Municipal councils have long been farm teams for the big leagues of provincial and federal politics. But you don't often see members of local government showing off their stuff more than two years before the electoral season gets underway on the senior circuit. And doing it in herds.
Heck, no fewer than seven members of Toronto council made trips to the provincial riding of Dufferin-Peel-Wellington-Grey this month to help John Tory, fledgling leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, rack up a by-election win and a seat in the provincial legislature. Some of them weren't even card-carrying PeeCees. Not yet, anyway.
"He appeals to all parties," says Jane Pitfield, the councillor for Ward 26 (Don Valley West), who made two trips to DPWG to canvass on Tory's behalf and join his March 17 victory party.
Pitfield, who's never been a member of any political party, concedes she's giving serious thought to joining the Conservatives as a first step toward becoming a candidate in the next provincial election, set for October 2007.
How many other Toronto councillors (like Denzil Minnan-Wong, Case Ootes, Mark Grimes, Rob Ford, David Soknacki and Raymond Cho) who hit the hustings on behalf of the new provincial PeeCee boss are entertaining similar thoughts about their political future? Only time will tell. But Tory - whose strong second-place showing behind David Miller in the city's 2003 mayoral election gave him a powerful push toward the Conservative leadership - makes it clear he'd be more than happy to have them on side.
"When you're looking to put together a team, especially in a city like Toronto where [the provincial Conservatives] don't hold any seats and where I have deemed it important for us to re-establish our credibility, of course you'd be delighted that council members might have some interest," Tory says. "I'm very committed to making sure we have a strong Toronto.'
The former cable exec has already made it clear that he plans to run in a Toronto riding come 2007 - most likely Don Valley West, where former school trustee Kathleen Wynne (who, it should be noted, had Pitfield's support when she defeated Conservative MPP David Turnbull in 2003) is the rookie Liberal incumbent. But Tory insists the Conservatives will need more than just their leader representing Toronto at Queen's Park if they're going to form "a credible government."
Former councillor John Adams has no doubt that, given the Grits' record of broken promises, this will come to pass and Tory will be the next premier. Like Pitfield, who's also convinced the current leader of the official opposition is en route to "inevitable success," Adams is giving serious thought to seeking the Conservative nomination in a central T.O. riding.
The self-described Bill Davis Conservative is optimistic that Tory can re-establish his party as a "mainstream Conservative positive alternative" to the McGuinty Grits. "They said things they didn't have to say, and now they're stuck with them,' Adams says.
Adams believes Conservative candidates with city council experience could be the key to that political "renaissance.' He was an early supporter of David Miller's mayoral ambitions, and says he's convinced that Tory's good relationship with the chief magistrate will benefit the city. "They fought against one another in the municipal election and forged a deep respect for each other," says Adams.
According to Pitfield, "John Tory really understands Toronto.' She expresses skepticism about "the new City of Toronto Act and all that stuff' that McGuinty and Co. are pushing as evidence that they're sensitive to Toronto's growing crisis. But she does concede, "I don't know [if local Tory seats] are necessarily going to be the cure.' The Liberals' possession of 19 of Toronto's 22 seats in the legislature hasn't been the remedy for the city's ills - making that government increasingly vulnerable to a Tory resurgence in these parts.
This helps explain why little-known Etobicoke-Lakeshore MPP Laurel Broten was trotted out to a firehall in her riding yesterday (Wednesday) to announce a funding program for municipal fire departments. Never mind that Community Safety Minister Monte Kwinter had already unveiled the $30 million a day earlier. It was somehow deemed necessary for Broten to trumpet the fact that T.O. will get $1 million from the kitty. Watch for more of these antics in the months ahead. The Liberals clearly know they face a serious challenge.