Even some of Mayor David Miller's staunchest supporters on the political right have had their eyebrows raised by word that Miller has enlisted renowned Tory bagman Ralph Lean to raise funds for his 2006 re-election campaign.
"These are the same guys a lot of us worked to get rid of," says a local businessman who campaigned hard for Miller two years ago in hopes of breaking the stranglehold that lawyer Lean, along with the likes of lobbyist Jeff Lyons and power broker Paul Godfrey, had on City Hall during Mel Lastman's tumultuous years.
"None of those guys wanted to give a dime to that raging socialist Miller last time," this concerned corporate backer recalls. "But now, all of a sudden, one of the leaders of that band is brought in to help David win a second term. What's happened here?"
Well, what's happened is this: with more than a year to go before Toronto voters pass judgment on Miller's first 36 months in office, the mayor's campaign team still isn't completely convinced their candidate can withstand a strong challenge from the right. Why?
Because the past few months haven't exactly been among the best. A summer's worth of gun violence made him look more reactionary than revolutionary on the law-and-order front.
Revelations that senior bureaucrats promoted friends in the municipal licensing department wasn't a great follow-up to the release of Justice Denise Bellamy's damning report on the bureaucratic and political corruption that led to the MFP computer leasing scandal.
And this week's divisional court ruling that effectively puts on hold the TTC's construction of a dedicated streetcar right-of-way on St. Clair is seen as a blow to Miller's city-building campaign, if for no other reason than the city didn't seem prepared for the possibility they could lose in court.
Throw in the inertia that continues to plague the mayor's pledge of a revitalized downtown waterfront and the right-wing could conceivably have a shot at the mayor's office 13 months from now. But there doesn't appear to be anyone out there in a position to capitalize on Miller's perceived weaknesses.
The mayor's campaign masterminds, led by long-time Red Tory rainmaker John Laschinger, intend to keep things that way. That's why they've invited Lean on board.
The thinking is, if the partner in the prestigious law firm of Cassels Brock and Blackwell is out raising money for Miller, he won't be picking up cheques for anyone else.
Certainly not for Councillor Rob Ford, who's hard to take seriously but has started talking like he's already tossed his hat into the mayoral race.
And not for Councillor Jane Pitfield, who insists that a growing number of folks are encouraging her to put Miller to the test.
With Lean beating the bushes for Miller, it's expected the pool of campaign contributors will quickly dry up and the mayoral race will be a foregone conclusion. Miller will in all likelihood have a largely unspent war chest to use for a third campaign in 2009, when the competition could be much tougher.
In the meantime, the mayor will endeavour to recover from a difficult summer. This means Miller will have to get out in front of the agenda at City Hall instead of chasing it as he's been criticized for doing since August.
His first test will come before the end of the year, when the province is expected to unveil its proposal for a New City Of Toronto Act. A new deal for cities will be one of the foundations of his bid for re-election, and it will hopefully be more real than imagined.
Same goes for waterfront revitalization. Miller now has a seat on the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corp., and his position as the only politician on the corporation's board of directors must yield tangible results by next summer. Enough with the planning. The public expects results. And an overall cleaner city as well.
Then there's the mayor's community safety plan, which has been overshadowed by the police response to all the recent gunfire.
It's going to be a challenge to find money both to hire more cops and to fund the social and recreational programs that Miller so rightly argues are necessary to break the chain of violence.
The city's budgetary woes are even worse going into 2006 than they were this time last year. Miller has wisely delegated much of the responsibility for money matters to budget chief David Soknacki, but the conservative Scarborough East councillor is in a tough spot when it comes to finding money to fund projects and programs his council colleagues have promised their constituents going into an election year.
Maybe this is something Ralph Lean can help out with.