In a city where the only constant in recent years has been rapid change, Torontonians have voted for more of the same.
That’s the most obvious conclusion to be drawn from Mayor John Tory’s convincing re-election win — capturing about 64 per cent of the vote — in Monday’s municipal election.
For as long as he’s been mayor, and throughout the campaign, people have told pollsters they’re pretty happy with the job Tory is doing and the direction the city is going in. Tory’s campaign platform could be best summarized as “steady as she goes,” avoiding any big, bold new promises and instead focusing on incremental progress on initiatives he’s already introduced, and on trying to get along with whoever governs the province and the country. In an election that offered confusion and surprises (mostly courtesy of the premier’s office), the incumbent mayor’s flavour of bland worked.
No huge surprise.
What was a surprise, midway through the campaign, was that the former head of the city’s planning department, Jennifer Keesmaat, jumped into the race and made it interesting. Though she’ll surely be disappointed with her 24 per cent of the vote and second-place finish, she can hold her head high. As can political newcomer Saron Gebresellassi, who, despite drawing only about 2 per cent of the vote, brought much-needed energy to every debate in which she appeared. Both losing candidates surely have a future in politics, if they want one.
That’s most obviously true of Keesmaat, about whom rumours of political ambition have long circulated and who some suggest might be a potential provincial Liberal leader. From a standing start on the last day of nominations in July, she provided a genuine challenge to Tory’s leadership, injecting new ideas along the way.
It’s interesting to observe that in the last week of the campaign, a poll conducted by DART Insight and commissioned by the Toronto Sun showed that a large majority of voters in the survey favoured Keesmaat’s main policy proposals (including a “luxury levy” on high-value properties, tearing down the eastern Gardiner Expressway, and turning some municipal golf courses into public parks), even while a similarly large majority of them were planning to support Tory for mayor.
Tory said at one point during the campaign that he admired that Keesmaat had a lot of ideas, and we all might benefit if he borrows some of hers now that he’s been re-elected.
The composition of the newly shrunken, 25-member city council will help determine whether he does — or even can — effectively embrace some of those ideas. The slashing of the size of council guaranteed a lot of familiar faces would be leaving, from all around the political spectrum. After Monday, city council will say goodbye to familiar faces from the left (including Joe Mihevc and Mary Fragedakis) and right (Giorgio Mammoliti, Vincent Crisanti). The very setup of the contest didn’t leave room for many fresh faces, although Brad Bradford in Beaches—East York, Jennifer McKelvie in Scarborough—Rouge Park, and Cynthia Lai in Scarborough North arrive as newcomers to city hall.
My own insta-prediction, based on my guesses about likely political leanings, is that this appears to be a council that will remain split almost equally between left and right, with a handful of centrist and relatively unknown newcomers holding the balance of power that determines the course of the city.
Of course, the other wild card in the new term of council is the same one who stirred up the election itself — Premier Ford, up the road at Queen’s Park. Decisions he and his government make (about uploading transit ownership and costs, about continued funding for city programs, even about allowing council to make its own decisions on key questions) will dictate much of how effective this mayor and council can be. How they work with him, influence his decisions, or work around him, will be defining elements of Tory’s eventual legacy. And Toronto’s future.
After a campaign in which there was a remarkable degree of consensus on what the major issues should be — affordability of housing, transit, public safety — Tory’s mission is clear. He has said he doesn’t intend to run for a third term, so after a lifetime of seeking public office, his next four years as mayor should be the legacy-defining capstone of his career.
Many, including me, have often accused him of being too cautious and tentative in his approach. He argued in this election that his low-key manner is the formula to solve these big problems facing this great city. He said it again in his acceptance speech, claiming his approach of “competence, collegiality, compassion and a huge amount of love” would “make sure this city reaches its full potential.”
Voters seemed to agree, and have given him the chance to prove it.
Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire