It’s hard to imagine, given the wholly frightening ride we’ve been on for nearly 4 years now, that you could pinpoint one particularly monstrous moment that so clearly and frankly epitomizes the entire era, let’s call it. But there is. This is it. Doug Ford, Mayor.
I cannot even begin to speculate on such dark family dynamics. The mayor, allegedly off cleaning up, getting his life together somewhere. His brother-councillor, occupying the seat of power, his name in a child-like scribble on a piece of paper, taped over the mayor’s. Just joshing, y’all. It was mad Giorgio’s idea. I couldn’t possibly comment on questions of running for mayor if my younger brother proves unable to work out his problems. I’m just glad he’s finally getting the help he needs.
Being no psychologist, not even of the amateur kind, little I might opine on this matter would be of any value. But I will say this. We as a city have been dragged, half willingly, half kicking and screaming, into this baroque psychodrama which has leeched into every nook and cranny of our politics. Nothing but grand bombast and unrelenting duplicity. We’ve come to expect it, demand it. Anything less is just boring.
We’re on the hostage side of a certain Stockholm Syndrome, growing empathetic with our captors. Their demands no longer seem outrageous. Everything they say sounds reasonable. We’ve been locked up with them long enough that no transgression they commit, no grievous harm they inflict, strikes us unnatural.
Hey. That’s just how city council operates, isn’t it? It’s the nature of the beast.
We can only hope the damage isn’t lasting. It was just a rough patch we’ve hit like in any sort of relationship. A few lost years given over to petty vindictiveness and destructive frivolity. It all seemed to make so much twisted sense at the time.
I’m not the first to say it but I think it bears repeating. We have been swept up into a cult, a very definite cult of personality. Look at us right now. He takes a leave of absence, voluntarily removing himself from the political stage, and all we’ve done since is chase his trail. Where’s the mayor? Is he here? Is he there? It seems our mayor is everywhere!
Take a break. It seems we need as much of a time out as he did. Let’s embrace our separation. Try and remember what it was like before all this craziness, before we became consumed by one man’s battle with his demons, his councillor-brother’s hack Machiavellian antics.
Time to de-program, folks. Accept that we made a terrible mistake and got mixed up with the wrong crowd. It happens. Like the mayor said, nobody’s perfect. Let’s just move on. There’s a bit of a mess that needs cleaning up.
I was mulling over Edward Keenan’s piece in The Grid yesterday about, well, fringe mayoral candidates, let’s call them for lack of a better heuristic when, don’t you just know it, up pops the news that former candidate Sarah Thomson is planning another run at the mayor’s office.
You know Ms. Thomson. Barely cracked double digits in the 2010 race before throwing her lightweight weight behind the eventual 2nd place finisher, George Smitherman. Then ran something of a spirited campaign for the Liberals in the 2011 provincial in the riding of Trinity-Spadina, giving the long time incumbent Rosario Marchese a bit of a scare. Sarah “Transit” Thomson who basically took her one good idea from 2010 – road tolls – and built a platform of self-promotion around it. Yeah. That Sarah Thomson.
As I write this, Thomson showed up at City Hall this morning in a horse drawn red wagon to register. Whatever. But it does provide me a nice little segue into a larger discussion about fringe candidates.
Next Wednesday CityNews will be holding the first televised mayoral debate of the 2014 campaign. All 5 “major” candidates have signed on to participate, according to the announcement. Olivia Chow. Rob Ford. David Soknacki. Karen Stintz. John Tory.
Will a 6th podium be added now for Sarah Thomson? If so, why? Because she ran previously? Because she organized events around regional transit problems? Because she owns a publication? Because all this combines to give her public standing?
On the other hand, if CityNews doesn’t extend an invitation to the debate to Ms. Thomson, why not? Why do they get to make that decision? Who determines which candidacy sits beyond the fringe and which one doesn’t?
Mr. Keenan seems to suggest that’s it’s kind of an organic process. “As with any job — in this case, the CEO of a $10 billion-a-year organization responsible for millions of peoples’ daily necessities,” Keenan writes, “the hiring criteria includes significant experience and demonstrated abilities as much as anything else.”
There’s certainly some truth to that. In Toronto, it’s been the case for pretty much forever that the only way to the mayor’s job is through city council. Mayoral hopefuls have traditionally put in time as councillors first. No outsiders need apply.
“Putting together a successful campaign is actually a pretty good proxy for many of the attributes you need to govern,” Keenan continues, “managing a staff and volunteers, inspiring people to work on your behalf, raising funds, and engaging in a public debate that convinces citizens to put their trust in you and your plan. The press will pay close attention to candidates who show they can do that on a citywide scale. And so will voters.”
Again, certainly true, but for me, really only half of the equation. “Managing a staff and volunteers…raising funds…engaging in a public debate” are essential but none of it just appears out of the blue. All that’s easier said than done. Without an established name or easy access to money to buy yourself one, outside candidates have to work doubly hard (at least) to get their name and ideas out there. I am troubled by that notion.
