Edward Keenan: For John Tory, it's all about 'bringing people together'
Mayor John Tory told a story when he visited the Toronto Star’s editorial board on Tuesday that was, I think, almost prototypically Tory.
The story was about “one of the most encouraging moments that’s happened recently” in his office.
This was after the provincial election, during the whole mess about Premier Doug Ford’s sudden slashing of city council and kneecapping of the election. The mayor and city council were suing the province, but the premier still came down for a meeting in Tory’s office. What maybe was remarkable was “all the personalities who were there,” Tory said. “Chief (Mark) Saunders, former chief (Bill) Blair, Premier (Doug) Ford and me.”
You will recall the history that provides the context: roughly five years ago, Blair, then the chief of police, told the public that Rob Ford, then the mayor, had been caught on camera using drugs during a months-long investigation — complete with airplane surveillance and wiretaps — into his behaviour. Doug Ford, then a city councillor, led a months-long campaign of attack against Blair, accusing him of corruption and of “trying to put a political bullet” between his brother’s eyes. Ford filed a formal police board complaint against Blair. Blair threatened a lawsuit against Ford.
Anyhow, as Tory tells it, now-federal cabinet minister Blair and now-Premier Ford met with him in the mayor’s office. The topic was gun violence. “I wasn’t sure if I was doing counselling or what,” Tory joked, before adding quickly, “Everybody got along fine in that room.”
The result: “(Ford) said, ‘I can tell you we’re committed to investing that, I think it’s $3 billion, in mental health and addiction that we said during the campaign,’ and chief Blair across the table said, ‘Well, we’re committed to investing a few billion dollars, too.’”
Tory thinks this is good news for people in need of supportive housing, mental health help and addiction assistance. After explaining that for a moment, he wound up the point, responding to the direct question he was asked — about supervised injection sites: “I believe in the sites strongly. I won’t answer the question of what we’re going to do if the funding is cut off until we get there.”
It’s a story that ties up several themes of Tory’s mayoralty, about how he sees himself and the style of leadership he believes he’s offering voters.
The thing that will jump out to many critics is how he winds up not committing to fully fund something he claims — at length — is a priority to him. But it’s not hard to see the other points. The need to work with both other levels of government. The insistence that you can do that even when you are in the midst of actively objecting to other things they are doing. The promise of level-headed civility to bring people together, even people who have been bitter rivals, to find important common ground.
Tory hears the people out there — often including me — criticizing his on-the-one-hand-on-the-other approach. He hears people suggesting he needs to stand up and fight the province. But this is his response: he’ll let the premier know when he strongly disagrees, but he’s still going to try to work with him every day.
He provided another example of this style in action among councillors, recalling how, after he’d already won the vote to rebuild the Gardiner Expressway, he gathered a bunch of his opponents into a room to (expensively) redraw the plan to address many of their concerns and make the rebuilt road better than it would otherwise be.
“It’s about bringing people together,” he said.
And as he spoke about his plans and what he considers his accomplishments, the theme that emerged was how he sees himself and what he is doing. “What’s the glue,” he kept asking, that holds the city together? How do you “connect people up?” It is a question at the heart of what he calls his single largest goal for the next term, of making what he characterizes as the “isolated” communities in the northern corners of the city into vibrant and connected parts of the metropolis.
That’s what he’s pitching, in his way. Many of us think he isn’t doing it fast enough, or urgently enough, or strongly enough. In some cases, we think he’s doing it exactly wrong. But it is what he sees as his appeal.
“My personality isn’t such that I’m going to become a feared person exercising power,” he said. “I believe in collaboration.”
Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire