For a moment or two on tuesday morning, June 24, I could swear I've been transported back to Toronto's 1997 mayoral campaign. Here I am, seated in a comfy hotel ballroom impatiently waiting for a debate to break out among the five "main" candidates lusting to be the city's next chief magistrate, when this little guy with incredible attitude steps up to the mike and starts promising everybody a property tax freeze. It takes a pretty good pinch on the arm to snap me out of a state of déjà vu that has me believing I'm listening to Melvin Douglas Lastman all over again. Once the pain ends, I can better focus on the podium and soon realize it's John Nunziata mouthing off about frozen mill rates. It doesn't seem to bother him that the practice as followed by Lastman during his first three-year term led to tax hikes of almost 13 per cent over the course of the next three years.
But what the hell. The promise got Mel six years in the big office overlooking Nathan Phillips Square, and it just might be worth another try. Toss in some law-and-order talk spiced up with pledges of "zero tolerance" for graffiti artists, squeegee people and panhandlers and you've got another Lastman just waiting to happen.
"People get upset when the mayor and council don't have the right priorities," Nunziata tells about 100 members of the Greater Toronto Home Builders Association at the Weston Prince Hotel on York Mills Road.
The former independent MP for York South-Weston has been by far the most aggressive of the five "serious" mayoral hopefuls during the early public forums leading up to the November 10 municipal election. He characterizes Barbara Hall, former mayor of the pre-amalgamation city and acknowledged front-runner now, as a dangerous tax-and-spend lefty who's soft on crime. That's pretty much the same picture Lastman painted of Hall when he campaigned against her successfully six years ago.
"Can you imagine if the NDP were in charge of City Hall?" Nunziata asks the crowd of developers. Lastman found the same sort of question very effective in debates six years ago.
But the electoral dynamics are completely different this time around. Instead of just two contestants, there are five entered in a fray that's already gone on more than twice as long as traditional civic campaigns. As a result, the combatants have plenty of time to adapt to their opponents' strategies. Nunziata is starting to find this out first hand. And while he may focus his attacks on the left, he receives his hardest hit at Tuesday's debate from supposed right-winger John Tory, the former Rogers Cable exec and long-time Conservative backroom boy.
It's Tory who brings up what he considers glaring inconsistencies in some of the positions Nunziata's taken of late. For example, there's that picture he's been painting of City Hall as a corrupt institution populated by politicians who are "anti-people" and "anti-business." Tory wants to know how Nunziata can make such accusations when his own sister, Frances, the councillor for Ward 11 (York South-Weston), has consistently voted with the dreaded Lastman gang.
Nunziata's clearly rocked by the shot. And it's not the only hit he takes. Another jab lands squarely when it's pointed out that at a forum sponsored by a residents group last week the ex-MP said developers were part of the city's corruption crisis. How could he turn around six days later and tell a development crowd that once he becomes mayor the city will be "open for business." Ouch!
Tory's been trailing Nunziata in public opinion polls so far, and it's clear the cable exec's decided to make a stronger pitch for the right-of-centre voters who were supposed to be his bread and butter. At the same time, Tory appears to be reaching back to Tom Jakobek, the former budget chief whose own right-wing campaign for the mayoralty was dealt a devastating blow when he confessed to the Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry that he lied about accepting a chartered flight to a Maple Leafs playoff game in Philadelphia four years ago. On several occasions during the debate, Tory praises Jakobek's proposal to charge developers a flat-rate administration fee instead of sticking them with permit charges and development levies.
Tory's biggest weakness remains his long-standing relationship with Lastman and his association with political puppet master and current Blue Jays boss Paul Godfrey. Councillor David Miller challenges Tory to explain how he can claim to represent a new approach to municipal politics when he chaired Lastman's two successful mayoralty campaigns and acted as an adviser to the retiring chief magistrate.
"I haven't been a member of city council for the past nine years like you have," Tory shoots back. He'll have to do better than that if he's going to move up on Miller, who's seen to be neck-and-neck with Nunziata for second place behind Hall. She continues to stress her past experience as a civic leader with a talent for consensus-building, while everyone else jockeys for position behind her.
Alas, things are likely to slow down considerably during a summer that will put meet-and greet barbecues ahead of the debates that have been put on hold until September. Quips Tory: "We might actually start to miss each other, although I suspect we'll get over it." I'm sure they will.