What Election Notes Can Do for the Toronto City Council?

Toronto City Hall is not known as a place for parties. Mind you, in the Rob Ford years it was sometimes known as a place to paaaaaar-taaaaaay!but the generally reliable calming effect of Mayor John Tory’s leadership style has put an end to that.

I didn’t mean that anyway. I meant that in Toronto city politics there is no… politics parties. That may change somewhat in this election, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

At the moment there is no party system in municipal politics. Not official. Some people would suggest that you see something like this in the fairly reliable alliances that appear in council votes and in council behavior. It’s true that the place can be like a high school in its cliques and often minor interpersonal dramas: “Mean Girls” except bare-bones and on a bigger budget.

But there’s an important difference between that and a system of political parties, with the sort of voting iron discipline, junk, and automatic oppositional polarization that have so distorted provincial and federal politics. The alliances at City Hall are less like the uniformed lineups of an NFL football game and more like the alternating ad hoc teams you see formed during a WWE battle royale.

I mean that in a good way. Not least because you can hear real arguments about things when you have 26 people answering individually to their own voters rather than to a party boss.

But it also means you get some cooperation across standard ideological lines. Like how, way back when, Jack Layton was kind of the leader of the opposition during Mel Lastman’s mayoralty, but also spearheaded Lastman’s efforts to tackle homelessness. Like how former council flamethrower Giorgio Mammoliti was able to end up in the cabinet-like executive committee of left-handed Mayor David Miller, and then also serve as Ford’s enforcer.

Or more recently, how conservative Tory and progressive Joe Cressy formed a partnership of sorts — most visibly in the face of the pandemic, but before that in resisting public health cuts, planning parks, establishing safe injection sites, and a series of other issues .

The need to line up votes on every topic usually forces the mayor to collaborate, often moderation, and participate in a more diverse ongoing discussion with colleagues.

Does that change? Not official. But it was noteworthy that more formal election lists started lining up in these elections. Mayor John Tory has endorsed council candidates on a number of rides, apparently in an effort to bolster a team he can rely on to back him up. He has so far endorsed 10 of the city’s 25 wards, some long-standing conservative allies (such as council chair Frances Nunziata and budget chief Gary Crawford) and a few newcomers to vacant seats (including Markus O’Brien Fehr and Grant Gonzales).

Meanwhile, Progress Toronto, a progressive nonprofit advocacy group, has released its own list of nine recommendations. There are fights between the two lists: Alejandra Bravo against Gonzales in the open seat in Davenport, Chiara Padovani against Nunziata, Kevin Rupasinghe against Crawford.

Today, there are five wards where a Tory supporter competes against a Progress Toronto candidate. There may turn out to be more as Tory issues more approvals — and as Progress Toronto announces its list of anti-recommendations of candidates they plan to actively oppose.

So how much of an impact do these recommendations have? It’s hard to say exactly. The kink itself probably has some impact — especially in a race where all the candidates are relatively unknown. But when those recommendations come with organizational strength or active campaign work, they’re even more valuable. In this case, at least some of the recommendations hit the spot with help. Progress Toronto’s list is small, mainly because it only chooses people it can actively participate in to help.

John Tory has also given real weight to his support at times, such as when he took robocalls for Mark Grimes in 2018. For what it’s worth, Tory campaigner Svengali Nick Kouvalis has publicly said that Tory’s late-stage endorsement saved that council seat for Grimes last time (after Kouvalis himself “moved to Etobicoke for the last nine days of the campaign” to help ). Tory didn’t wait until the end of this campaign to weigh in on Grimes’ rematch with challenger (and Progress Toronto candidate) Amber Morley.

An equally interesting question is what effect this type of formalized slates can have on the resulting council. Will councilors elected under the banner of Progress Toronto feel compelled to act and vote in solidarity with their colleagues elected under the same banner? Will a Team Tory elected in part thanks to his benevolent intervention be more easily thrashed by the mayor – seeing themselves more as its employees on the council than as independently elected officials whose only loyalty is to their constituents?

And if Tory manages to elect some councilors under his own banner, will he be inclined to find common ground with others, as he did with Cressy and earlier with the late Pam McConnell? Part of Tory’s brand as a middle ground people-pleaser stems from his willingness—sometimes out of necessity—to compromise and build a coalition outside his ideological comfort zone.

With new, strong mayoral powers provided by Prime Minister Doug Ford’s indulgence, and with potentially more conservative councilors owed him personal loyalty, is that spirit of compromise waning?

We’re not going to know in advance. But it’s not hard to imagine how what was a (wild and fascinating) no-party zone could quickly become a (sedate and predictable) party center.

Toronto Election Teams (so far)

TEAM TORY

City Council candidates endorsed by Mayor John Tory:

Mark Grimes, 3 Etobicoke-Lakeshore Ward

Frances Nunziata, 5 York—South Weston Ward

James Pasternak, 6 York Center ward

Grant Gonzales, Ward 9, Davenport

Jon Burnside, Ward 16, Don Valley East

Markus O’Brien Fehr, Ward 18, Willowdale

Brad Bradford, Ward 19, Beaches — East York

Gary Crawford, Ward 20, Scarborough Southwest

Nick Mantas, Ward 22, Scarborough Agincourt

Cynthia Lai, Ward 23, Scarborough North

TEAM PROGRESS TORONTO

Candidates endorsed and supported by the progressive activist organization Progress Toronto:

Charles Ozzoude, Ward 1, Etobicoke North

Amber Morley, Ward 3, Etobicoke-Lakeshore

Chiara Padovani, 5th Ward, York — South Weston

Alejandra Bravo, Ward 9, Davenport

Ausma Malik, 10th Ward, Spadina — Fort York

Norm Di Pasquale, Ward 11, University-Rosedale

Chris Moise, 13th District, Downtown Toronto

Kevin Rupasinghe, Ward 20, Scarborough Southwest

Jamaal Myers, Ward 23, Scarborough North

With files from David Rider

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