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My Commentary on the June 18 Toronto Mayoral Debate

Wednesday night, I attended a debate featuring all five major Toronto mayoral candidates: Barbara Hall, Tom Jakobek, David Miller, John Nunziata, and John Tory. I have written a summary of it (click here and here).

The debate was a good chance to see the candidates up close. These are some of my personal observations. I'll try to keep them as fair as possible, but opinions will certainly slip in.

On the whole, I felt quite good about the debate because the candidates all left me with the conclusion that any one of them will be an improvement over Mel Lastman. Furthermore, the top three contenders -- Hall, Tory, and Miller -- would all be much, much better. That's not to say that there aren't major differences between the candidates. Toronto needs a great mayor, not just a good mayor, and I'm not sure that all of these five can be that.

My observations about each candidate (alphabetically):

Barbara Hall is the leader in the polls, and is acting like it's her race to lose. This seems to mean saying as little of substance as possible -- at least in these early days with the election still about five months away. She talks mainly about team-building, mutual respect and cooperation. She also refers us back to the good days when Toronto was a world-respected city (and she was mayor).

The other candidates are interested in pulling her down, to try to cut that lead. Nunziata mentioned that she's union-backed and that that's why she won't support outsourcing, which he favours. More significantly, Miller accused her of fund-raising last year before it was legal to do so, and before she was a candidate. Her explanation sounded rather unconvincing. She still hasn't named the donors, the amounts, or what they were spent on.

Tom Jakobek impressed me, surprisingly. He essentially told us that he's not the crook some are making him out to be, and he's actually an honest guy who made a mistake. Watching and listening to him through the debate left me more disposed to believing him than I was beforehand. Maybe I was fooled, but it's just a little bit less easy to dismiss him now.

Jakobek is playing the experience card and he positions himself as the master of fiscal responsibility. Both he and Nunziata have a 0% tax increase promise, but Jakobek claims that his experience as budget chair qualifies him. His plan is to attack the debt by selling city assets -- but he's focusing on assets that people won't get upset about, like the parking authority and surplus non-park lands.

He had some weird ideas, but he also had some good ones that I didn't hear from anyone else. I'm upgrading him to wild-card status.

David Miller arrived quite late (probably had another engagement) and seemed just a little frazzled during the night. While others were speaking, he was frequently deep into his papers -- this, in contrast to Hall who seemed to be blissfully unaware that any of the other candidates were talking.

Miller established himself as a solid candidate and a man with a vision of Toronto in mind that is politically clean and that has regained its leadership role as a city that works. He is the candidate who seems to most actively support the new official plan, although he's not the only supporter. Miller is a strong advocate of the TTC but didn't make many promises beyond the others. He did, however, talk about his accomplishments as a TTC commissioner, particularly the Ridership Growth Strategy he helped developed and wants to implement.

If there is a chance that this election will become a one-issue race, it's fairly likely that one issue could be the waterfront and the island airport expansion. Miller twice (spontaneously, without a related question) established himself as the candidate who is against the airport. If things go his way, this issue could make him stand out as the one standing against four. (But I still haven't heard Tory commit to a position on the airport.)

John Nunziata wants us to think of him as the outsider. The other four, he says, have all had their chance to make the city better, and look where we are now.

Nunziata takes a far right-wing position on many issues -- outsourcing, labour relations, police ...I suppose you could even count the Adams Mine -- but he is also a populist on a few others. He promises a 0% tax increase at the same time that he talks about building the Eglinton West subway (to the airport) and the York University subway extension. It makes me wonder if Jakobek is right (at least in Nunziata's case) when he accuses the other candidates of not having a real, thought-out fiscal plan.

John Tory impressed me Wednesday night, as he has been for some time. Initially, I feared he would be the establishement candidate, here to carry on in Mel Lastman's shoes, just slightly upgraded. Since then, he's been talking sense and I have had a hard time not feeling positively about him. Still, I have been suspicious. After all, he's a PC and hasn't it been the provincial Tories who have caused most of this city's problems? Was Tory really a PC mole?

Well, at the debate Tory was the candidate who most consistently stuck to the point that Toronto needs a new deal from Ottawa and Queen's Park. And he certainly didn't shy away from the Queen's Park half of that duo. He was accused by both Miller and Nunziata of being too close to the destructive Tories, and he handled their remarks reasonably well. Seems he may very well be much more of a Red Tory in the tradition of Bill Davis than he is an urban nightmare in the form of Mike Harris. (Actually, I never thought he'd be a Mike Harris, but he's starting to look like he won't even be an apologist for him. Of course, it sure is easy for Bill Davis and John Tory to be critical of the Common Sense Revolution boys now that they're on their last legs.)

Tory talked a lot about professional managment, but he seemed to be more of a centrist that a right-winger. His plan is to win a new deal for the city -- if he's lucky, he'll be negotiating with Paul Martin and Dalton McGuinty -- and to use this new money and a newly professionalized city administration to return Toronto to the glory days of clean streets, competitive economy, and many good public services.

Overall, there was no clear "winner" of the debate. A sample of independent viewers probably would have had some supporting each candidate at the end of the night. In my opinion, Miller and Tory were the two who offered the best plans and most convincing arguments. Hall wasn't bad, just quiet. Jakobek surprised me, and he certainly is different. Remarkably, Nunziata may have slipped into fifth place on my person-most-likely-to-be-a-great-mayor index.



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