A fringe candidate’s experience debating the Toronto Mayoral front-runners
By: James Di Fiore
Who was that guy sitting beside Rob Ford, looking like the Mini Me version of Rocco Rossi? That was me, James Di Fiore, and I was asking myself that same question as the Mayoral Arts Debate commenced.
I arrived at the Art Gallery of Ontario where high brow members of the city’s creative community, representing the crux of cultural validity in Toronto from several arts-related sectors, milled about, sipping wine and fraternizing.
Three representatives walked Joe Pantalone, George Smitherman, Rocco Rossi and myself into an secluded area of the Member’s Lounge to go over the particulars of the debate. Rob Ford was missing, so we waited a couple minutes longer for the front-runner before making our way to the elevator that would take us to the the 450 people waiting for someone to champion their livelihoods, their scenes. When we took our seats in front of the audience Mr. Ford was still nowhere to be found, then finally appeared out of thin air as AGO Director Matthew Teitelbaum was making his opening comments.
Our moderator was Jim Fleck, a last minute replacement for one-time mayoral hopeful John Tory. He was both gracious and consistent in the way he handled the candidates during the evening, and when he introduced me first my butterflies waved their wings, to say the least.
On paper my experience sounds great, but as he introduced the others I noticed a line being drawn between my lack of political experience and their lifelong achievements. So I decided I would not try to fit in, nor emulate these politicians. Being myself was the only option, and one that eventually paid dividends.
Lead with a joke, I told myself. I scanned the two other Italians on stage and let rip what I thought was a decent, self deprecating effort. (I am short…and bald…with glasses)
“As most of you can tell by my appearance, I’m related to both Joe and Rocco,” I managed. Thankfully, the crowd reacted with some laughter and a brief applause. So far, so good.
The debate progressed with candidates vying for crowd approval, civil discoourse be damned. It was during the first real bickering session, this one between Joe, George and Rocco, when I leaned in towards Mr. Ford and quietly asked “Are they always like this?” Mr. Ford smiled, shook his head, leaned towards me and said “All the time…always…this is why nothing ever gets done.”
Listening to the candidates throw barbs at each other is bad enough, but to be in such close proximity to the bickering was eye opening, if not amusing. While I am miles away from Mr. Ford on policy concerns, it was still an honest snapshot of the candidate I had been trashing for months.
As the debate progressed I began to accept that I wasn’t a seasoned spin master (flubbing a question regarding city planning), but I was articulating my views, inexperienced voice and all.
Closing statements…and I felt unprepared. I improvised my way through 60 seconds of dialog, the voice of my girlfriend ringing through my head – “stay on message, stupid”. It worked, and the audience gave me a rousing applause.
I felt pride and relief when it was over. I was unsure if I was well received and heard, or if I was simply viewed as just a token candidate. The graciousness of the crowd made the experience a memorable one, and the up-close-and-personal sides of the main candidates gave me a new respect for the lives they keep. I shook hands with each candidate, except for Mr. Rossi, who gave me a Euro-Italian two cheek kiss in front of the stage. Mr. Rossi won the debate in my mind, outclassing and outperforming his competitors. He has since dropped out of the race after a poll showed his support was just 4%. Salute, paison.
To my surprise, The Globe and Mail declared me the winner a couple days later. It was a surreal experience, and important to add that the mainstream candidates had participated in over 70 debates up to that point. That’s right, 70. Here I was, a fringe candidate beaming with pride over the one and only debate I appeared in, and doing my best to make the most of it.
I still have no shot at winning the election. Hell, I might not finish in the top ten, but the view from the fringe could be a whole lot worse.