How strong is our desire for change in Toronto?
In his book Campaign Confessions, tales from the war rooms of politics, John Laschinger says the desire for change is the “strongest and most unpredictable emotion in election campaigns.”
So, is there a strong enough desire for change in Toronto, ahead of the 2018 municipal election a year hence?
It bears watching and testing frequently.
Over lunch with the veteran strategist who ran 50 political campaigns over 45 years and counting — Olivia Chow (2014 lost), David Miller (2003 & 2006 won), Mike Harris leadership race (won) and 1990 provincial election (lost), Joe Clark (2000 lost) — attention turned to Toronto Mayor John Tory.
It’s going to be tough for Tory not to win, is Lasch’s considered opinion, all caveats accounted for, of course. (Note the convoluted conclusion — and it had nothing to do with the Diet Coke or the cranberry juice we drank).
For most citizens, life sucks, Laschinger says. And it may have little to do with the mayor.
Wages are not rising as fast as the cost of living. Property taxes may be going up only marginally, but gas prices jump nine cents overnight, and the angst returns.
“Whoever’s got his head up, they will smack it,” says the ultimate political insider, with a .600 winning percentage that would make our sports teams drool. “In these days of volatile public opinion, everything’s very fluid.”
So there is always a latent desire for change among a base group of citizens. But how strong is this in Toronto now?
What’s driving it — general angst, economic downtown and instability, or personal behaviour and policies of the incumbent?
Opinion polls show Tory is sitting pretty — wining a hypothetical head-to-head matchup with Doug Ford (the man he beat in 2014) by 20 to 30 points, and still on top in a three-way race involving left-wing Councillor Mike Layton, through by a smaller margin. But he’s not unstoppable.
A Ford-Tory rematch is a slam dunk Tory victory, unless the spreading tentacles of #MeToo or other scandals emerge where Tory has been blameless. But Tory’s support isn’t so rock solid as to repel all comers — especially if his progressive supporters feel they can abandon him for a real progressive and not risk losing the city to Doomsday Doug.
Tory won in 2014 because many voters intent on ridding Toronto of the substance-abusing embarrassment of a mayor, abandoned their preferred Fordslayer in Olivia Chow and backed Tory when it became clear he was best positioned to defeat Ford.
This is how Laschinger explained it in his book, an explanation that defines the typical Toronto municipal voter as a fiscal conservative.
“In the middle of the summer of 2014 our progressive base in downtown wards started sending us a message. They were leaving Olivia to support John Tory. They felt that he was a real conservative who would control spending, and at the same time he was progressive enough, at least compared to Rob Ford, to satisfy their desire for a progressive mayor.”
Tory has delivered according to expectations, more or less.
He’s scandal-free. He is Mr. Everything though not enough to enough people. He’s restored stability and normalcy to city hall. He’s kept some of the biggest of his promises and broken some memorable ones like “no TTC fare increase” and a promise to deliver 22 SmartTrack transit stations in seven years (then again, you didn’t really believe that one). Why would one be mad at Tory to the point of tossing him from the mayor’s office after one term?
Someone such as activist Desmond Cole could have a field day against Tory, pressing him on the diversity file: blind spots with the police, embracing of the racist carding practice until his own base of support had to demonstrate their opposition outside his office and burned sense into his brain.
On transit, Tory’s one-stop subway is a disastrous piece of public policy. It’s an overbuild, overreach, waste of local tax dollars — but is opposing it a political winner in Scarborough?
Besides, most voters pay little attention to the details. They believe subways are good. They want more subways in Toronto. They care little to consider if a proposed line goes through the correct corridor or satisfies demand destination. “Just build something.”
That, I think, is why his abject failure on the SmartTrack and subway file might get him a pass.
Knowing all that, who might pose the biggest electoral risk? It’s not Doug Ford and his hardcore right-wing Ford Nation support of about 20 per cent plus another 10 per cent of disaffected voters.
Ironically, Tory is best served by polls showing Ford as a viable and ominous force. The threat alone keeps the progressive voters united behind Tory. But should Ford falter badly, look for the real left-wing voters to peel away from Tory towards a genuine progressive candidate.
Is there such a candidate out there who is bold enough to run as the progressive place holder, just in case Ford fades badly or a calamitous scandal rocks Tory? The city needs at least one.
Another of Laschinger’s lessons from Campaign Confessions is that once voters decide they want change, they express it in a decisive way, searching for a clean break. If Tory reads Laschinger’s advice, for the next six months he’ll effectively be running against himself.
He’ll constantly remind citizens how great a change agent he’s been. Change you can vote for. Again. Royson James’ column appears weekly, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mayor John Tory is running for mayor again and all signs point to a second term for him, Royson James writes.