Shawn Micallef: Is Jennifer Keesmaat as bold as she could be?
July 27 was a roller-coaster day in Toronto politics, marked by the Ford government’s attack on local democracy and Jennifer Keesmaat’s last-minute entry into what had been a sleepy mayoral race with no high-profile challenger.
For a year or more, there had been a behind-the-scenes search for just such a candidate to run against the conservative John Tory. Formal and informal groups undertake these kinds of searches and throw their weight, money and political machines behind a candidate. In lieu of a primary or nomination process and a municipal party system, where candidates would be selected publicly, Toronto’s political machines work behind the scenes, making it extremely difficult for other “fringe" candidates to rise.
Keesmaat was unusual in that she had name recognition both during and after her tenure as a civil servant. You’d be hard-pressed to find a chief planner in any city who is well-known to anyone other than urban policy wonks, yet Keesmaat was a star in Toronto and beyond, all of which made her a prime candidate for a mayoral run.
Her policy proposals came fast and furious, and reflected her planning background: Road safety, supporting the plan to transform Yonge St. in North York, championing a downtown relief line for the subway, adding 100,000 affordable housing units and tearing down the underused east end of the Gardiner Expressway are all part of a plan that would be at home in any urban-minded, forward-thinking global city.
An interesting plank in her campaign platform was the promise of a “100 day action plan” that would, in part, assign a “full-time, dedicated team to fast track work on a relief line subway.” This is significant because she knows how city hall works and how things get done there — or don’t.
A week or so before she declared her candidacy, I interviewed Keesmaat for a story about her then-job as CEO of Creative Housing Society, a private sector affordable housing initiative, and asked her — hypothetically, at the time — what she would do to complete big projects like affordable housing if she were mayor.
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“I would pull together teams that are designed to expedite specific projects,” she said. “If you don't have the people that are laser-focused on delivering this, who show up each day and say, ‘This is my job,’ it just won’t get done. And I saw that again and again when I was at the City of Toronto.”
When so many city complaints tend to be about big things not getting done, this kind of boldness could make a mayoralty. The trick is translating big ideas into something that gains traction with voters. Never forget that as much as cities need big ideas to address big problems, delivery of municipal services touches people every day. That’s garbage collection, snow plowing, pothole fixing and the like.
Perhaps the hardest thing for any “city-building” candidate to figure out is how to campaign on both everyday things and big ideas. Think back to 2003, when Toronto’s last progressive mayor was elected. Apart from David Miller’s big ideas and the need to clear the stench of corruption that came with the MFP computer leasing scandal, Miller’s opposition to a proposed bridge to Toronto Island became a defining part of his campaign.
It almost seems quaint now that such an issue could be so important, but it hooked a big part of the electorate. The reason that Tory’s campaign continues to drive home his commitment to not raising taxes is that it too has hooked the electorate.
Keesmaat has been criticized for not being even bolder and distinguishing herself even more from Tory. Indeed, she is lockstep with him in committing to not raise taxes above the rate of inflation. At some point, ambition, big ideas and simply keeping the city running all collide with the ability to pay for them, a situation that some have described as Toronto’s looming fiscal iceberg.
The boldest thing any mayoral candidate could do would be to have an honest conversation about taxes. Could they ride that iceberg to victory? Maybe not in Toronto.
That a sincere conversation about taxes doesn’t exist here isn’t just on the leading mayoral candidates, it’s on Torontonians. Maybe not you personally, but collectively, we have come to a place where it’s impossible to talk about the city’s finances, even as we’ve cut services to the bare minimum residents will tolerate without insurrection, and parts of the city seem to be falling apart or in decline. It will take a crisis, bigger than the transit and housing ones we’ve got now, to get us talking about this honestly.
Perhaps 2020 will be the year we have 20/20 vision when it comes to finances. We just need somebody willing to take the lead, ride the iceberg, and tell voters it’s heading for right for them.
Shawn Micallef is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @shawnmicallef