By: James Di Fiore
Toronto’s municipal election is supposed to be an election of reckoning where a candidate shores up support in defiance of the current debacle occupying the top office at city hall. It is supposed to be an obvious contrast between Rob Ford’s bombastic retail politics and the more civil, sensible options like John Tory or Olivia Chow. Some pundits thought Ford would tone down his campaign as a way of fighting sensible with sensible, and all Tory and Chow had to do was maintain a more professional public image so we as a city do not have to fall into electoral absurdity. I think someone forgot to tell Tory and Chow about all this. Since that first awkward, televised debate we have seen first-hand how smarmy, over-rehearsed demeanors do not translate well on TV or online.
Let’s begin with Chow. All she has to do is be herself. That’s it. She does not need to be overly cheery, and she certainly doesn’t need an image softener in the form of some grandma dress or new glasses. Most of all, she needs to stop pretending that she is running a puppies and rainbows campaign where she pretends to take the high road against Ford’s vitriol and divisiveness, yet still seeks counsel from folks like Warren Kinsella who combines the art of dirty politics with a flair for horrible execution. Chow has decided to roll the dice and employ this pit bull to do the biting while saying her campaign is a clean campaign, all with a semi-straight face.
But as anyone in the know will tell you, Kinsella has reached political hack status, unable to muster much more than a peripheral role in any campaign since the 90s. At best, he has been in the vicinity of victories, close enough to get a piece of confetti on his lapel, but not close enough to be credited for making it fall in the first place. On top of that, he’s an asshole, full stop. Feel good candidates and political hacks that moonlight as assholes are not a wise mix in an election like this one.
As for Tory, he has an opportunity to contrast a shit-show conservative with a sensible, more moderate conservative. His is the easiest of campaigns to run; a smart, fiscally conservative/socially liberal classic campaign where no voter feels excluded from a potential Tory administration. Tory could rest easy knowing he could mirror much of the Ford agenda without acting like a rodeo clown. Plus, he isn’t divisive. He’s not an ideological stalwart like Ford or Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak. One might even call Tory a dying breed of, well, Tories.
But then he went and did this. Apparently, Tory’s camp has decided to do away with the pesky reputation of being a unifying politician, the “common sense candidate”, and have opted to go with comic props and tag lines instead. As if incorporating a cheap Twister caricature wasn’t bad enough, Tory has also been trying to brand Chow as the “NDP candidate,” an obviously divisive tactic isolating Toronto’s progressives in an election not usually known for its partisan loyalties. If you identify as an NDP supporter provincially or federally, Tory doesn’t want your municipal vote. Instead, Tory wants you to know that if you don’t vomit after hearing the initials ‘N-D-P’, you aren’t a voter worth listening to.
And of course there’s Mayor Ford. In an election where many believe Ford has a better chance of being arrested than elected (after all, October is still far, far away), his rivals are inadvertently making him look less incompetent than he really is, an astounding feat when you consider the vast amount of material he has given us over the past 4 years. Ford’s stubborn strategy of repeating the same 3 or four rehearsed key messages – mostly statements of self-defense or repetitive-yet-implausible claims of a billion dollars of taxpayer money saved – can only work if his fellow candidates run carny campaigns of their own. Well, his fellow candidates are running carny campaigns, and so Ford benefits not because he is a viable, sturdy candidate but because his rivals are decidedly not viable to anybody but their base of fierce loyalists.
It may be we are in an experimental chapter of this long awaited campaign. But Chow and Tory are two candidates who have had years to contemplate running in this very election, an important caveat when you consider the amateurish stunts and ads they’ve produced up to this point. It could be they are both tied to advisors who are trying too hard, or perhaps not hard enough, to claim branding rights over their opponents. Someone should let them know about the apathy towards long campaigns in this city. Ford’s worldwide notoriety has tricked his rivals into believing they need to climb inside the circus tent on the back of a bearded lady. All they really need to do is run sensible, stale campaigns about the issues. That’s it. No slapstick nonsense, no character assassinations. Just the issues.
This wasn’t, and isn’t a complicated race. The incumbent has been under a police investigation for over a year, lies about his accomplishments and parades his older brother in front of the cameras making ridiculous claims about how his family champions for the little guy. Chow and Tory need to stop with the gimmicks and contradictions, roll up their sleeves and give sensible Torontonians a real choice of who to replace the ginger Godzilla currently wreaking havoc on the city. In short, they need to keep it simple, because thus far the strategy of being unfunny and inauthentic isn’t working, especially for the carnies who already have their undisputed champion.