On Vision in Municipal Politics

I’ve been a relatively close observer of municipal politics for a few years now, especially Toronto’s. I really started paying attention in the early 2000s, which means I’ve witnessed three election cycles and, well, it’s fascinating to see what’s won the day each time.

And so I compare not the leadership style of our current and previous mayor, but the campaign each ran. Because as mayor, they are practically polar opposites, and it’s hard to believe that the same city went from one extreme to the other in one fell swoop. But when you consider their election campaigns, well, it starts to make sense.

Mayor the Current: Rob Ford. Right-wing politician. Businessman, longtime councillor and half-term mayor. Hates taxes, loves helping the individual citizen and perpetual lone wolf on council. His approach to the budget is to pick a number and force departments to stick to it, believing that efficiency can deliver the same service with less waste. Won a big battle against city unions. Votes against funding many social programs, gets publicity for insulting friends and foes alike when they disagree with him. Outright ignores certain media outlets. Skips council meetings to coach high school football, yet is present for nearly 90% of all council votes. Oh, and he just got booted from office by a judge over a piddling conflict-of-interest suit he could easily, easily have avoided several times over.

Mayor the Former: David Miller. Left-wing politician. Lawyer, longtime councillor and two-term mayor. Big on tax-and-spend policies, social programs, transit building. Lost a big fight with city unions in his second term; widely perceived to have blinked unnecessarily. Big on city-building initiatives, establishing lofty social and environmental goals and the ‘quality of life’ for residents. Levied two unpopular taxes (vehicle registration and land transfer) to fund his initiatives. Absent for nearly half of all council votes.

Polar opposites, really. How did they both win?

One word: Vision.

Both candidates sold a compelling vision of what the city could, should and above all would be on their watch. To Mayor Miller, the City is a place where all citizens live, work and grow. It is a place where everybody pitches in a little extra and in return can expect smart growth, green space, top-notch service and targeted support for your community’s specific needs. To Mayor Ford, the City is a place that runs like clockwork on a lean, mean, clean budget that meets your needs for rock-bottom prices, keeping more money in your wallet to spend as you, the individual citizen, wishes.

And their competitors? In truth, I don’t remember who Miller was up against, but what I do recall is that nobody was selling much of anything. They all had a pet project or two, but not much else. With Ford’s election, I do recall the candidates, and they were similarly without substance. Rocco Rossi wanted to extend a highway. Sarah Thomson had a transit plan. George Smitherman wanted to be George Smitherman. Joe Pantalone wanted to keep David Miller’s programs in place. Who was actually selling anything? Oh, right. Rob Ford.

They say that controlling the story is the best way to win an election, and why not? Humans respond to stories more than anything. They teach us lessons. They keep traditions alive. They inspire us. And in an election, who are you going to vote for, the guy who wants a freeway to the waterfront or the one who tells you how awesome it’ll be when he’s in charge?

Politics have nothing to do with it. Vision is everything, especially in an election when your opponents are vacuous distractions at best. It’s a shame that Miller and Ford never ran against each other. That would have been a race to remember.



2 thoughts on “On Vision in Municipal Politics

  1. A very insightful take on a story that is making major headlines even over here on the East Coast. Part of a long saga, I suppose. So, who’s next and what vision will he/she bring to our largest city I wonder.

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