In the days when scrutiny of City Hall was limited to media, lobbyists and a handful of activists, democracy was not at its strongest.
At the other end of the awareness spectrum is the Rob Ford extreme, where a spectacle begins as useful for drawing eyes to politics but gradually ceases to serve a purpose greater than itself. Apathy isn't good for democracy, but neither is weariness.
Somewhere between the limited scrutiny and the grandiose spectacle was the mayoral debate hosted by the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada on Monday, May 26.
Alternately inspiring and eye-glazing, the affair was an experiment in maximal democracy, because election debates held at City Hall must be. The city's Policy On Use Of City Resources During An Election [pdf] specifies that all-candidates meetings may only be held at city facilities if all those registered to run are invited.
Of the 57 mayoral candidates on the ballot, nine took part: Olivia Chow and John Tory, the frontrunners not currently in treatment for addiction; David Soknacki and Karen Stintz, the poor poll performers counting on late ascendance; and Sarah Thomson, the now-perennial candidate who will continue to believe in herself long after anyone else does.
Also participating were Morgan Baskin, the intelligent and earnest 18-year-old; Dewitt Lee, the feisty advocate for the underserved; Michael Nicula, the self-proclaimed "new Rob Ford," who believes he's uniquely qualified to root out corruption at City Hall; and Erwin Sniedzins, once "voted the most innovative manager in Xerox" and whose last name rhymes with "pigeons."
Since all participants were afforded the opportunity to weigh in on each question, the event ran longer than the Stratford production of King Lear that opened the same night.
Even in Ford's absence, the leading candidates fell into their usual five-way game of rock-paper-scissors. With varying degrees of passive aggression, Stintz went after Tory and Chow; Chow went after Tory and Ford; Tory went after Ford and Chow; and Soknacki went after Ford.
Stintz, for example, used a question about restoring integrity and accountability to City Hall as a chance to attack Tory's leadership skills. "Mr. Tory had challenges managing his own caucus when he was the leader of the opposition," she said. "I don't know how he thinks he can manage a council."
This would be less silly an observation if Stintz hadn't conveniently ignored the fact that she did no better herding the Responsible Government Group - a right-wing council faction she chaired in the later Miller years - and utterly failed to achieve council buy-in for her doomed OneCity transit plan.
The lesser-known candidates primarily used the platform to talk up their own biographies and the atypical perspectives they bring.
Lee spoke of what he learned from the "immigrant-life rude awakening" he experienced when he started over in Toronto a decade ago after spending most of his life elsewhere.
"If you have a desire to succeed," he said, "this city will meet you halfway." He claims first-hand knowledge of our shelter system, saying he would sleep on benches, wake up, walk to a shelter, shower, put on a suit and "go out to seize the day, carpe diem. And the city met me halfway."
Throughout the debate, Lee shouted each sentence as if it were a grand proclamation, which is a handy approach when everyone else is beginning to drift off. But some sentences deserve to be bellowed. "We have to deal with our citizens with compassion," he announced. "The way our least are treated is a disgrace."
In trumpeting the gap between what Toronto is and what it could be, Lee embraced the heart of the election.
At its best, politics is a benevolent force that rouses us to act on our own behalf and that of the most marginalized. That mission and the things that make it compelling should be intertwined and inseparable. The best leaders excite us with the prospect of contributing to something better.
Right now, however, our politics is defined by the negative space left by the absence of a leader. Everything is framed in contrast to the incumbent.
"If you operate under the impression that local politics are boring," Jimmy Kimmel said when introducing Mayor Ford on his show in March, "you probably don't live in Toronto."
For those of us passionate about Toronto city government, that was a pronouncement laced equally with vindication and damnation.
To the extent that it serves to pique interest in municipal politics, entertainment value is important. The more compelling a narrative, and the more that seems to be at stake, the greater the level of civic engagement.
A reporter from Salam Toronto, a Persian-English weekly, asked the candidates why they think some people still support Ford, and what they have to offer that's different. It was a reasonable inquiry that produced interesting answers.
"I see the question as one of hope," said Soknacki, "because I think that we are moving forward, we are exorcising that ghost."
But Baskin, who kicked off the debate by plainly asserting "I'm not here as a joke," dismissed the question out of hand.
"I'm here because youth matter," she said. "I'm sorry, I'm not gonna comment on Rob Ford. You can look up why he won."