JOHN LORINC: And then there were three (four, five…?)

Will history kill George Smitherman’s mayoral ambitions?

Setting aside the issue of his temperament, Smitherman — who officially registered last week — enters the campaign with two millstones dangling around his neck: a largely media-conferred front-runner status and a war chest presumably brimming with pledges from Liberal money men and, soon, John Tory refugees.

As well, in a curious echo of federal politics in the Stephen Harper era, he’s allowing his opponents to define him by tiptoeing into the race. We’re being encouraged to think of Smitherman as a thug — an arguably over-literal reading of an opposition-era persona that’s largely been hidden from view for several years now.

So branded is he as the bully-in-residence, in fact, that it’s easy to forget how Smitherman, in his career, has pushed hard for same sex rights legislation, played a major parliamentary role in discrediting Mike Harris’s Tories, oversaw a long-overdue decentralization of Ontario’s lumbering health system, revolutionized the province’s green energy policies and starred down the formidable nuclear industry. As Hall’s chief of staff between 1994 and 1997, moreover, he helped run a progressive but fiscally responsible civic administration at a time when local government was under siege.

The track record buys him the pole position. But by failing to be specific about why he wants to be mayor, he’s unwittingly inserted himself into the rut that destroyed Barbara Hall in 2003: there’s the sense of entitlement, and the feeling that both were/are returning to City Hall to put things right after troubled regimes.

On the weekend, I ran into John Laschinger, the campaign manager whiz who ran David Miller’s bids in 2003 and 2006 and is reportedly being courted by Adam Giambrone’s team. He predicted a dynamic not unlike the 1994 old City of Toronto election, when businessman Gerry Meisner made off with enough of incumbent June Rowland’s supporters to allow Hall to prevail against a split right.

In this scenario, Rocco Rossi eats off Smitherman’s plate, while the eventual left-winger challenger — either Giambrone or Joe Pantalone — whacks him about the head and shoulders with the e-health scandal and his regrettable quotes over Toronto’s streetcar purchases.

Thus squeezed, reasons Laschinger, Smitherman succumbs (ironically enough) to the electoral calculus that worked first for, and later, against, Hall.

But the 1994 analogy is inexact: Rowlands was a recluse infamous for banning the Barenaked Ladies from Nathan Philips Square. Hall, meanwhile, was forging her reputation by courageously blowing the whistle on one of Tom Jakobek’s money schemes. Knocking him out of contention, she was elected as a bone fide alternative who’d prevailed in the old City of Toronto’s council turf wars; it’s a narrative arc neither Giambrone nor Pantalone can boast in this coming election.

The broader problem is that Toronto’s history offers no examples of back-to-back progressive mayors. Rather, we could well see the inverse of 1994, with Giambrone/Pantalone absorbing enough of Smitherman’s centre-left supporters to allow Rossi to reconstruct the Liberal-Tory suburban coalition that swept Mel Lastman into office in 1997 (it’s worth noting that Rossi has already recruited Mel’s chief of staff Rod Phillips). If Rossi doesn’t stumble, he’ll likely be the candidate best positioned to tell voters the all-important momentum story — growing volumes of small online donations, volunteers, and speaking engagements.

Of course, much will depend on ground organization, ads, and which candidates can leverage social networks. But now that John Tory’s out, the rhetorical sparring between Smitherman and Rossi — both vigorous debaters — will become the main event, with the progressive(s) relegated to defending the status quo against a pair of verbal pugilists. The centre may yet collapse — as in 1994 and 2003 — but my guess is that when it does, it’s going to fall in the opposite direction.

13 comments

  1. John, who are really bumming me out. It just feels like we are slipping farther and farther into the abyss. Surely one thing, this election and its outcome will define Toronto’s future and place in Canada. It does’nt bode well IMHO.

  2. It’s amusing, but a bit frightening, to watch candidates enter the race from other levels of government with only the vaguest of ideas about issues. Do they have their own, or will they let their handlers define their position? Do they want the job for its own sake, or because they have a definite goal for the city?

    Will voters be stupid enough to swallow the “no new taxes” message of the Lastman era? Will the business community do the civic equivalent of asset stripping in the short-term hope of “dividends” through tax relief?

    Just saying “we need to get finances in shape” is not enough — what kind of a city do you want and how would that shape decisions on spending and on city building generally?

  3. With the disastrous 2010 budget coming up, I think that George Smitherman’s record will have plenty of distraction.

    E-Health will be long forgotten. The necessary hikes in taxes and fees (council cannot hide it this year) will be fresh on voters minds. Along with an impression that despite the increases, things are not getting better.

    George, with his strong personalty, may just be sitting in the cat bird seat.

  4. Steve, if I am interpreting your remark correctly (which I may very well not), your remark… “Will the business community do the civic equivalent of asset stripping in the short-term hope of “dividends” through tax relief?”… is ill informed.

