He’s Italian, but in the space of 10 minutes two different people call newly elected city councillor Mike Colle a mensch.
True, they’re both in a restaurant at Lawrence Ave. W. and Bathurst St. where Yiddish can still be heard, and where Colle is holding court, in the provincial riding he represented as a Liberal MPP for 23 years, near the neighbourhood where he jogs 60 kilometres a week, where he shops for groceries, where he and his wife raised four children and where he just spent six months knocking on doors in a provincial election campaign and then a municipal one.
“At the province, my biggest frustration was that you had to deal with the corner office all the time, you know, the premier’s office,” says Colle, leaning back from a table at United Bakers Dairy Restaurant, originally founded by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in 1912, as he explains the difference between working at Queen’s Park and city hall.
“Really, as an MPP, you have to go out of your way to have any kind of influence. You’re just basically a vote and a number to them.
The lack of party structure is the biggest difference between provincial and municipal politics, says Colle, and it’s why he is glad to be returning to city hall.
“At the city you’re answerable to the people, much more directly.”
The busy restaurant in Lawrence Plaza is one of Colle’s stomping grounds. He is here often, meeting with people who want to bend his ear, ask for help, get advice or give it.
“Italians don’t like to sit at home, they like to get out,” says Colle, in a rare reference to his heritage.
“I mean, I am a people person. I like people, I like socializing. I like being in public places. I like walking the streets. Where else am I going to meet people? They can see me, I can talk to them, I can find out what’s going on.”
Colle greets a longtime supporter by wrapping an arm around his shoulder and reciting the man’s family history — Ernie Lustig’s father was a musician who came to Canada from Poland nearly 100 years ago, and worked as a violinist before movies with sound put musicians who worked in theatre orchestras out of work and he became a barber.
“I would do anything for him. He’s such a mensch,” says Lustig, 88, a local contractor with his finger on the pulse of the riding, and who supported Colle’s provincial and municipal runs for office this year.
“You know what a mensch is? It’s a good-hearted person.”
The granddaughter of the family that founded the restaurant in 1912 drops by Colle’s table to talk about an issue in her neighbourhood.
“He makes sure that he gets to know people, he understands people and he’s a mensch,” says Ruth Ladovsky.
“He is a man of action, that will take action. Honestly, he means it when he says: ‘Let me see what I can do for you.’”
Colle says there is no way he could keep tabs on what is going on in his ward without meeting with people at art galleries and synagogues and churches, at the local flea market and grocery stores.
“There’s a lot of people that are very involved. And it’s critical that I meet and see them. They can be your eyes and ears. I make sure to touch base with them.”
It’s not that Colle has had an unblemished career. He was ousted as citizenship and immigration minister from former Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty’s cabinet in 2007 after a scathing report from the auditor general over $32 million that was dispersed without sufficient controls to community groups under his watch. The Ontario Cricket Association received $1 million after asking for $150,000.
A followup review found most of the groups had used the money properly or were planning to. Colle said then and says now that the money was supposed to make up for years of underfunding.
He was returned to office following the scandal, but lost his seat in June when the PC Party swept into office.
A former high school teacher, Colle served on York council before moving to Metro council in 1988, where he served as TTC chair, but he’s not interested in chairing the TTC this time around.
He says his first task will be to talk to the city’s planning department about a yearlong pause in new development at Yonge St. and Eglinton Ave., in order to conduct a review of the area.
“It’s almost impossible to keep pace with the scale of change that is happening,” says Colle.
“Right now, you’ve got to wait four or five trains to get on in the morning at the Yonge-Eglinton subway. It’s like Tokyo.”
He wants to change the way infrastructure capacity testing is done to make it less site-specific and more comprehensive, taking into consideration not only how services in the immediate area of a development will be affected, but also how adjoining areas will be affected.
He believes the current system is too narrow and focused.
“It’s almost too myopic.”
He wants to get a review of Section 37 of the Planning Act conducted, because he’d like to see it used more systematically. That section 37 of the provincial act makes it possible for developers to secure zoning exceptions in exchange for payments for improvements in the ward where the development is located.
He wants to put an end to weekend demolitions of heritage buildings, like the one that took down the Bank of Montreal building on Yonge St. and Roselawn Ave.
And, after jogging in cities in Portugal, Italy, Spain, Israel and China, he wants to focus on making Bathurst St. — which used to be a dividing line between two wards — to life as a main street, where people like to meet up and walk or shop or dine.
His ties to Mayor John Tory go way back — he said they were co-chairs of former mayor Mel Lastman’s election campaign.
“That is where I got to really know John. We had this kitchen cabinet, we used to meet every Monday morning with John Tory and a few other people to look at how to best direct the mayor and give him advice,” says Colle.
He plans to be an independent voice on council, but he thinks he may find himself on Tory’s side often enough.
“In most cases, I suspect I’m going to support a lot of the things that the mayor is going to do because he is a decent person and he understands the city.”
He plans to work closely with Josh Matlow and Jaye Robinson, councillors in contiguous wards. He didn’t like the way premier Doug Ford did it, but he doesn’t think it’s a bad thing that there will be 25 councillors at city hall instead of 44.
“We’ve got to remember, people want us to work together and get things done, and you may disagree with John Tory or I may disagree with you, but in the long run were all going to be judged on how we get along and get things done.”
Francine Kopun is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF