Where There is Death, There is Hope

No, this is not a post about the afterlife or theological issues. I recall a British political writer using these words to make the point that when an office becomes vacant, there is an opportunity for someone. Google and Wikiquotes were of no help in finding this maxim, so I’m guessing it came from Richard Crossman’s diaries, Jay and Lynn’s Yes Minister, or Peter Morgan’s The Crown.

Regardless of who wrote it, it is entirely applicable to the aftermath of the political suicide by paramour of Toronto Mayor John Tory. After a few days of uncertainty, now that we know Tory will actually leave office today, the maneuvering on the part of political hopefuls becomes consequential.

Tickety-boo in Toronto

Given the political and economic significance of Toronto, its governance has been of intense interest to Premier Doug Ford. Ford’s initial reaction – through his office and through insiders – was that he would stay neutral in the by-election to replace Tory and could work with whoever is elected. Two days later he came out swinging, urging Tory to remain in office because “Everything’s going tickety-boo in Toronto, they’re working well with the federal (and) provincial government — and what happens in their private life is strictly up to the mayor and their family.” And he made it clear what sort of person he did not want to replace Tory: “If a lefty mayor gets in there, God help the people of Toronto.”

From this I infer several things. Ford and his advisers will work to find a candidate who reflects their ideology and priorities. They will discourage other like-minded candidates from running. They will make it clear who is the chosen Ford Nation candidate. And, because turnout is generally so low in municipal elections (29 percent in the 2022 Toronto election), they will work hard to get out their vote.

Lefties, Unite

The people whom Ford disparagingly calls lefties but who proudly call themselves progressives are at a disadvantage in the upcoming campaign. They appear to lack the discipline and leadership to unite behind a candidate who will have a chance of defeating the Ford Nation candidate. The election for mayor could become a replay of the recent provincial election in which Ford was elected premier with a strong legislative majority based on only 40 percent of the popular vote, because the progressive vote was split between the NDP, Liberals, and Greens. When I analyzed the vote on a constituency-by-constituency basis, I concluded that strategic voting would have led to a legislature evenly split between the Conservatives and the three progressive parties.

The first progressive candidate to throw his hat into the ring is Gil Penalosa, who came second in the 2022 election with 18 percent of the vote, far behind Tory’s 60 percent. Penalosa has impressive credentials as an advocate of affordable, equitable, and sustainable cities but has zero political experience. Many progressives, including me, voted for him last time as a placeholder for our growing dissatisfaction with Tory’s leadership. We didn’t think everything was going tickety-boo in Toronto. Penalosa is the exact opposite of another possible candidate, Ford family scion and provincial minister Michael Ford, a young man with nothing other than political experience on his resume.

Consider the Alternative

A first-past-the-post political system without explicit political parties is a very difficult context for a political movement to organize itself. In the next few weeks, progressives need to find a candidate to unite behind. Here are some suggestions to make this happen. Progressive organizations could hold all-candidate meetings to serve as notional primaries, allowing voters to compare the candidates’ ideas and prowess as advocates and debaters. (The Ford Nation candidate likely wouldn’t participate in these meetings.) Progressive organizations could also do some public opinion polling using an inexpensive medium like SurveyMonkey. Progressive city councillors like Gord Perks or Dianne Saxe could play a critical role, either as candidates themselves, or by endorsing a candidate. High profile progressive voices – the first that comes to mind is Margaret Atwood – could endorse their preferred candidate. Finally, declared progressive candidates should be prepared to step down and endorse the progressive candidate most likely to win.

If progressives can’t get their act together, Toronto will spend the next four years governed by a mayor whose policies and priorities are an echo of the Ford Government’s and worse, due to the Ford Government’s recent strong mayor legislation (Bill 3), who will be able to enforce these priorities on City Council.

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