Torontonians in 2010 seem to want a mayor to stand up for the little guy. It's shame that, for today at least, the little guy was unable to take a stand.
By Ben Bull
Published September 22, 2010
As I smoothed my Vote For Joe campaign t-Shirt over my sopping wet purple pinstripe work shirt, I peered down the Sheraton hallway to look for the little man.
I'd received the call the night before: "Will you come and help us at tomorrow's debate?"
"Er...Isn't it going to rain?"
"Perhaps. Will you help us?"
The girl had a cute voice and she sounded desperate. Rain or not - how could I say no? "Sure."
As I put down the phone, I thought again about the prospect of a Rob Ford Mayoralty, or a Rocco Rossi or George Smitherman one for that matter. Ford was at 30+ percent in the polls, with Smithers not far behind. How has it come to this?
The debate was for a business crowd, one of a zillion debates taking place as part of the Toronto mayoral campaign. As the suits filed in I noticed a tiny figure striding up to our table. He held out his hand: "Thanks for helping us out."
"Hi Joe, nice to meet you."
As Pantalone walked away, I studied the other candidates ambling in behind.
Smitherman: Smart, sturdy, chest puffed out. The ex-provincial Health Minister was surrounded by a Mafiosi-like entourage of big-boned burly white men. He waltzed past without so much as a glance towards the campaign tables or any of the other candidates milling in the doorway. First impression: Arrogant.
The came Ford: Larger than life - larger even than he looks on TV - but smaller in height. A confident stroll and a coy smile, and...was that a wink? Whatever it was it was an acknowledgment at least to the soaked to the bone volunteers lining the conference room route. Impression: Large, for sure - but likable too.
Sarah Thompson was sitting across from us when we came in. I almost missed her. Petite, well dressed, chatty. She was accompanied by a solitary middle aged gentleman - her husband perhaps? First impression: Friendly, but somewhat invisible.
Joe Pantalone was wandering around looking perplexed. He was a wee fella for sure. five-foot-nothing or thereabouts. He seemed grumpy today. According to Jeremy, the volunteer coordinator, the candidates are doing up to two debates a day. "It gets a little tiring." Joe made little impression on me at first glance, but I decided to reserve my judgment until the debate began.
Rocco Rossi swaggered in last, with a Smitherman-like gaggle of double-breasted bouncers. He paused, nodded to our desk, and smiled like he meant it. First impression: Charisma. This man looks like a mayor...
The debate starts. Our sparsely populated conference room is encouraged to crowd together at the front - "It will look better" - as the candidates step up the stage and settle into their seats. "Let's begin."
The moderator surveys the 30 or so participants and adjusts his microphone - "I'm not sure I really need this!" - And the room falls still.
As the candidates listen, react and respond, I watch them carefully, wondering: Could this person be mayor?
Rob Ford is first. He seems confident, to the point and, perhaps most importantly - honest. He talks a lot about his label making business, how it has grown, how he was welcomed with open arms in cities like Chicago, but not so much in Toronto.
He talks about the city's fair wage policy, which mandates that all company's involved in municipal business pay their staff union equivalent salaries. "I pay my workers $20 an hour," he explains, "but when I get a government contract, I have to pay them %50. Does that make sense?"
Pantalone is next. He speaks quietly - too quietly for me. I'm dismayed that such a basic communication requirement appears to have been overlooked. ("Doesn't anybody coach him?" I asked the volunteer coordinator after the debate. "I could hardly hear him!")
Joe's answers are sound - Yes, the fair wage policy is a good idea, a "race to the bottom" is not what we want. And yes, we need to build a city not tear it apart. But his delivery is weak. He doesn't sound like a mayor.
Next up is Thompson. She seems a little nervous, spouting statistics, losing her thread from time to time, and not really grabbing my attention. It's hard to tell where's she's coming from - or where she wants to go.
Smitherman bites next. He's waffly - more stats are spouted - and he fails to engage. At one point, when the candidates have stated which mayoral candidate they would select as their "second-in-command" he responds to Sarah Thomson's witty one-liner that she "got the most votes" with a snitty remark: "If you're happy about getting the most votes for being second in command, that says something about your expectations in this race."
Last up is Rossi. Rocco speaks knowledgeably about the issues, and tackles the questions directly. He somehow manages to keep smiling as he talks.
I'm impressed. I am also pleasantly surprised when he notes that "business people are not just about lowering taxes, they also want a livable city." That should have been Joe's line!
As I leave the debate and head back out into the rain, I reflect on what I've learned.
Ford was imposing and engaging. His answers taught me something, even if his ideas were misled. His everyman appeal is easy to understand. As my fellow volunteer said as we rode the escalators to the lobby, "I finally get Rob Ford!"
Rob Ford is honest about who he is and doesn't sugar-coat his failings. The fact that he has not a single worthy idea or accomplishment as a ten-year councillor is a serious failure. But it's one that doesn't seem to bother the majority of the Toronto electorate.
Smitherman was confident but dull. I didn't learn anything from the man. He was all stats and sneers. His mean comment to Sarah Thompson was unprompted and uncalled for. Really - do we need another cynical politician in our midst?
Thompson was genuine but unprepared. She seemed a little fazed by some of the questions and generally out of her depth. I would love a woman mayor of Toronto, or someone who represents the diversity you see on our streets at least, but alas, it's probably not going to be her.
Rossi was the best performer. As Thompson once noted, the man certainly has "the show". Rossi is quick with his answers, sharp with his quips and up to speed on the issues. It's a shame his ideas are so defunct (A Spadina tunnel? Selling Hydro...? Better luck next time Rocco).
Joe Pantalone was uninspired. As a small person you might expect him to try and gain a few inches by talking loudly or pounding his fist a little now and again. But alas, Joe appears small in every regard.
If you take the time to listen to him - and you'll need to crane your neck to do so - his answers are sound. Sure I'd like to hear more about his cost cutting ideas - surely the union stranglehold has to go? - and a little more advocacy for bike lanes and pedestrians precincts wouldn't hurt either. But his overall approach is fair.
However, he has no style. And his conviction seems muted.
For better of for worse, Torontonians in the 2010 Mayoral election seem to want a mayor with passion and pizazz, someone to stand up to the current trend of overspending and overtaxing. Someone to stand up for the little guy.
It's shame that, for today at least, the little guy was unable to take a stand.
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