The day after TTC collectors were warned to expect surprise visits from city councillors, Karen Stintz is in a throng of rush-hour commuters streaming through the Yonge and Bloor turnstiles.
If the collector spotted the newly appointed TTC chair in the dense crowd, he gives no hint of it.
“You know what?” Ms. Stintz confides as she plucks her Metropass from her leopard-print handbag. “No one recognizes me. It's kinda nice.”
That anonymity won't last much longer.
Ms. Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence) is one of Rob Ford's highest-profile cabinet ministers, charged with overseeing a 12,000-employee agency that carries almost 500 million riders a year. Within a few weeks, she will also become the de facto face of the mayor's controversial gambit to kill David Miller's Transit City strategy, in favour of a multibillion-dollar subway line extension on Sheppard Avenue.
She's something of an anomaly in the tightly knit Ford camp, though – she's a right-leaning councillor representing moderate mid-towners, and she chose not to endorse Mr. Ford during his campaign.
After the election, though, “it was quickly obvious that her enthusiasm and professionalism was in keeping with the mayor's commitments to improving customer service,” said Adrienne Batra, the mayor's spokesperson.
Yet Mr. Ford almost certainly chose Ms. Stintz because he needed an able, high-profile woman on his front bench. Among the women on council, she was the most ideologically in line: She and the mayor share similar views on key issues such as reducing the size of council and the “war on the car” – recently she launched a push for tougher penalties against cyclists caught riding on sidewalks. And she was actively lobbying for the chair's job.
Personable in private but often prickly in public, the 40-year-old mother of two didn't take a natural path to city hall. She entered politics on a whim and garnered quick success, earning a spot on city council in 2003.
Since then, Ms. Stintz has had her share of rocky moments. She attracted some ridicule in 2009 when reports revealed that she had expensed $4,500 to the city for voice-coaching lessons. She was seen to have mayoral ambitions as Mr. Miller's tenure waned, but those plans fell apart during John Tory's extended indecision about running.
Despite her formal standing in council, Ms. Stintz has found herself in a tricky spot.
She backs the mayor's subway vision and dismisses the Transit City plan as nothing more than “an input” to the province's plan for a transit network across Greater Toronto. Yet she also strongly supports the $4.6-billion Eglinton Crosstown LRT line. A portion will operate in a tunnel under her ward, but much of the route will run on dedicated rights-of-way through Scarborough – just the sort of configuration Mr. Ford has vowed to eliminate.
Ms. Stintz, who tends to avoid the gravy train rhetoric, admits she's received thousands of e-mails from Transit City supporters, urging her to stay the course set by Mr. Miller. “She's the chair,” shrugs Franz Hartmann, a city hall veteran who currently runs the Toronto Environmental Alliance. “She is going to wear whatever comes out of this. I don't envy her job.”
Now she's been left with the task of squaring the circle. “Eglinton is a very important line for the city,” she stresses, sipping green tea at a Starbucks downtown. “I've been hearing that feedback. It would be a shame if Eglinton wasn't built again.”
Metrolinx is expected to release its response to Mr. Ford some time in February. It seems clear that there's not enough funding to build both.
In any case, her fingerprints won't be on the final deal. The mayor's office has left her out of the high-stakes negotiations with Metrolinx and the province over Mr. Ford's subway plan. Ms. Stintz gamely insists the talks “are taking place at the right level” and denies that she's trapped between the competing political agendas of the mayor and Premier Dalton McGuinty.
Her focus, instead, is limited to operational issues – delivering the TTC's $8-million budget cut, defending the unpopular proposed bus-service reductions and cleaning up the subway stations. Ms. Stintz's main goal is to modernize the fare system – but those talks, too, are being handled by the mayor's office, not her.
It's difficult to imagine that kind of deference from the two ego-driven men who preceded her. Retired council veteran Howard Moscoe micromanaged the TTC during his long stint as chair, often to the consternation of council and TTC staff. His successor, Adam Giambrone, also brought a strong, activist agenda to the job and promoted his plan for a new TTC fare system.
In fact, some observers wonder how much influence Ms. Stintz actually wields with the Fordites. “It will be interesting to see if she comes into her own, or if she's the instrument by which the Ford administration carries out its [transit] policy,” said Ryerson University political scientist Myer Siemiatycki.