Accidental Activist

Debating the Everyman Mayoral Candidate

Torontonians in 2010 seem to want a mayor to stand up for the little guy. It's shame that, for today at least, the little guy was unable to take a stand.

By Ben Bull
Published September 22, 2010

As I smoothed my Vote For Joe campaign t-Shirt over my sopping wet purple pinstripe work shirt, I peered down the Sheraton hallway to look for the little man.

I'd received the call the night before: "Will you come and help us at tomorrow's debate?"

"Er...Isn't it going to rain?"

"Perhaps. Will you help us?"

The girl had a cute voice and she sounded desperate. Rain or not - how could I say no? "Sure."

As I put down the phone, I thought again about the prospect of a Rob Ford Mayoralty, or a Rocco Rossi or George Smitherman one for that matter. Ford was at 30+ percent in the polls, with Smithers not far behind. How has it come to this?

First Impressions

The debate was for a business crowd, one of a zillion debates taking place as part of the Toronto mayoral campaign. As the suits filed in I noticed a tiny figure striding up to our table. He held out his hand: "Thanks for helping us out."

"Hi Joe, nice to meet you."

As Pantalone walked away, I studied the other candidates ambling in behind.

Smitherman: Smart, sturdy, chest puffed out. The ex-provincial Health Minister was surrounded by a Mafiosi-like entourage of big-boned burly white men. He waltzed past without so much as a glance towards the campaign tables or any of the other candidates milling in the doorway. First impression: Arrogant.

The came Ford: Larger than life - larger even than he looks on TV - but smaller in height. A confident stroll and a coy smile, and...was that a wink? Whatever it was it was an acknowledgment at least to the soaked to the bone volunteers lining the conference room route. Impression: Large, for sure - but likable too.

Sarah Thompson was sitting across from us when we came in. I almost missed her. Petite, well dressed, chatty. She was accompanied by a solitary middle aged gentleman - her husband perhaps? First impression: Friendly, but somewhat invisible.

Joe Pantalone was wandering around looking perplexed. He was a wee fella for sure. five-foot-nothing or thereabouts. He seemed grumpy today. According to Jeremy, the volunteer coordinator, the candidates are doing up to two debates a day. "It gets a little tiring." Joe made little impression on me at first glance, but I decided to reserve my judgment until the debate began.

Rocco Rossi swaggered in last, with a Smitherman-like gaggle of double-breasted bouncers. He paused, nodded to our desk, and smiled like he meant it. First impression: Charisma. This man looks like a mayor...

The Debate

The debate starts. Our sparsely populated conference room is encouraged to crowd together at the front - "It will look better" - as the candidates step up the stage and settle into their seats. "Let's begin."

The moderator surveys the 30 or so participants and adjusts his microphone - "I'm not sure I really need this!" - And the room falls still.

As the candidates listen, react and respond, I watch them carefully, wondering: Could this person be mayor?

Rob Ford is first. He seems confident, to the point and, perhaps most importantly - honest. He talks a lot about his label making business, how it has grown, how he was welcomed with open arms in cities like Chicago, but not so much in Toronto.

He talks about the city's fair wage policy, which mandates that all company's involved in municipal business pay their staff union equivalent salaries. "I pay my workers $20 an hour," he explains, "but when I get a government contract, I have to pay them %50. Does that make sense?"

Pantalone is next. He speaks quietly - too quietly for me. I'm dismayed that such a basic communication requirement appears to have been overlooked. ("Doesn't anybody coach him?" I asked the volunteer coordinator after the debate. "I could hardly hear him!")

Joe's answers are sound - Yes, the fair wage policy is a good idea, a "race to the bottom" is not what we want. And yes, we need to build a city not tear it apart. But his delivery is weak. He doesn't sound like a mayor.

Next up is Thompson. She seems a little nervous, spouting statistics, losing her thread from time to time, and not really grabbing my attention. It's hard to tell where's she's coming from - or where she wants to go.

Smitherman bites next. He's waffly - more stats are spouted - and he fails to engage. At one point, when the candidates have stated which mayoral candidate they would select as their "second-in-command" he responds to Sarah Thomson's witty one-liner that she "got the most votes" with a snitty remark: "If you're happy about getting the most votes for being second in command, that says something about your expectations in this race."


Last up is Rossi. Rocco speaks knowledgeably about the issues, and tackles the questions directly. He somehow manages to keep smiling as he talks.

I'm impressed. I am also pleasantly surprised when he notes that "business people are not just about lowering taxes, they also want a livable city." That should have been Joe's line!


