John Tory’s Big Adventure

As advertised, John Tory is Not Rob Ford. It's a low bar he's leapt capably. But will the new mayor round the learning curve in time to deal with the politically challenging questions threatening the city's long-term health?

Growing up, Mayor John Tory had a cat named “Cat.” He admitted this on Edge 102 last month, conceding that his family’s choice of moniker wasn’t the most imaginative.

“Family that keeps naming sons ‘John’ also named cat ‘Cat,'” the Post’s Richard Warnica snarked on Twitter.

In a similar manner, Tory fashions himself a capital-M Mayor: a man embodying the broad strokes of an archetype. He knows he needn’t do anything fancy with the role given what happened with the last guy, the public is fine with a return to the basics.

“I don’t think people expect miracles from politicians. I think most people understand politicians are human beings,” Tory said at a March 10 press conference marking his 100th day on the job. “What they do expect is that you will behave yourself, that you will treat them with respect, that you will treat their money with respect and that you’ll do your best to work with other people to make progress on the issues important to them.”

It’s a pretty low bar – the bare minimum, really – but the new mayor leaps it capably.

The number-one thing Tory hears from the public, even more than issues with transit, he said, is gratitude and relief that he’s returned “a sense of stability and respect to City Hall.”

That’s good enough so far. As advertised and promised, John Tory is Not Rob Ford, despite occasional similarities.

But what, then, is Mayor John Tory? After his first 100-and-some-odd days in municipal government – punctuated less by stumbles than by repeated toe-stubs born of inexperience – it seems he’s still figuring that out.

Mayor Tory speaks at a rate of 3.4 words a second, or 206 words a minute. Or at least he does over the course of a 32-minute interview on Friday, March 13, in his office overlooking Nathan Phillips Square.

The verbal stream is a lot to take in, but his train of thought is interesting to follow he frequently interrupts himself to qualify statements or change his approach to an answer, as though he’s just struck upon a better way to put something. Rather than coming across as evasive, however, his rhetorical flitting suggests an earnest attempt to arrive at conclusions he believes are satisfyingly honest.

Which prepared him better for the role of mayor: his five years as leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives or five years as host of The Live Drive on Newstalk 1010?

He’d never considered it before, he says, but has no trouble deciding.

“No question, the talk show.”

“And,” he adds, “it’s because in the talk show you actually get much more immediate feedback on the things you say and what people are thinking.” But he was caught off guard by the radical jump in public profile that comes with being the mayor.

Does he find that a lot of the things he said on the radio or believed at the time still hold true now that he’s in power?

“I will confess there’s the odd time when I had some opinion,” he says, “and I try to admit when that’s true. I try to say, ‘You know, I used to say this or that and I now have found that things are a bit different.'”

In certain respects, Tory has yet to let go of his talk radio populist conservatism.


Asked whether he’s sure Toronto wouldn’t benefit from a diversity of revenue tools, as pretty much all big cities outside this country have, he reiterates, “I believe that people are paying lots of tax in their lives.”

He veers in a different direction before I can argue the inherent unsustainability of maintaining, let alone increasing, city services and building transit on the back of a property tax base that he won’t even consider raising beyond the rate of inflation. 

The provincial and federal governments, he says, “are not making the level of investments they should be making in this city.”

His message to them, he says, is “‘Treat us only the same as you’d treat any other city of 3 million people in Ontario or Canada.’ But of course there aren’t any others. This city deserves to be treated differently.”

For those who pay attention to the structural obstacles slowly asphyxiating Toronto, this entreaty is obvious.

But in the three and a half months he’s been mayor, Tory appears to have moved on from the just-ask-nicely-and-they’ll-share approach to intergovernmental relations he touted in the campaign. That certainly didn’t work when he thought he’d come to an agreement with the premier concerning pooled housing costs, only to be smacked down by her finance minister hours after he assured the public it was pretty much a done deal.

Sometimes, when demanding your fair share, you have to be adversarial. He’s learning.

