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City Hall in Toronto on Oct. 31, 2013. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
City Hall in Toronto on Oct. 31, 2013. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Alex Mazer

Want solutions to Rob Ford malaise? Learn from south of the border Add to ...

After a week of mayoral misdeeds consuming our civic attentions, it’s time for a broader perspective. On Tuesday, dozens of U.S. cities, including New York, Boston, Houston, Minneapolis, and Atlanta, will elect mayors. With less than a year to go before Toronto votes, we can look not only to Alberta, but also to American city politics for some encouraging counterpoints to the drama, dysfunction, and distractions that plague our City Hall.

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The track record of outgoing U.S. mayors is peppered with examples of effective public administration and innovation in city government. Many New Yorkers are ready for change after three terms of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but few would deny the success of his drive to make government more effective and results-based, or his willingness to tackle big issues, including climate change, education reform, and building a more diversified economy in the wake of the financial crisis. City reformers around the world will be studying Mr. Bloomberg’s initiatives for years to come.

Boston’s Tom Menino, retiring after an unprecedented 20 years in the mayor’s office, is known as an “urban mechanic” with a reputation for sweating the details, fixing local issues, and eschewing grandiose political visions. But Mr. Menino’s legacy also includes the realization of some big ideas, including a public-private “innovation district” in a former industrial district of South Boston that is now home to some 4,000 new jobs and 200 new businesses.

Toronto has the civic energy, talent, and public consensus around good government to compete with places like New York and Boston in delivering innovative, effective public services. The missing ingredient is political leadership.

American mayoral races also feature strong and politically potent progressive voices, including some from unexpected places. Bill de Blasio, a Democrat who will almost certainly succeed Mr. Bloomberg as mayor of New York, has campaigned as an unabashed progressive, emphasizing affordable housing, accessible preschool education, and curbs on police practices that target minorities. A recent poll showed that although 39 per cent of New Yorkers believed that Mr. de Blasio would raise their taxes, 68 per cent said they would vote for him. He would be New York’s first Democratic mayor in two decades.

The woman whom Texans will likely choose to serve a third term as mayor of Houston, Annise Parker, is a Democrat and one of the first openly gay mayors of a major U.S. city. During her first two terms, Houston – by some measures America’s most sprawling city – expanded public transit, promoted urban density, and championed sustainability. That Texas’s biggest city continues to elect a progressive leader should be enough to dispel the cramped view that suburban Toronto voters will necessarily favour a low-tax, small-government agenda.

With some already projecting a “dirty” campaign for Toronto, we can also learn from the more constructive tone that candidates in U.S. cities have struck, a contrast to the polarized rhetoric coming out of Washington. Minneapolis’s mayor will be elected, for the first time, using a ranked-ballot system similar to the one that Toronto City Council has endorsed. Many have pointed to that electoral reform, in which candidates vie to be voters’ second and third choices as well as their first, as the driving force behind a marked decline in the number of negative attacks during the campaign.

In Atlanta, incumbent and front-runner Kasim Reed attributes his administration’s success to his “willingness to build relationships and work with local, state, and federal leaders across partisan lines.” Such a cross-partisan, collaborative approach is needed in Toronto too, but remains elusive.

Despite their battered economies, American cities have managed to craft a more positive politics and a sense of energy around city government. If a country founded on the idea of limited government and known worldwide for partisanship-induced dysfunction can generate a positive urban politics, then surely scandal-weary Toronto can too.

Alex Mazer is former Director of Policy to the Ontario Finance Minister and a co-founder of Better Budget T.O. He lived in the United States from 2004-2007 when he was a student at Harvard Law School.

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