Thursday morning found David Soknacki in Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone, a creative hub overlooking Yonge-Dundas Square that brings together bright young things and their clever ideas in a space crammed with computer screens.
A businessman, former city councillor and current candidate for mayor of Toronto, he was there to present his plan to forge partnerships between city hall and technology startups. But it was only after delivering a rather flat little talk on “mobilizing Toronto ingenuity” that he really came to life. Roaming the room, he had a gleam of real curiosity in his eye as he peppered the whiz kids with questions about their plans for improving crop yields in developing countries through digitized research or using smartphones to track bicycle traffic.
When one young man showed him a plan to help teachers improve class testing on subjects such as calculus, Mr. Soknacki chirped: “Oh, wow, calculus!”
There is no way around it: David Soknacki is a nerd. His staffers say that when they were talking about Drake, he thought they meant the Elizabethan sea captain. His big cuss word is “sugar.” He can write in Egyptian hieroglyphics, a useful skill he picked up in a university course on Near Eastern studies.
His voice rises to a squeak when he is agitated. His big hands flap and soar when he is making a point. He says things like “holy smokes.” He takes down everything that interests him in a hard-backed notebook full of jottings, hand-drawn charts and taped-down business cards.
For fun he is reading Six Easy Pieces, a collection of six lectures by the American theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman. He has designed a reading program for himself aimed at “catching up on the Western canon of thought,” from Camus to Dostoyevsky. After he finished Cervantes’s Don Quixote, he tweeted: “When the hero becomes sane, he dies.”
But if Mr. Soknacki is a little quirky, there is method to his nerdiness. Up against the most notorious mayor in the world and three high-profile challengers, he hopes to sneak up the middle with a serious, policy-rich campaign that sprays out ideas on everything from streamlining the way the city issues business licences to opening up city hall’s trove of data to the public.
As he put it in a release on Thursday, he would make sure Toronto’s government “measurably [his italics] discloses more datasets at accessible standards than any other comparable city in the world by Jan. 1, 2018.” Try putting that on a bumper sticker.
Mr. Soknacki is betting that after four years of simplistic slogans – “stop the gravy train” … “the city is booming”… “I saved a billion dollars” – voters are ready for something a little crunchier. In place of rants about city councillors who serve themselves sandwiches during late meetings – one of Mayor Rob Ford’s early obsessions – he plans to roll out a detailed critique of spending in two of the city’s most costly departments: police and emergency services.
He is betting voters will prefer his placid lifestyle, too. “Never heard of me?” said a tweet from his campaign in February, when Mr. Ford was daring police to arrest him. “Neither has 52 Division.”
“After having a mayor who spends his time at Steak Queen, I think the city is quite ready for a mayor who spends his time at home with a spreadsheet and his wife and some classical music,” says Siri Agrell, a former Globe reporter and speechwriter for Premier Kathleen Wynne who has joined the Make Soknacki Mayor campaign.
On Valentine’s Day, Mr. Soknacki, who is 59, listened to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and watched Casablanca with his wife of 27 years, Florence. He tweeted “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
The Soknacki team takes inspiration from the story of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, another city politics nerd. The Harvard-educated consultant and civic activist ran a campaign of ideas that he called “politics in full sentences.” He had just 8-per-cent support in the polls a month before his election in October, 2010. Mr. Soknacki was at 4 per cent in a recent poll, seven months before the Oct. 27 election.
To pull a Nenshi would take a miracle. But whether or not Mr. Soknacki has a serious chance of becoming mayor, it’s refreshing to see a candidate who isn’t afraid to challenge voters with some serious ideas. If that makes him a nerd, Toronto needs more of them.