David Soknacki speaks to reporters after his Board of Trade speech on January 23, 2014. Photo by Ben Spurr.
Mayoral candidate David Soknacki began his speech at the Toronto Region Board of Trade on Thursday by joking that reporters who showed up had drawn the "short straw."
Given the current mayor's unpredictability, he suggested, Rob Ford's speech to the Economic Club of Canada, scheduled to take place the same lunch hour, would likely be more of a show.
"This one will be less entertaining and I'm afraid it's going to take a little more analysis," Soknacki quipped.
He didn't know the half of it. Soknacki was apparently unaware that Ford had failed to show up at the Hilton Hotel for his noon start time. The mayor was a no-show for about an hour, fuelling speculation about the whereabouts of the city's troubled leader.
It turned out he was stuck in an elevator for 45 minutes.
The episode was illustrative of the stark difference between the two candidates, who are so far the only major contenders to have officially entered the race.
As the drama of the missing mayor was still unfolding, Soknacki took to the podium looking relaxed and professional in a jacket and dress shirt undone at the collar. He then launched into an articulate but dry speech about improving the city's economic competititveness.
Hitting on the central theme of his campaign to date, he told the audience of roughly 100 people that he would aggressively fight the gridlock that is hampering Toronto's economy. As part of that effort, he vowed to accelerate the the completion of major projects like the Eglinton Crosstown LRT if he wins the October 27 vote.
"The Crosstown line is scheduled to be open in 2020. That's a long time. And no other major project takes nearly as long," Soknacki said. He promised to create a new position in the mayor's office dedicated to streamlining infrastructure contruction.
The former Scarborough councillor also reiterated his support for the Scarborough LRT, which he said is less expensive and would serve more people than the council-approved subway. He plans to cancel the underground line if he's elected.
"I'm still astounded to be the only mayoral candidate who believes it's better to have more rapid transit than less, for more people, years sooner, at half the price, without a property tax increase," he said.
A self-described fiscal conservative, Soknacki pledged to "look long, hard, and constructively" for savings in the city's biggest departments. He singled out the $1-billion budget for the police, which he said was based on an outdated conception of the force's role that hasn't been reviewed "in a generation."
The founder of a successful spice importing business, Soknacki spent much of his speech touting his experience as an entrepreneur, and laid out a string of pro-commerce proposals including making it easier to obtain a business license, and making open data "a top priority" to encourage tech start-ups.
He said he was against the mayor's efforts to reduce or eliminate the land transfer tax, but hopes to find a way to make it less "punitive" for first-time home buyers.
As the former budget chief under Mayor David Miller, he took credit for lessening the tax burden on businesses in 2005, and criticized Ford, then a councillor, for missing the vote.
While he called out Ford for failing to combat rising unemployment rates and red tape, Soknacki was unwilling to attack the mayor for his well-documented drug and alcohol use or for his links to alleged gang members.
He tried to pivot when reporters asked about the mayor's latest headline-grabbing gaffe, in which he was filmed intoxicated and rambling in a fake Jamaican accent at an Etobicoke restaurant.
"You're going to have to speak to the mayor. I'm speaking on the issues and the things that are important," he said. "He acted in my view improperly, but it's not my voice that matters nearly as much as the people's voice at the end of October."
When asked if he was surprised that Ford's political career is still alive despite last year's crack cocaine scandal, the candidate offered this explanation: "There will always be... a group that wants lower taxes at any costs," he said.
"And I think what I will be brining forward is a view to say, 'Listen, we can build a great and prosperous city where taxes are part of the fabric.'"