listening to the buzz on the political back streets these days, you'd figure the next municipal election was just around the corner. It's not, of course. Voters don't get another opportunity to pass judgment on a full slate of city council candidates until November 2003. Pity.But thanks to Mayor Mel Lastman's very public descent into the depths of political dementia, the unofficial campaign to replace him in the chief magistrate's chair is already underway. And the machinations that make civic government a perfect case study for scholars of Machiavelli will become all the more intriguing 10 days from now, when Barbara Hall opens her Exhibition of public Popularity at a gallery in the downtown YMCa building.
The event is billed as a "reunion" of the kindly folk who've supported Hall throughout her life in politics. But the gathering is also a signal from the former old city of Toronto mayor that, come hell or even a Lazarus-like resurrection of Lastman's fortunes, she's in the race to redeem her 1997 loss in the inaugural megacity election to the clown prince of North York.
The affair is also intended as a message to David Miller, the councillor for Ward 13 (Parkdale-High Park), that Hall has served out her comfortable exile as chair of the National Strategy on Community Safety and Crime Prevention and is back to assume her rightful place as champion of the middle-left. And she'll be sure to get the word out that her five-year hiatus with Ottawa's ruling Liberal dynasty has given her a better understanding of the so-called "middle" than she had during her previous incarnation as the inner-city darling of power-starved New Democrats.
The folks lined up to the right of Toronto's political centre will be watching with great fascination. They want to see if Miller -- the Kennedyesque up-and-comer -- takes the hint and puts his own mayoral ambitions on hold. Or will he ignore the sign language and keep riding his wave of growing popularity in hopes that a word-of-mouth primary will convince people with money to burn on the altar of local democracy that it's time for a new generation of leadership at City Hall?
Those in the political establishment that bought Lastman power four years ago are now trying to make sure His Washup relinquishes it without totally destroying the in-crowd's bridge to influence at 100 Queen West. So strategy-minded brokers like Paul Godfrey, Ralph Lean and the ever-playful Gordon Chong are praying that Miller takes the less-travelled second path. If he stays in the race, they'll feel less pressured to limit the number of credible mayoral candidates with right-wing tendencies to just one.
In recent months, traditional Lastmanite support has been quietly lining up behind Case Ootes, the deputy mayor. The tactful councillor for Ward 29 (Toronto-Danforth) is coy about his designs on that next rung up the municipal ladder. But there's more spring in his step these days, and it comes from knowing he's the current favourite to get the keys to the machine that delivered his clay-footed overlord to Nathan Phillips Square.
However, there's growing worry about Tom Jakobek, the former councillor and veteran city budget chief. He may be preparing to throw caution to the winds in a bid to thwart the plans of the cabal that has, despite perennial promises that next time would be his time, repeatedly denied him its blessing.
Will Jakobek turn kamikaze?
"If there were an election today, I'd be in it," says the east-end operator, who maintains that some recent professional setbacks have been nothing more than a temporary nuisance. "I've always had a passion for the mayor's job, and it hasn't gone away. I think I'm better qualified than anyone else mentioned as a possible candidate. The biggest competition out there right now is Barbara Hall."
Jakobek has a hate-on for Hall that goes back to their days together on the pre-amalgamation Toronto council. His supposed patrons talked him out of challenging former mayor June Rowlands in 1994, and he had to watch as his left-wing nemesis, hall, took a long shot at unseating the establishment's preferred candidate and scored an upset. Jakobek hungers for a fight with Hall. It's become a personal thing.
The spectre of the pugnacious Jakobek entering the fray has other would-be competitors considering their chances of winning in a contest boasting a multitude of serious candidates from across the political spectrum.
"Give the electorate six or eight credible people to choose from and there will finally be a meaningful debate on the issues of concern to the public," argues Dennis Fotinos, a former Metro councillor and first-term member of the megacity government.
"We deserve that kind of a race," insists the political animal, who once had mayoral dreams of his own but gave them up to become chief executive officer at Enwave Energy Corporation. "This city is too complex and the future too important for it to come down to an either-or choice between two people."
That kind of passionate talk has councillors like Paul Sutherland, Doug Holyday and Brian Ashton thinking hard about putting their names on the mayoral ballot 22 months from now.
"If there were two candidates from the left (Miller and Hall), then there could be two from the right," says Holyday, the hard-line Conservative councillor for Ward 3 (Etobicoke Centre). "There might even be room for two from the right if there's only one from the left. The suburbs can change the whole complexion of the matter if all the other candidates are from the inner city."
Holyday, who served a term as Etobicoke mayor prior to amalgamation, dismisses Ootes as a Lastman apologist who'll be backed by the same people who supported the discredited agenda of the past four years.
"The status quo is unacceptable," Holyday declares. "I don't think the public wants to go down the same road any longer."
As for Jakobek, "He's nothing more than a middle-of-the-road Liberal dressed in neo-con clothing," the penny-pinching Etobicokan insists.
Ashton, the councillor for Ward 36 (Scarborough Southwest), would also be interested in seeking the mayoralty if the winner were to be decided in a wide-open race.
"It's in my head," says the political verteran, who currently holds the high-profile position of Toronto Transit Commission chair.
"The biggest fear you have is that a contingent of backroom politicos will try to pick one individual to avoid splits and accidents from occurring," Ashton adds. "I think the establishment has to come to terms with the change that has taken place in this city. What it needs now is a charismatic mayor with brains; someone who knows how to run a major corporation."
That's what Torontonians thought they were getting when they elected Lastman, but it hasn't turned out that way.
Better luck next time. And the time is upon us.