line, a mayor of Toronto is only one vote at council, and back in Crombie’s time possessed even less executive powers than the mayor has now. Although the reformers were a minority bloc at council, too often they failed to act together on items they could’ve amassed enough votes to win.
Caulfield contends that the reform schism existed largely along socio-economic lines. There were the working class reformers, the Dan Heaps for example, and there were the middle-class activists, represented by the likes of Colin Vaughan who’d been part of the group that had successfully fought off the Spadina Expressway. Their interests didn’t always mesh – rooming house regulations in the Annex, for example – and a suspicion of respective motives factored into various failed attempts at community organization.
If the reformers elected in 1972 never coalesced into a regular majority at city council, Caulfield sees an even bigger failure in their inability to maintain the kind of grassroots activism that put them in power. It wasn’t all due to a lack of trying. Although some of the aldermen weren’t ever really onboard with the idea of empowering resident controlled ‘ward councils’, established activist organizations kind of melted away after their various ‘victories’. The Spadina Expressway! Reformers at City Hall! What more was there left for them to do?
Turns out, even back in 1974, there’s more to civic engagement than fighting for a single issue or getting involved during an election campaign. (Sound familiar?) The reform movement floundered, according to Caulfield, because it had no stated set of principles for a movement to rally around. “It remains unclear who they [the reformers] are, what they stand for and what sort of city Toronto would be if they had their way,” Caulfield writes in the conclusion of his book.
Is this simply the nature of progressive activism, a loose coalition of occasionally over-lapping interests that only rarely build into large scale social change or have we just failed to learn any lessons 40 years on? As Caulfield points out, fundamental change at the municipal level is an even tougher haul since cities don’t ultimately control either the legislative powers or the purse strings to enact sweeping transformation even if they wanted. They remain at the whim and mercy of other levels of government. So does that mean the goals of local activism should remain modest and kept to an ad hoc, case-by-case basis?
I’d hazard a guess Jon Caulfield would say no. Purely issues-oriented activism is easily picked off by the political opportunists, as Caulfield views the likes of David Crombie. Reform, such as that is, becomes little more than, to paraphrase the author, compromising what it wants and taking what it can get.
Obviously, it’s a situation that remains relevant today. While Toronto in no way just elected a reform-minded mayor in John Tory, he comes to office on a self-described wave many of us question. We’re told he’s progressive. He says progressive things, promotes progressive ideas but…doubt remains.
John Tory came David Crombie endorsed. That provided comfort to some. But a read through The Tiny Perfect Mayor would suggest that for those intent on reforming how Toronto goes about its business, it’s not time to put your guard down. If anything, a tougher battle lies ahead.
— reviewingly submitted by Cityslikr