It's going to be one hell of a year around City Hall in 2003. Elections tend to have that effect on the municipal calendar. Count on it.Things should really start to get interesting by the end of this month. Some time before February 1, Mayor Mel Lastman has promised to announce his plans for the future. Word has it His Washup will finally pack it in after 30 years in politics and leave the chief magistrate's office to someone who's up to the job. But the big question is who.
Conservative backroom boy John Tory now seems to be the top choice for mayoral candidate among the corporate crowd who manoeuvred Lastman into position in 1997 and again in 2000. The Rogers Cable guy has never run for elected office in his life, but Blue Jays boss Paul Godfrey and his operatives see nothing wrong with this. In fact, they consider Tory's lack of hands-on political experience an asset, considering the current reputation of Toronto city council.
Problem is, Tory was one of the key people who helped orchestrate Lastman's first victory at the megacity polls just over five years ago. And the pay-per-view CEO recently said he'd support the mayor again if he decides to seek a third term, because, dammit, he's done such a bloody good job running the city.
Into the ground, maybe.
Still, the thinking is that if Lastman retires and Tory quickly tosses his hat into the ring, it will keep other would-be right-of-centre candidates from getting into the fray. The big loser in this scenario appears to be deputy mayor Case Ootes.
The councillor for Ward 29 (Toronto-Danforth) was once considered the odds-on favourite to succeed Lastman in the hearts and minds of the conservative cabal that dictates what goes on at 100 Queen West. But it was recently decided that Ootes is just too darned dull to make a go of it -- even if former mayor Barbara Hall and councillor David Miller both run for the top job and manage to split the left-wing vote.
That's quite the indictment. And it has apparently left the deputy mayor's nose badly out of joint and more than a few people wondering how he'll respond if Tory decides -- as he's done on other occasions -- not to take a chance on losing.
Word in local political circles is that in spite of his recent involvement with the United Way and the over-hyped Toronto Summit, Tory isn't doing all that well in informal polls offering up the names of potential Lastman successors. Which is why John Nunziata, the former renegade MP from York South-Weston, has said he plans to run for mayor regardless of what his old law school classmate does.
And it's also why the likes of councillors Paul Sutherland and Doug Holyday are publicly musing about running for the city's top political job, while former councillor Tom Jakobek also contemplates a comeback.
As of this week, candidates for city council can legally start raising the money they'll need to join the November 20 civic runoff. While hopefuls in our 44 wards are each allowed to spend about $25,000 to win a local government seat, mayoral candidates will need to raise $1 million or more to be considered serious contenders.
Fortunately for them, there are more than a few people out there who will shell out cash to more than one contestant in order to give themselves a better chance of having an oar in the water once all the votes have been tabulated.
If you're looking for a prediction here, mine is that there'll be at least four candidates on the mayoral ballot. The election will be one of the hardest won in recent history, because of the urban-versus-suburban conflicts that will break out along the campaign trail. Voter turnout will be high -- in the range of 50 per cent of eligible voters -- and the early favourite will finish back in the pack.
Also, the Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry will carry on well into the summer, ensuring that all the intimate details of how a $43-million computer deal turned into a $100-million fiasco will remain fresh in voters' minds.
It's still early days in the judicial probe of the leasing contract the city signed with Mississauga's MFP Financial Services four years ago. Already, it has dealt Lastman's political legacy a crushing blow and raised serious questions about who's actually responsible for what goes on at City Hall.
And there will be other casualties once Justice Denise Bellamy turns in her findings on what the judicial probe uncovers. That report will be a major issue in the mayoral campaign, as will a debate over the privatization of municipal services.
Toronto homeowners will still be smarting from a third consecutive property tax hike (an increase of about 12 per cent over the course of council's current three-year term) and wondering why they're paying more and getting less.
Make no mistake, it's going to be one hell of a year.