What I see is a slate of candidates that is presented to voters on the basis of money and influence. Prominent, backroom donors, well-worn campaign strategists, political party apparatchiks, all cajoling, tempting and eventually signing on to work for candidates they deem acceptable to run for mayor. These are your candidates, Toronto. Now, vote as you see fit.
And the media, especially media outlets that wind up hosting mayoral debates and forums, are complicit in this heavy-handed winnowing of the field. Only candidates from the given slate are invited to participate. Why? Well, because these are the ones voters want to hear from? Why is that? How does the media determine that? Look at the polling numbers, we’re told. Numbers derived from polls featuring only the non-fringe candidates’ names.
It’s a pre-determined, closed loop. An iterative process with only a handful of appointed variables, ultimately ending up with the choice from pick one of the above. None of the above is never presented as a viable alternative.
Look. The 2014 campaign is about two and a half months old. Candidates have been registered since January 2nd. Yet, only after Olivia Chow — who everybody knew was running — officially entered the race last week were we informed that the official debates would begin. I’m not alone in finding the timing a little fishy, am I? It feels like the fix is in.
Instead of hashing and rehashing the will he or won’t he/when will she narrative and pursuing the HMS Destructive tour of the current incumbent, maybe a little time could’ve been devoted to listening to some of the other candidates for mayor, suss out their fitness for the job. In early February the U of T Scarborough student union held a mayoral forum that featured the mayor, David Soknacki and 3 of the fringe candidates. The Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale covered it and, in his opinion, declared that one of the 3, Robb Johannes just might’ve won the debate.
So why hasn’t Mr. Johannes been invited to participate in the CityNews’ debate? Based on the observation of an experienced City Hall reporter giving his candidacy some legitimacy, what must he do to be given a shot at proving himself worthy of further consideration?
In 2010, we here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke ran some 30 or so Meet A Mayoral Candidate posts throughout the campaign. Admittedly, most, a high percentage of them, rightfully deserved the fringe label. Remember, anybody with $200 to spare can run for mayor. It was hard to tell why many were in the race. A lark. Mere attention seeking. Misguided sense of direction.
But a handful of them were thoughtful, interesting and dedicated to giving their time and energy to the city. Hell, we ended up endorsing one for mayor when all was said and done. Not every fringe candidate should be viewed fringe simply because they don’t yet have money, resources or influence.
Are any of these credible mayoral candidates? I don’t know. But who the fuck am I to blithely brush them off before giving them a chance to hear what they have to say, deliver their plans and ideas to a wider audience?
“You don’t need the press to legitimize your candidacy,” Keenan informs the fringers. “Only your campaign can do that.”
That sentiment seems hopelessly and impossibly pollyannish or unaware on Keenan’s part; neither adjective I’d normally attach to him. Yes, we can all look to Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi as living, breathing proof that an unknown entity can come out of seemingly nowhere to score an improbable victory. Outsider candidates should look to Nenshi to see how exactly he and his team pulled that off. But to point to that very, very rare example and conclude it’s all about a little innovative DIY, and that somehow the media’s exclusionary practices to all but the few anointed candidates doesn’t play into the fringe determination of the many, that only truly viable candidates will earn a place in the spotlight, I think ignores just how a vast majority of the voting public gets their information and processes it in determining what way their support is going to go.
Last week in The Grid, Edward Keenan laid out an extensive campaign platform, urging municipal candidates to steal it from him. Since the official start to the race on January 2nd, we here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke have been thinking similar thoughts, building a 10 point policy proposal of our own in the hopes that it might help contribute to the election conversation. Our Municipal Governance Election Manual, we’ve dubbed it and, like Mr. Keenan, we too advocate for any and all candidates to shamelessly pilfer from it, picking and choosing the elements they like and agree with, and hopefully, expanding on them, fluffing them out to reveal a beautiful and beguiling plumage.
The manual lacks the specifics of Mr. Keenan’s platform. It could be because we’re less exacting and fundamentally lazier than he is. But we’d like to think it has to do with wanting to keep it more general in order to encourage interested candidates to adopt and make them their own. Fill in the particulars. Personalize it.
Today for the first time, we’re listing our ideas all in one post to spare everybody the hassle of clicking through all the annoying links and keeping all those tabs open (although we have kept links to each of the 10 points if you want to read about them in more detail). You’re welcome, Toronto.
So, here it is, All Fired Up in the Big Smoke Municipal Governance Election Manual:
1) Residents of Toronto are more than taxpayers. We live here. We work here. We play here. We raise families here. The taxes and user fees we pay are simply the cost of doing all these things.
Living in a city, being part of the life that goes on around you, should be tabulated by more than what it costs. Referred to as merely a taxpayer ignores the grander social element of being a city-zen. As Charles Montgomery writes in Happy City, “The city is ultimately a shared project…a place where we can fashion a common good that we simply cannot build alone.”
2) A city is only as good as its public realm. The post-war flight from the public good to private interest has undercut a sense of shared experience in city life. Detached, single family homes, dispersed on big lots, the automobile, shopping malls all represent an elevation of the individual good, a buffer against a collective enterprise.
Take the car (please!) for example.
