Book Club II

December 19, 2014

thetinyperfectmayor

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.1972mayoralslate

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. 11wardtorontoHe 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.

davidcrombie(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. johnsewellIn 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.

I guess the irony in all this is that the consensus-seeking mayor achieved the perception of consensus at City Hall by exploiting the lack of consensus within the reform group of aldermen.crombieshorty

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.newguardoldguard

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. crombietoryWhile 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


Left To Their Own Devices

December 9, 2014

From Jon Caulfield’s The Tiny Perfect Mayor (1974):

This fatalism was shared by many reform leaders and candidates themselves. For the press, at fund-raising parties, at rallies and public meetings, they were mostly all capable of bursts of optimism…But pressed privately in ones and twos, they were often unsure, their confidence watery. Because their movement was, at root, a fragile marriage of convenience drawn together only by informal networks of key individuals, communication among them was haphazard, and fragmentary, in some cases nearly non-existent; for the most part they had no way of knowing about the progress of campaigns outside of their own parts of town.

Forty years on, this passage struck me as still wholly relevant when looking back through the ashes of the 2014 municipal election campaign, an election where the old guard of all political stripes ran roughshod over its competition.steamroll

Nobody who seriously throws their hat into the ring to become a political candidate can do so without at least a sliver of belief they can win. No matter how small a sliver, how big the odds, how steep the uphill climb to victory might be, there’s always a chance, remote, outside or not. Otherwise, you wouldn’t dedicate the time and energy necessary to mount even the most basic of campaigns.

In late October, I heard through the grapevine that such-and-such a candidate was, according to internal polls, within striking distance of such-and-such an incumbent. Candidate X had jumped into an improbable lead in Ward Y. In the end, neither rumour of glory came close to being true. A respectable showing would be the best one might claim of the results. Pretty much throughout the entire city.

By their very nature, election campaigns are built on hard work and false hopes. rubbertreeplantThere will always be more losers than winners but for a democracy to remain vibrant, everyone thinking about a run for office has to believe that that this time is their time. You can apply other metrics to what constitutes a successful campaign – increased voter turnout, say, — in the end though? Well, close only counts in horseshoes and grenades. Or, as a springboard to another crack at it four years hence.

Perpetual optimism mixed with battle worn realism.

When I met up with Idil Burale a couple weeks back, pretty much a month after her run for a city council seat in Ward 1 Etobicoke North, there was a lot more realism than optimism in her take on how things had gone. A very promising challenger to one term councillor deadweight, Vincent Crisanti, Burale finished a disappointing 5th place in race where Crisanti increased his plurality from 2010 simply by being the Fordest of Ford supporters in one of the Fordest of wards in the city.

It should’ve been so easy. A terrible, do-nothing incumbent versus a brand new voice of the community. Faced with such a clear option, how could Ward 1 voters not jump at the opportunity to make a change?

Yeah well, funny story…davidandgoliath1

First, a declaration of interest on my part.

I met Idil a couple (three?) years ago, at some event or another that led to us hosting an evening to talk about the urban-suburban divide. I (along with a few hopeful others) gently encouraged her to consider a run in 2014 election. When she finally decided to take the plunge, I was involved early on in the campaign, helping with content, messaging. I even timidly and awkwardly knocked on doors as part of two or three canvasses.

Everybody was cautiously optimistic, I think. Winning the thing wasn’t the be-all. If Idil could even just affect the conversation during the campaign or get out the vote in a ward that had the lowest turnout in 2010, it could still be considered a success.

In the end, I don’t know if even those modest goals were achieved. Like every other ward in the city it seems, the only conversation people wanted to have was about the mayor’s race. rollingrockI’m not alone in asserting that the 2014 campaign was essential a mayoral referendum. Rob/Doug Ford, yes or no? Everything else at city council could be fixed in editing.

That said, I don’t think it’s an unfair assessment of the Burale campaign to suggest that it never really gelled into a smooth running operation. There were personnel problems, mostly of the kind that there were never enough people to do the jobs that needed to get done. In the end, Burale thinks they knocked on about 80% of the doors in the ward which, as impressive as it sounds, isn’t nearly enough.

The general rule of thumb is that a successful campaign needs to hit every door at least 2 times, maybe 3 when all is said and done. Despite our hope and belief in advanced technology, campaigns are still won and lost on the ground, real live bodies going out to meet real live people, once, twice, three times, driving them to the polling station on election day if need be to make sure they vote. Without those troops, there isn’t the necessary voter outreach. Candidates unable to swamp doors in their wards remain unknown entities with no name recognition factor.

This points to perhaps the biggest problem the Burale campaign faced. There simply wasn’t enough community support at the local level at the beginning of the campaign. trekDowntowners (like me) formed a large part of her team in the early going.

It’s an especially acute problem for wards in the inner suburbs. Ward 1 sits in the most north-westerly spot in the city. Without local support, people able to get to a canvass meeting spot in 15 minutes, half an hour rather than an hour and a half, 2 hours, it’s difficult to amass a regular, reliable team of volunteers. Without a regular, reliable team of volunteers, well, you tend to finish in 5th place.

Idil also picked up very little ‘institutional’ help. By this I mean the party and riding association machines that always play an integral part even in officially non-party municipal campaigns. For whatever reasons (and I am certainly privy to none), there was no backing from either the ward’s Liberal MPP or MP thrown her way. Despite receiving the labour council backing, Burale found herself competing against an unofficial NDP candidate.goodluck

There may well have been good reasons for that situation but the fact can’t be ignored if an outsider candidate remains on the outside, the odds of them running successfully remain very long.

No amount of social media adoration is going to change that. Burale was one of a number of challengers, especially out in the suburban wards, who garnered a lot of Twitter attention along with endorsements from both old and new media, only to see it not translate into electoral success. Martyrs to the progressive cause, fueling our sense of wonder at what’s wrong with people out in the suburbs.

Turns out, you can’t just flick on the civic engagement switch come election year. Wards like Etobicoke North aren’t imbued with a history of strong citizen activism in their local governance. What groups there are don’t seem particularly connected or, in the words of Jon Caulfied in describing the early-70s City Hall reformers, ‘informal networks of key individuals’.diy1

There was no fertile grassroots base for a challenger like Idil Burale to draw on. Without enough outside or institutional help to make up for that, she was left to fend for herself against the power of incumbency. Even an incumbency of a second rate city councillor who has subsequently been appointed the deputy mayor of Etobicoke and York.

So pick yourself up, dust yourself off and chalk it up as a valuable learning experience?

Not exactly.

There was certainly something of a personal toll on Burale. Parts of the 7 month run were miserable, not at all fulfilling. So much so, at this juncture, fresh off the loss, she’s not considering another run.

A casualty to an electoral process that promotes the power of insiders and the well-connected? Change or reform doesn’t come about through the sheer strength of individual effort. We can’t pat hopefuls on the head, slap them on the back and send them out into the fight with only our high hopes and fingers crossed. overthetop1Challenging the status quo needs to be a group enterprise, uncoloured by partisan brand or parochial interests.

Candidates like Idil Burale should be applauded and congratulated for trying to roll that rock up the hill. We just have to stop thinking they can do it on their own and then expect a different, a better result in the end. That’s the definition of crazy. Crazy and lazy.

discontentedly submitted by Cityslikr