Cheol Joon Baek
The scene: the green room at TVO studios on Yonge Street. The occasion: the first post-Labour Day mayoral debate, which aired Tuesday (September 7).
Stage left: the standard-bearer of the city's progressive forces, Joe Pantalone, studiously poring over briefing notes. He's got his game face on.
He'll emerge an hour later from the taping to declare himself the winner to the assembled media.
"Okay. Who wants to talk to Joe Pantalone?" he asks, clapping his hands and rubbing them a little.
No takers among the television types. Citytv's too busy hounding Rob Ford for a quote on accessibility issues. Go figure. The others corner Rocco Rossi and George Smitherman for a sound bite.
Pantalone doesn't let on, but the episode can't be anything but deflating. Getting serious notice hasn't been easy for him. As part of the David Miller regime that's found itself talking to a hostile City Hall press gallery in its last days, Pantalone has few friends in this group.
Even his big moment in the sun this week, being introduced as la-bour's choice at the annual Labour Day parade Monday, was crashed by Rossi and Sarah Thomson. They weren't invited by the official organizers but came anyway to rain on Pantalone's parade - and they did, hogging the press coverage.
The silver lining for Pantalone is that Rossi's and Thomson's antics may be a clue that at least some of his opponents are taking his campaign seriously. The sight of Pantalone marching in front of 20,000 strong unionists should unnerve his competition, all of whom have been talking about bringing the city's unions to heel and privatizing city services.
The challenge for Pantalone, however, hasn't been just getting heard by the masses, but also overcoming the "default candidate of the left" label he's carried since the mayoral bid of the chosen one, Adam Giambrone, went down in flames in February.
The opposition has been both within and without. There's a generation gap for Pantalone to overcome among his lefty constituency, too; the young activists in the enviro and labour movements so keen on Giambrone and important to David Miller's mayoralty could defect to Smitherman if and when the time comes to head off Ford. They may want to reconsider now that Smitherman is following Ford's lead and drifting incomprehensibly further to the right.
"George Smitherman doesn't know who he is," Pantalone tells me . "All he knows is that he wants to be mayor. That's not good enough."
On the policy front, Pantalone's got his bases covered. After 30 years in municipal politics, you'd expect nothing less. Check his platform: he actually has one that doesn't involve selling off assets holus-bolus or privatizing one aspect or another of the public service.
Which is to say that unlike some of his opponents, Pantalone is looking to build on what he calls the "transformative" accomplishments of the last seven years and invest rather than cut spending and services.
His emphasis has been on the positive - a novel approach given all the vitriol from his opponents about what's supposedly wrong with the city. Listening to them, you'd think we lived in a bombed-out version of Buffalo, despite good evidence to the contrary: a UN rating as one of the top cities in the world, accolades for our green initiatives, a double-A rating from Moody's.
Trying to outrun the Miller legacy early in the race, Pantalone seems now to have embraced it full on. He says those early mixed signals were to help distinguish him from the mayor, and he hints now at a possible endorsement from Miller. As his deputy for the past six-plus years, that would seem a given.
No more soft-pedalling on Transit City either, the ambitious plan to build light rail transit across the city. The plan he seemed to distance himself from early in the race, invoking the spectre of St. Clair-style budget overruns, was a flashpoint.
Unlike some of his opponents, he's had no skeletons rattling around in the closet - no lost DUI convictions or assault charges, no "I didn't inhale" stories or incidents involving telling rival campaign volunteers to go fuck themselves.
Pantalone would seem a natural for a city looking for a steady hand on the tiller in tumultuous times, even if, as he acknowledged during the TVO debate, he's not the kind of guy "that's going to set the prairie grass on fire just by entering the room."
But no such luck so far, at least according to recent polls. Where does Pantalone fit in?
It seems you can't talk about politics without talking about aesthetics, as harsh as that may sound. In front of the cameras, he's still very much finding his feet. "I'm getting better - that's what people tell me," he says.
The diminutive Pantalone likes to joke about his height. That self-deprecation is mildly endearing, but I wish he'd stop it, because it can only diminish him in the eyes of some voters, and in politics looking the part is just as important as playing the part. During the TVO debate, Rossi made a crack about basketball being Pantalone's weakness. So others must be, too, even if it's only in fun.
Another theme that gets Pantalone laughs on the campaign trail is the one about how he came from Italy at the age of 13 speaking only two words of English: "ya" and "no."
But his rags-to-deputy-mayor immigrant story is no joke. Unlike the other paisan in this race, Pantalone likes to say that he went to Harbord, not Harvard (actually Princeton in Rossi's case). Pantalone also has a degree in geography from U of T). It's too bad that inspiring narrative is getting lost in the political ether.
For just as there may be questions for voters about Pantalone, there's also a question about Toronto voters: are they ready for a guy like Pantalone, an anti-candidate who doesn't quite fit the mould?
For some, it may be hard to get past the accented English. As articulate as Pantalone is, there's no getting around the fact that he speaks a different language, literally as well as politically. His is the discursive style of philosophers. Sometimes the tangents are too many, which throws listeners off track and makes him a little hard to understand.
But if Toronto's ready for an openly gay mayor - albeit one with a name that doesn't end in a vowel - then maybe we're ready for Pantalone. He's certainly seemed more in the game lately, getting that furrow in his brow and a little fire in his belly.
"We're in a fight for the soul of the city," he says.
No doubt a few among his lefty supporters wish he'd get a little angrier in debates, but that's just not Pantalone.
There's a reason he's managed to be a player at City Hall through the political thick and thin over three decades. Pantalone's kept his friends close and perceived political enemies closer.
During the Lastman regime, he alone among the lefties was able to snag key posts - and smooth the way for a young up-and-comer who'd be a future mayor, one David Miller, to land a seat on the TTC board.
Who can lay more claim to the mayoralty? Neither Rossi nor Thomson has the experience. Smitherman is unclear on just what he stands for. And Ford, to put it mildly, is no consensus-builder.
For Pantalone, there's nowhere to go but up.