    It is our Mayor that is being dishonest about this issue. Have a look at the following quote from Mayor Miller..

    “We have a program to reduce commercial property taxes in Toronto – particularly on small businesses,” said Miller following a special Executive Committee meeting looking at the city’s $8.7-billion operating budget. “That is going fast – we’re cutting faster than we thought. But next year is going to be a tough budget year, and I’m hoping to evaluate whether we can slow that down or not next year.”

    The reason it is working ‘faster’ is that the commercial assessment base keeps shrinking relative to the residential base. Between 2002 and 2008 the relative value of the non residential assessment base has declined by nearly 10%. This automatically forces a a shift in burden towards the residential class. Sadly the city has framed this occurrence as a positive as remarked by city manager Joe Pennachetti in the Post ” City manager Joe Pennachetti said this morning that the provincial assessments are helping the city accelerate its recalibration of property tax ratios, to increase the portion that comes from the residential sector to two-thirds and reduce the ratio contributed by business to one third”

    The truth is that the city is not cutting faster than planned. The non residential assessment base is shrinking faster than planned.

    Council should brush up on their Keynes…
    Nor should the argument seem strange that taxation may be so high as to defeat its object, and that, given sufficient time to gather the fruits, a reduction of taxation will run a better chance, than an increase, of balancing the Budget. For to take the opposite view to-day is to resemble a manufacturer who, running at a loss, decides to raise his price, and when his declining sales increase the loss, wrapping himself in the rectitude of plain arithmetic, decides that prudence requires him to raise the price still more;–and who, when at last his account is balanced with nought on both sides, is still found righteously declaring that it would have been the act of a gambler to reduce the price when you were already making a loss.

  5. I’ve always found these races to be difficult because no one really knows the type of person they are voting in. You only know the person from someone’s perspective (media portrayal, people endorsing them or trashing them, etc).

    Smitherman by most accounts is a guy who goes and gets what he wants. But is that a good thing? Will he go and get what HE wants or what the PEOPLE need and want? I don’t have a great feeling about him as Mayor because he’s got way too much ego and that elitist (I’m smarter and better than you) attitude with him rubs me the wrong way.

    Rossi is a dead duck. Not enough experience and not enough of a track record for people to have confidence in him. My cousin, who bumps into him on a semi-regular basis, suggests he’s too naive to be Mayor.

  6. Problem is that people vote/support slogans, easy visuals rather than carefully considered/articulated platforms… something that Leni Reifenstahl(?) knew all too well. “No new taxes” vs. someone holding a broom stick… big difference. Con job on both counts.

    I don’t like Smitherman as a candidate; I don’t think his track record is anywhere as good as he’d like to pretend it is. But I also have a bit of a problem with the way Spacing and other media are falling into the game of dividing the field in terms of Conservatives and Progressives. In many cases, these labels obscure more than they reveal about the particular candidates. Councillors Pantalone and Giambrone are not my idea of progressive.

  7. In reply to Glen:

    My remark about asset stripping does not have to do with the rebalancing of the tax burden, but with the idea that we should sell off city assets and, with them, their revenue streams and our ability to control civic policy through them.

    These are one time sales, and whether the proceeds go against the operating or the capital accounts, they can’t be repeated next year. This is equivalent to the industrial habit of paying dividends rather than reinvesting in capital plant, a tactic that led to the brownfields of some industries such as steel.

    Both the left and the right are capable of producing smoke-and-mirror budgets, and of making things look good (ie we don’t need deeper cuts or more taxes) by using one-time revenue sources.

    It’s easy to say “there’s fat in government”, but a lot harder to point to specific programs that would be cut. Even a savings (for the sake of argument) of outsourcing or de-unionizing some service deliveries might be used simply as a way to defer a tax increase rather than to direct spending to some more important portfolio.

    Fortunately some in the business community are now talking about the structural deficit and the need for Queen’s Park to pay its way on “shared” programs, but political commentary seems to focus more on how those folks at City Hall just can’t make tough choices. As long as Dalton sees the criticism going mainly against the City, he doesn’t have to lift a finger to fix the mess that downloading created.

  8. The Green Energy Act is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. When Ontarians finally figure out the outrageous add on charge for the green energy contracts the blame will be on George Smitherman. Not a lot of courage or leadership was shown on this file.

  9. Steve, as far as I am aware the ‘business community’ has been silent on perusing asset sales as a means to address the operating budget. The beneficiaries and impetus of such actions are the politicians, whom get credit for the spending without paying the political cost of generating the revenue.

  10. Not sure why Lorinc expects a platform, when I am sure that I read that Smitherman said he was going to engage in a consultative process about residents’ priorities.

  11. We need a Michael Bloomberg. Somebody who’s not afraid to use his brain.

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