As I leave the debate and head back out into the rain, I reflect on what I've learned.

Ford was imposing and engaging. His answers taught me something, even if his ideas were misled. His everyman appeal is easy to understand. As my fellow volunteer said as we rode the escalators to the lobby, "I finally get Rob Ford!"

Rob Ford is honest about who he is and doesn't sugar-coat his failings. The fact that he has not a single worthy idea or accomplishment as a ten-year councillor is a serious failure. But it's one that doesn't seem to bother the majority of the Toronto electorate.

Smitherman was confident but dull. I didn't learn anything from the man. He was all stats and sneers. His mean comment to Sarah Thompson was unprompted and uncalled for. Really - do we need another cynical politician in our midst?

Thompson was genuine but unprepared. She seemed a little fazed by some of the questions and generally out of her depth. I would love a woman mayor of Toronto, or someone who represents the diversity you see on our streets at least, but alas, it's probably not going to be her.

Rossi was the best performer. As Thompson once noted, the man certainly has "the show". Rossi is quick with his answers, sharp with his quips and up to speed on the issues. It's a shame his ideas are so defunct (A Spadina tunnel? Selling Hydro...? Better luck next time Rocco).

Joe Pantalone was uninspired. As a small person you might expect him to try and gain a few inches by talking loudly or pounding his fist a little now and again. But alas, Joe appears small in every regard.

If you take the time to listen to him - and you'll need to crane your neck to do so - his answers are sound. Sure I'd like to hear more about his cost cutting ideas - surely the union stranglehold has to go? - and a little more advocacy for bike lanes and pedestrians precincts wouldn't hurt either. But his overall approach is fair.

However, he has no style. And his conviction seems muted.

For better of for worse, Torontonians in the 2010 Mayoral election seem to want a mayor with passion and pizazz, someone to stand up to the current trend of overspending and overtaxing. Someone to stand up for the little guy.

It's shame that, for today at least, the little guy was unable to take a stand.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted September 23, 2010 at 00:00:40

The only person who even remotely intrigues me in the Toronto race is Rocco Rossi. I was commuting to Toronto last May? or thereabouts and reading some of the initial pieces on the Toronto contenders for mayor, and I think I'd rather have him than Ford.

It'll be interesting to see what happens there.

I find it interesting what he's said about bike lanes (that he's not in favour of them on more streets overall, but is in favour of a better-connected network that's continuous along major routes and expansion to provide that type of network) but I really haven't looked at that in-depth to find out how much connects to his actual platform/beliefs, and how much was trying to play both sides of the crowd.

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By jonathan dalton (registered) | Posted September 23, 2010 at 10:56:51

It's really unfortunate Joe isn't doing too well. My friends in Toronto are supporting him because he's the only candidate who supports Transit City and bike lanes on major streets. It's tragic that only one candidate is in favour of what is almost universally accepted as essential infrastructure in big cities.

Meredith, I believe Rossi is still against bike lanes on major streets, unless he has changed his stance. He is the one who promises to remove the new Jarvis St. bike lanes once elected. He also gloated in the media when a voting error killed the proposed University Ave segregated bike lane.

I guess Toronto just has to pay for 2 terms of having a progressive mayor by enduring one term of something unthinkably bad. And it's such a shame because with the momentum Miller had, the next 4 years under Pantalone would see some great progress.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted September 23, 2010 at 12:52:41

As I said, I haven't looked in depth - thanks for the further information. And not that I would gloat at all or be at all happy with Toronto getting a lousy mayor, but sometimes it's nice to be reminded that Hamilton isn't the only city that deals with some of this.. I think it's easy to get tunnel vision.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted September 23, 2010 at 13:18:25

Great article Ben, the last line is perfect. It is sad how often that is the case.

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By Beez (anonymous) | Posted September 23, 2010 at 15:23:59

Speakng of tunnel vision, Rocco Rossi is the one who wants to resurrect the Spadina Expressway and dig an underground tunnel from Eglinton Ave. all the way down to the Gardiner with no solid plan for how to pay for it.

God help Toronto.

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By joejoe (anonymous) | Posted September 23, 2010 at 16:06:51

The analysis I've seen thus far suggests that the right wing backlash is, 1. Province wide and 2. Focused mainly in the TO suburbs (Ford's main backers are angry elderly white suburban males). Looks like, in Toronto's case at least, the main culprit appears again to be...Amalgamation!

I wonder if we can think of one single good thing to come from amalgamation?