Huge swaths of public space is designed, built and maintained exclusively for the movement of single individuals driving in their cars. Suggest a more equitable arrangement for other ways to get around, and somehow it’s declared a war. Find somewhere else to go. This is ours.
Again, Charles Montgomery in Happy City: “Rome rose as its wealth was poured into the common good of aqueducts and roads [not just for chariots – me.], then declined as it was hoarded in private villas and palaces.”
3) Ease of mobility. Human Transit’s Jarrett Walker’s gave a transit talk a couple months back called Abundant Access: Public Transit As An Instrument of Freedom.
Disproportionately favouring one mode of how we move around this city puts people who don’t need to, want to or can’t afford to use that mode as their primary source of transportation at a disadvantage. Especially if that mode is the least efficient way of moving the most amount of people around the city. It carves out public space in favour of private use.
The only rational, civic-minded approach a municipal candidate can take in terms of transportation policy is a pledge to re-arrange the priorities that have been in place for decades and decades and decades now. It’s been said many times by many people but the goal should be about moving people not cars. Candidates need to be saying it louder and more often.
4) Taxation. Ugghhh. It’s time we stopped referring to taxes as a burden and recognize them for what they are. The only way we build a better city, with a better public realm and provide the most opportunities for the most people.
There’s no other way, folks. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise, that there’s some magical way out there that we can get everything we want without paying for it is either lying or delusional. Maybe both.
I heard it said at a recent deputation at City Hall, a request to ‘tax us fairly, spend wisely’. We can debate until the cows come home on the concepts of ‘fairly’ and ‘wisely’ but we need to move on past this silly, selfish idea that taxes are bad, a burden. Harkening back again to Charles Montgomery, “The city is a shared project…a place where we can fashion a common good that we simply cannot build alone.” And in the words of one former mayor (more or less), a great city, a prosperous city, a fair city does not come for free.
5) The urban-suburban divide. Governing this city does not have to be a zero-sum game. I mean, it does if you’re trying to promote divisiveness as a political strategy. We are not complete aliens to one another, we Torontonians. Many have grown up in the suburbs and moved to the inner core. Others the reverse.
Of course, some of the challenges we face are different and need different solutions, depending where we live, where we work, where we go to school. One size does not, cannot fit all. But any approach to fixing the problems that currently plague us as a city shouldn’t come at the expense of others. It needs to come at the expense to us all.
6) Civic engagement. It’s more than just voting every 4 years. It’s more than paying taxes. It’s about encouraging participation. It’s about listening to disparate voices beyond those on AM talk radio and in Tim Horton’s line-ups. It’s about opening up decision making beyond just at election day.
7) Civic audacity. Cities, communities, neighbourhoods, streets aren’t built or created on a foundation of no. Aiming higher will yield better results than lowering expectations and demanding little. We need a sense of daring in the face of things that aren’t working. Accepting a broken status quo because that’s the way things have always been done is the surest way to perpetuate both a sense of decline as well as decline itself.
8) Social justice. If you’re not interested in working for a city that improves the lives and opportunities of everyone living in it, your motives for running for municipal office are suspect. A city pockmarked by inequity, poverty and the daily grind of precariousness is not a place utilizing its greatest resource: the people choosing to live there. Social justice cannot be an abstraction, delivered with an empty slogan. It must be the cornerstone – the policy initiative core — of any municipal politician’s campaign platform.
9) Business plan. Live, play, work. A healthy city must provide all those opportunities for all its residents. None of the three can function properly if any of them aren’t.
Like so many other cities in developed nations, Toronto is undergoing a fundamental workplace change. The manufacturing base has collapsed. Fortunately, the local economy is a diverse one with a firm foothold in both the information and service sectors.
With limited tools at their disposal, municipal politicians must make the best of what they have. Their business strategy has to be more than just promising low taxes, however. They must lay out ideas how to make the city a more attractive place to not only invest in but to work in. Good business instincts aren’t exclusively about saving money.
10) Rave don’t rage. In many ways, this one’s just a summary of our summary. Using elements of the previous 9 points, our local representatives have to endeavour to make the city sing. We hear talk of wanting to attract the best talent in all walks of life to the city, the best and the brightest, the most innovative and hardest working. You do that by building a city that nobody could imagine living anywhere but there. A place people believe will best provide the necessary conditions for them to flourish, to find fulfilling relationships, raise a family, grow old in.
The city entices because it is enticing.
You want a city people want to live in not one they wind up living in reluctantly, because they have to. In order to do that, you have to show the place a little love, endeavour to do the impossible, stop short-changing it. You need to turn the level of expectation up to 11.
Let me add a final point to this already lengthy post.
11) This doesn’t have to be a blood sport. Sure, elections are tough, sometimes unruly affairs. They are a competition after all.
They don’t have to be cutthroat, however. Fierce is different than vicious. Winning ugly tends not to translate into governing pretty.
Convince us why we should vote for you, why your ideas are better than the other candidates. We can assess your opponents on our own, thank you very much. We don’t need your help in discovering their weaknesses and flaws. Travelling down that path only really makes you look petty and insecure, unfit for public office.