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.