Seated in a packed Great Hall on the 3rd floor of the St. Lawrence Hall last night awaiting the most recent mayoral debate, this one hosted by Heritage Toronto, I took in the (mercifully) air-conditioned magnificence of the room. Its salmon coloured walls… or were they pink? Hard to tell in the dim light cast by the gas-powered chandelier and wall sconces. Is that what they’re called, sconces?
Politics runs deep in this building, having hosted the likes of John A. Macdonald, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, George Brown and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Maybe tonight we’d witness a politician rising to the occasion to match the august surroundings. A breakout performance that would signal a turnaround in the so-far dreary race. One has to maintain hope in such possibilities if one doesn’t want to become totally disillusioned with the process.
After two hours, it was obvious nothing of the sort was going to happen but… but… Let me say this as we head humidly toward Labour Day, the unofficial end of summer and beginning of the campaign’s witching hour where carriages turn into pumpkins and us Prince Charmings run around in a desperate attempt to find someone who fits into the glass slipper. George Smitherman looks as if he’s getting into fighting form.
There were flashes during the debate where, for the first since he declared his intentions to run for mayor, we actually caught glimpses of humanity in George rather than a political machine. Hey, I found myself thinking a couple of times last night, the man actually likes this city he wants to lead. Maybe City Hall isn’t just a stepping stone for him on his way to a higher profile political gig. Who knows how much smoother the campaign trail might’ve been had he embraced a more conciliatory stance toward the current governance of this city from the get-go instead of joining the chorus of blind ragers looking to do nothing more than stir-up a pool of discontent with loud bellowing.
Smitherman was primed and ready for a healthy debate, having released his 5-point Heritage Plan earlier in the day. He came across as one-step ahead of everyone else on stage (football fields ahead in some cases), weaving policy talk in with personal anecdotes of living a heritage related life, not always seamlessly but more often than not effectively. His response to the question about the disparity between heritage preservation in the downtown core versus the suburbs, slyly extended an olive branch to the suburbs with his vow to empower community councils to deal with such matters. There was the odd political swipe, left and right, here and there. He also expressed a surprising antagonism to the idea of putting a Toronto museum into the old City Hall building ‘sometime in the future’ after the courts had been moved elsewhere which seemed an unnecessary shout-out to the fiscal conservatives surrounding him.
Still, to our eyes, it was Smitherman’s strongest debate performance to date and should make Team Rob Ford look down from measuring for new curtains in the Mayor’s office (paid for entirely by Rob Ford, of course) and realize that it may take more than name-calling and scandal mongering to put their candidate into office. For his part, Mr. Ford once again looked out-of-place and ill at ease addressing one of them downtown, elitist crowds. Although he did zero to help his cause like, maybe, brush up on the topic at hand a little. He seems pathologically unable to veer from his script and eventually drew derisive groans, mocking laughter and the odd heckle as he refused to answer many of the questions asked of all the debaters, and drifted off onto inane non sequiturs and pat responses.
It’s almost painful to witness over the course of 2 hours. Almost. To the point where I wonder why he participates in these particular debates at all. Then I remember this is primo campaign strategy. The laughing and jeering has nothing to do with Rob Ford being ill-informed and thick-headed and all about the smug, condescending downtowners who’ll get theirs when Rob Ford becomes mayor. So far, it’s been working for him but they may have to add to the repertoire if Smitherman continues to perform like he did last night.
As for the others?
Rocco Rossi, despite his campaign team shake up over the weekend, remains almost as single-mindedly fixated on a ‘single money for value’ issue as Ford although he’s added another neo-conservative trick to his… wherever you add a trick. A trick bag? Voter Recall which has done wonders for places like California. Rossi just seemed louder than he usually does but did pronounce his love of the city’s ravines. Loudly.
Joe Pantalone was performing in front of a supportive crowd and, as usual, had nice moments especially when he responded to a question of ‘cultural landscapes’. But he seems unable to deliver a sustained performance over the course of an entire debate, lapsing back into soft platitudes when he doesn’t appear all that interested in the topic. He’s also developed an annoying tic of punching a single point relentlessly from the morning’s strategy meeting. Last night? The Fort York bicentennial, coming up in 2012. Again and again. Yeah, we get it, Joe. Fort York = Heritage.
Once more, Sarah Thomson appeared out of her depth, saying little more than ‘let’s preserve old buildings’. How can a candidate (aside from Rob Ford) seem continually surprised and caught off-guard at a debate on Heritage by questions about, well, heritage? Last night might represent the weakest we’ve seen Ms. Thomson.
For the second time we watched Rocco Achampong take a spot alongside the front running candidates and are now convinced that it should be his last. While chalking up his underwhelming performance at June’s Better Ballots debate to a case of nerves, once again last night he displayed a knack for not delivering a succinct point in his allotted time. Ever. There’s no focus to his campaign and as a candidate, he seems torn between two instincts: a fiscal conservatism and social liberalism. They seem at war with one another and render him conflicted and ineffective. It’s time to turn over the one measly chair to another outsider candidate.
Debate moderator, former Chief City Planner of Toronto and professor of City Planning at U of T and Ryerson, Paul Bedford, closed out the debate saying that cities need to grow on purpose not by accident and implored all those in the Great Hall to go out and “make passionate love to the city”. Well, we didn’t see a lot of that on display from the candidates but it was interesting and more than a little heartening to watch George Smitherman’s iciness toward it begin to thaw, just a little. With it not even Labour Day yet, we may be seeing signs of the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
— dutifully submitted by Cityslikr