Tory Hangover

Is political right pushing leadership loser to replace mel?

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chris stockwell insists he has no ambitions to become mayor of Toronto. “I’m not going there,” Ontario’s current minister of labour said of the chief magistrate’s post earlier this week as he contemplated his last- place finish in the provincial Tory leadership race.”It’s not where I want to be.”

Yet in spite of the Etobicoke Centre MPP’s claims that he has no plans to march on City Hall, there are denizens of the city’s political right who are already urging him to reconsider. “A lot of people have talked to me about it,” the object of those entreaties acknowledged. “I just don’t have the interest.”

Alas, history has shown that things can change very quickly in the world of politics. And there’s no better or more current example of such stunning developments than one Ernie Eves. Last October he was “perfectly happy” as an international banking executive and the Tory leadership was “the furthest thing” from his mind. Today he’s waiting to be sworn in as Premier Mike Harris’s successor.

Pundits aplenty will argue that Stockwell didn’t enter the Tory leadership fray with even a faint hope of stealing the championship belt. Rather, the strategy was to get a reading on his appeal within Tory ranks and to raise his public profile.

While Stockwell’s campaign message didn’t fare very well with Conservative delegates, his “tell it like it is” approach to the issues did resonate at City Hall. Even veteran NDP operatives were heard speaking with admiration of Stockwell’s inspired oratory and his talent for getting down to the nitty-gritty. Never mind the campaign-trail confession that he’s still holding a toke from some long-ago sampling of the cannabis harvest. Everyone agrees that a little mind-altering would be most welcome at 100 Queen West.

Stockwell’s name would probably have less currency with those dwelling to the right of Toronto’s political centre line if there were an obvious choice for a conservative lightening rod to succeed the increasingly irrelevant Melvin Douglas Lastman. Case Ootes has been a dependable deputy to His Washup and is the early favourite to inherit a campaign machine in need of a major overhaul. But there are concerns the councillor for Ward 29 (Toronto-Danforth) will be unable to inspire an electorate ready to consider a new vision for the city’s future.

There’s a growing consensus that Barbara Hall, the former mayor of the old city of Toronto, and David Miller, the councillor for Ward 13 (Parkdale-High Park), are both better equipped to tap the public mood.

While the right would be overjoyed if both Hall and Miller ran for mayor 20 months from now, the chances of that happening aren’t good but would improve if there’s more than one candidate on the other side. And while former councillor Tom Jakobek and the likes of councillors Doug Holyday and Paul Sutherland toy around with the idea of running, few folks with money to spend on electoral causes are taking those musings to heart right now.

Which is why Stockwell — a former member of the old city of Etobicoke and Metropolitan Toronto councils — still has some cachet as a mayoralty candidate for many on the political right. The fact that he and Paul Godfrey are foes going back to the latter’s tenure as Metro chair could make him even more attractive to a conservative contingent that has grown tired of the Godfreyites pulling Lastman’s strings.

“Chris isn’t beholden to anybody,” says Paul Christie, the former Metro councillor who organized Stockwell’s spartan campaign for the Tory leadership and supports him in sticking with provincial politics. But how long will he be there?

Although Stockwell’s sure to remain in cabinet with Eves as premier, how prominent a role will he play in forging future government policy? And how long will the Tories remain in power? These are just a few of the questions Stockwell will be trying to answer in the months ahead.

John Nunziata, the former MP for York South-Weston, went through a similar period of reflection not long ago. Nunziata was expelled from the Liberal government caucus when he voted against the GST. To the surprise of many, he survived the 1997 federal election as an independent candidate.

However, the MP soon realized his influence as an independent was limited, so he started talking about running for mayor against Lastman in 2000. But when the courts backed provincial legislation that required him to resign his federal seat to campaign municipally, he balked and returned to the supposed safety of his job representing York South-Weston. He ended up losing the seat to Alan Tonks and the Liberals.

Still, thousands of Torontonians have cast ballots for candidates who had absolutely no chance of out-polling the soon-to-be-beleaguered incumbent.

Remember Tooker Gomberg, the worm composter? He had a lot of people asking what might have been had someone with some real experience taken on the mayor.

Hindsight is 20/20, and we’ll never know what a difference Nunziata might have made. Certainly, he would have been no worse off for the effort.

Looking at his career menu, Chris Stockwell might consider this food for thought.

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