Shelley Carroll sits on the Budget Committee, the Toronto Police Services Board and the Toronto Transit Commission. The councillor for Ward 33 (Don Valley East) is also the deputy speaker.

A left-leaning Liberal who served as Mayor David Miller’s budget chief in his second term, Carroll initially suspected the diverse assignments were about keeping her too busy to cause trouble.

“I thought it was just, ‘Give her jobs and we’ll keep her out of the building and keep her mouth shut,'” she says in an interview. But to her pleasant surprise, the mayor’s staff “haven’t been that bad.”

Carroll is cheerful when discussing Tory’s openness to differences of opinion and his ability to grow.

She says that unlike the previous mayor, who didn’t care to learn a single thing in his 10 years on council, “John has a little more patience for when you disagree with him, understanding why. And he might still disagree with you, but he just learned something more about the process.”


Cheol Joon Baek

Carroll praises Tory’s high degree of trust in veteran councillors, such that she could advise him she wouldn’t support a motion of his but still walk out of the room as friends and keep a working relationship.

“He had certain assumptions coming in, you know, from [his] perch over there at Newstalk 1010. You’re surrounded by one-sided viewpoints a lot of times,” she says. “But he’s capable of absorbing facts, and so he is not closing the door to people. He’s listening to what they have to say.”

The big question, then, is whether Tory will round the learning curve in time to come on board with some of the more politically challenging policies needed for Toronto’s long-term health.

During a break in council’s budget deliberations last week, Carroll was happily explaining to any reporter who would listen the necessity of diversifying the city’s revenue sources. No other large city in the world funds virtually all its costs through the property tax base, she warned, and unless some of the burden is shifted to new revenue tools, “you’re gonna start driving seniors from their homes.”

Do you think the mayor grasps this? I asked.

“No,” she answered bluntly and without hesitation. “I really don’t.” 

When, just before the December 1 start of the new term of council, the Globe reported Tory was “seriously considering” naming Denzil Minnan-Wong as his deputy mayor, I was stunned. It felt like a jarring betrayal of the bridge-building platform on which he’d run, and seemed to validate progressives’ fears that he was in fact a hard-right conservative who’d been misleadingly packaged as a moderate.

Minnan-Wong, the councillor for Ward 34 (Don Valley East), was Ford’s chair of the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee. He is a far-right ideologue who seems gleeful to antagonize those he disagrees with, and is also – quite contrary to Tory’s own brand – a proud social conservative.

On June 11, 2013, for example, he exempted himself from council’s moment of silence marking the passing of Dr. Henry Morgentaler, announcing he couldn’t show recognition for someone “who’s responsible for the deaths of countless babies.” A few months earlier, during a debate on a policy to help undocumented immigrants access city services, Minnan-Wong railed against “illegal immigrants” who arrive at Pearson and immediately head to “the welfare office” searching out “free money.”


On the eve of taking office, Tory’s selections were revealed: Minnan-Wong would indeed be his official deputy mayor (in addition to three others who’d symbolically share the title), and Frances Nunziata would be his recommendation for council speaker.

Nunziata, the councillor for Ward 11 (York South-Weston) and a former mayor of York, was the lone member of council to endorse Ford for mayor at his March 2010 campaign launch. He later picked her as his speaker, a role to which she was nearly as ill suited as he was to his own job.

Far from acting as an objective overseer of meetings, as per council’s procedures bylaw, Nunziata spent the 2010-14 term doling out arbitrary, inconsistent and sometimes spiteful rule interpretations that typically favoured the interest of the then-mayor.

Even more remarkable than Tory’s opting for her to continue in the post was his seeming surprise that the pick was contentious. Only when Councillor Maria Augimeri indicated that she’d put her name forward to challenge Nunziata did Tory’s office become quasi-apologetic, suggesting they’d expect a higher standard from Nunziata and even send her off to study speakers at other levels of government. (Indeed, she’s improved more in the last three and a half months than she had in the previous four years.)


