Is this the next mayor?

In his own mind, maybe, but others wonder why John Nunziata is so eager for a suicide run against Mel

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The Canuck flags flying outside John Nunziata’s constituency office on this brisk spring morning are, like Nunziata’s political fortunes of recent years, a little tattered.

The York-South Weston MP who was once the brattiest member of the famous Grit Rat Pack and who was exiled by the Liberal Party for his anti-GST crusade is once again trying to push his way back onto the front page.

The man who bobbed and weaved his way around the political landscape — from his early support for NDPer Donald MacDonald to his recent public flirtation with the Reform party — now wants to sit in Mel Lastman’s chair.

Strategy meet

Nunziata hasn’t formally declared, but two weeks ago, 80 supporters gathered at his mother-in-law’s house in the tony Old Mill area of Etobicoke. Among those in attendance to strategize were Peterson Liberal Dan Rath and Tory pollster John Myky-tyshyn (adviser to Alliance leadership hopeful Tom Long).

Former Lastman organizer Steve Baduci and a senior VP from Sun Media are also onside.

Is there really a base of support out there for a politico who talks populist left but who has an Alliance party obsession with state-stripping tax cuts? Or are all these operatives merely sharing in the former York councillor’s delusions of grandeur?

Nunziata’s leaning in over my tape recorder, making sure I get everything over the din of chattering breakfasters at a local greasy spoon.

He wants me to understand how he will transform Toronto into a cultural city state where public transit, recreation and the arts are the cornerstones.

“All this rhetoric about ‘world-class’ is a non-starter,” he tells me. “You can’t say we’re world-class when people are dying in the streets and we have the level of poverty we do,” he says as the teenager listening in from the next booth blows cigarette smoke and hangs on his every word.

Excellent targeting. Great messaging for NOW readers. Prostitution and squeegee kids? We need to provide socially sensitive alternatives, Nunziata says. Policing? Focus on organized crime, not cracking down on raves.

While we’re at it, what about pot? Simple possession should be treated like a speeding ticket, he says. For the record, Nunziata inhaled — more than once.

“Any self-respecting student of the 70s, if they didn’t smoke pot then there’s something wrong,” he tells me.

Good shot.

“People want to label me,” Nunziata says. “I look at issues based on what’s in the public interest.”

He’s been approached, he admits, by all three leading Alliance leadership hopefuls to run federally, but swears that “my partisan days are over.”

But he might have to forgive observers for asking, “Yeah? For how many minutes?”

Nunziata is a likeable sort. It’s easy to get wrapped up in his anti-establishment musings.

But the man who’s made an art of political reincarnation and misplaced causes has, it seems, already used up his political capital, squandering it in strange sorties like his involvement in an attempt to oust then Liberal leader John Turner and his bid for the Liberal leadership that drew more snickers than votes. Then there was his flagrant courting of Reform at its first United Alternative convention.

It would really be astonishing if he had a groundswell of support anywhere but in his own riding — which, it’s true, he won handily after being tossed from the federal Liberal caucus.

As one city hall politico offers: “John is a very big fish in a very small pond that’s called York South-Weston. That’s about the extent of his influence.”

Critics will say Nunziata has always had an overblown idea of his own political weight — of what he as an independent member could accomplish, of what coalitions he was capable of energizing.

Nunziata bristles at the suggestion.

Desperate operatives

The cynical might even say that his mayoral dreaming might only be possible because some desperate operatives out there have run out of human political material and need him for their own purposes.

Perhaps Alliance-oriented types who want to shake up Mel’s kingdom from the right?

Which brings us to Nunziata’s scary property tax idea: he wants to cut them dramatically.

There are more than a few Tories at Queen’s Park, the premier among them, who think the city could be realizing more savings from amalgamation, tax cuts included.

To hear Mykytyshyn tell it, Lastman gave the unions representing city workers too much in recent contract negotiations, hasn’t done enough to streamline staff and has been too slow to shut down the six city halls.

Queen’s Park decision-makers are worried, too, he says, that Lastman is now making noise about property tax hikes next year.

“People like me who supported him three years ago had high hopes,” Mykytyshyn says. “No one on council has made him accountable and no one in the media has made him accountable.”

Those with their ear to the ground say Nunziata’s really the Tories’ “ace in the hole,” someone they can at least use to rattle Lastman’s cage or run with in the off chance that Mel decides to step down.

“Look at which Tory MPPs are backing (Alliance hopeful) Long,” says one Tory, “and you’ll have a pretty good idea who’s behind Nunziata.”

There are even those who believe Nunziata has some of the same from-the-people charisma that has blessed Lastman.

“He’s one of the few who could give Mel a run for the roses,” says Tory councillor Rob Davis, a Lastman supporter who’s locked horns with Nunziata in the past and lost.

“He’s a populist like Mel. He understands the pulse and what people are thinking.”

Screws up

The media may not be so forgiving of Mel when he screws up this time around, either. As another pundit offers: “What Nunziata does well is get under people’s skin. Mel’s going to react, and that’s when the media’s going to jump on him.”

Much will depend on what happens in court this week. Nunziata is challenging a law that says he must resign his federal seat before he can officially register as a candidate for mayor.

It’s what’s made many think that he’s not completely serious about giving up his Ottawa gig — despite his claim that his heart is no longer in Ottawa.

“People sort of know that John flirts with these things,” says Jeff Lyons, a Lastman fundraiser who used to practise law with Nunziata and was among the first to introduce the mayoral wannabe to conservative circles. “But where he’s really going is another story. I’d be surprised to see his name on the ballot.”

But Nunziata tells me he’s prepared to resign his seat for the mayoralty.

For now, at least, he’s keeping up mayoral appearances.

He’s been to every city council meeting for the last three months trying to line up support.

His schedule last week included an appearance on Ryerson campus radio station CKLN, a political fundraiser in Etobicoke and a charity run in the west end.

A sly smile creeps across Nunziata’s lips.

“I’m not naive,” he says. “I know I’ll be the underdog. Mel Lastman doesn’t scare me.”

Maybe it’s all bravado. Or maybe the prince of York South-Weston will actually give up his sinecure to take a run at a seemingly unbeatable Mel.

And what a choice that would be for the voter trapped in the voting booth this fall. Place your X for a photo opp king who careens from crisis to crisis.

Or for a sometime populist being pushed by the most radical elements of the Tory party.

1977 Graduates with bachelor of arts, political science, York University

1978 Elected city of York councillor

1980 Earns bachelor of laws, Osgoode Hall Law School

1984 Elected Liberal MP for York South-Weston appointed official opposition critic for the solicitor general

1990 Makes ill-fated bid for the Liberal leadership

1992 Appointed official opposition critic for employment

1996 Kicked out of Liberal caucus over the GST

1997 Re-elected to a fourth straight term as MP for York South-Weston

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