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By Rob Ford for never! (anonymous) | Posted September 23, 2010 at 16:39:23

>>Ford's main backers are angry elderly white suburban males
You are so right, girl. That's the only possible explanation! Rob Ford better worry about woman power cause we rock the vote! heeheehee (or should that be shesheshe!!!)

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By Rob Ford for never! (anonymous) | Posted September 23, 2010 at 16:44:53

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By jonathan dalton (registered) | Posted September 23, 2010 at 16:55:55

Honestly, little one, do you not see what's staring you straight in the eyes? If more than 10 per cent of the population wanted it you can be sure all candidates would offer it.

Any data to back that up? Statistics are statistics, but statistics that are pulled out of one's ass are of lesser value than statistics with some basis in fact.

Comment edited by jonathan dalton on 2010-09-23 15:59:06

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By Rob Ford for never! (anonymous) | Posted September 23, 2010 at 17:07:27

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By jonathan dalton (registered) | Posted September 23, 2010 at 18:14:37

I didn't cite anything, I asked you to site something to substantiate your claim that less than 10% favour bike lanes and / or improved transit. If you can't, I will have to conclude that you did indeed, metaphorically speaking, pull that figure out of your ass.

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By lol (registered) | Posted September 23, 2010 at 19:02:13

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By Rob Ford for never! (anonymous) | Posted September 23, 2010 at 19:51:56

>> It's tragic that only one candidate is in favour of what is almost universally accepted as essential infrastructure in big cities.
Johnny you didn't "site" anything that's the problem. It's not universally accepted. For that I site the same site as you.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted September 24, 2010 at 09:21:10

I wonder if we can think of one single good thing to come from amalgamation? - joejoe

It provides us with a better system to control sprawl and develop regional transit systems. It works if we all work together... but there is an apparent inability of people from urban, suburban and rural areas to work together these days. That makes amalgamation seem like a failure when the real failure is our inability to work together.

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By hindu power from INDIA (anonymous) | Posted September 24, 2010 at 10:27:10

Posters ought to learn how to speak English. The word is spelled CITE not SITE. To 'cite' a statistic is different from a construction 'site'.

Sheesh, I am from India and notice that white Canadians' English language skills are sadly lacking.Do they reach grammar and spelling in schools here?

No wonder all the jobs are being outsourced.

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By Rob Ford for never! (anonymous) | Posted September 24, 2010 at 16:40:57

hindu power from INDIA it was Johnny Cakes that said site first. I was just mocking him to see if he would notice. As usual, the kiddies don't see anything but their own misinformed thoughts. Don't try to teach them anything.

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By Squidius (anonymous) | Posted September 28, 2010 at 14:29:27

BIKE LANES ARE USELESS! Bikes will still work on roads People! We need to worry about our public Transit and alleviating the Traffic congestion that is really plaguing this City. Rob Ford has it down pat, he knows what needs to be done and doesn't pretend to be a hippie-sun child.

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted October 03, 2010 at 01:28:25

As a former resident of a former TO suburb, I think that amalgamation has had an easier transition in Toronto. Maybe the writing was on the wall for a much longer time, or maybe the TO suburbs didn't feel that they had been LIED TO (as they were here) about not being amalgamated. (That tends to really get people angry.)

There will always be contradictions in lifestyles between city & former suburban residents, but there was never the outward hostility that crops up frequently in the GHA. Toronto City Council 'usually' works without the constant bickering, inertia, & counter productivity we see in Hamilton on a regular basis. Things do get done, usually in a timely way.

Becoming part or Toronto wasn't seen as taking the poison pill. There were/are some quite obvious benefits. Taxes did go up though & some services were reduced.

I wish 'Joe Pants' would get somebody who can show him how to present himself & his ideas in debate. He is IMHO, the best candidate for Mayor. He could shine, if somebody would just adjust his microphone volume, & get his ideas out there into the media with a good campaign.

I would rather have Rob Ford that Smitherman just because he is honest & hardworking. I don't believe he has the kind of progressive thinking required right now, but if he is open to new ideas, who knows?

Rocco Rossi made people a little uneasy with his 'Wise Guy' jokey Mafia campaign material. He is a very competent member of City Council, but is he ready for The Big Time?

I find Smitherman comes across as abrasive, & mean spirited. The mess that followed him after he left the Ont. Ministry of Health speaks for itself. LHIN & E Health are mistakes that health care workers across Ontario told him would fail, from day one. But he would not listen to them. I don't think that he feels the need to listen to experts, even if he knows much less about the issues & the process. That is not a quality that is needed to head up a large city. He is not a person that you could feel confident in to meet World leaders, heads of state, & Canadian politicians in a calm & respectful manner.

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