Cheol Joon Baek

Tory’s term has seen a number of similar incidents of unnecessary or avoidable controversies resulting from greenness and lack of institutional memory. 

Each election brings brand new councillors from outside City Hall. But Tory is the first person since Oliver Aiken Howland (who served two terms in 1901-02) to become Toronto’s mayor without previous service on council. 

New councillors oftentimes compensate for their inexperience by hiring staff who’ve been around for a bit. Of the 19 staffers in Tory’s office, only two have spent time at the Hall: Chris Phibbs, Tory’s senior adviser on council relations, who worked as an executive assistant to Councillor Kyle Rae for more than a decade, and then did five years in Mayor Miller’s office as an adviser on planning issues and principal secretary Vic Gupta, who spent a year and a half working for Councillor Rob Davis just after amalgamation and later hung around the building as a Sussex Strategy Group lobbyist.

Most of the rest come with experience from the other levels of government, where traditions and practises are markedly different.

On Wednesday, March 11, city councillors moved 57 motions to amend the 2015 capital and operating budgets and request related reports from staff.

Of those, 31 were from now councillor Ford, including one motion that was ruled out of order for seeking to eliminate a program that didn’t actually exist.

Of the 26 non-Ford motions, 24 passed, one failed and another was ruled redundant due to an earlier vote. Mayor Tory voted against seven of those that carried, all of which were moved by left-wingers: three by Janet Davis, two by Gord Perks and one each by Sarah Doucette and Mike Layton. Those motions pertained to everything from service-level reviews to skateboard facilities, and had an average margin of victory of slightly more than two to one. Tory was on the losing side of each, which wasn’t so much a scandal as it was simply odd.

While Mayor Ford was on the losing side of a handful of votes in his own first budget, those margins of victory were much narrower. That is to say, even on the 2011 votes he lost, Ford exercised discipline over roughly half of council. Tory, on the other hand, often found himself in a more meagre minority. 

There’s something to be said for not sweating the small stuff. And on all the really important votes, council achieved something close to consensus. The mayor’s own key amendment passed 39-4 – but it involved partially undoing a bizarre cut to the offices of the ombudsman and integrity commissioner that had been made abruptly by his own Budget Committee.

Tory says he’s not rankled that he has limited control over council, and points out that when he was PC leader he was a fan of free votes.

“Was I bothered that a couple of those motions that I voted a particular way on carried or didn’t carry because it was on the other side of me?” he says. “To me, it’s democracy.”

Against my better judgment, I find myself kinda liking him.

“He’s new here,” says Janet Davis, councillor for Ward 31. “His staff are new here. I wish he had brought in with him some more staff who had more experience in the municipal environment and the way that governance in the municipal realm works. Because I think he’s struggling a bit to find his feet and how to move the agenda forward in a non-parliamentary governance structure.”

Unlike Carroll, who feels valued and listened to, the Beaches-East York rep is on the outside looking in. The NDPer and long-time advocate of affordable public childcare hasn’t been given any appointments and wasn’t among the large number of councillors invited to the mayor’s office to talk over the budget.

But she’s cautiously optimistic.

“It is not clear yet what the direction of this government is going to be,” Davis says. “It can go any which way. There are enough signals from everything that John Tory has done so far that he doesn’t want to cut services, he doesn’t want to raise taxes, and he wants to build the city and transit. The hard part is, you can’t do all those things.”


Cheol Joon Baek

Tory, who outside of election campaigns is a nice guy who very much wants people to like him, thinks he can have it every way at once. It’s not unusual for council to be a site of conflict between factions that want to invest and other factions that want to hold the line. It’s just novel for those contrary instincts to exist within the same person.

Does the mayor ever find his compassion and deeply held belief in fiscal conservatism running up against each other?

“All the time,” he admits. “That’s the challenge of the job.”

More than learning about processes, relationships, structures and programs, Mayor John Tory’s greatest learning curve will likely involve getting to know himself, and figuring out what happens when his irreconcilable inclinations meet the art of governing.

With files from Ben Spurr. | @goldsbie

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