One morning earlier this fall, David Soknacki strode briskly through the cinderblock factory in Markham that serves as home base for Ecom Canada, his food flavourings company. Unlike its neighbours, the nondescript building is redolent of spice smells that waft out as far as the parking lot. Chemistry labs, test kitchens and complicated flavour extraction machines encircle a warehouse piled high with tubs of soy and bags of basil, bay leaves and coriander.
In spite of Ecom’s aromatic ambience, Mr. Soknacki cheerfully admitted that he doesn’t care for spicy food.
If the incumbent is all hot sauce, all the time, Mr. Soknacki seems to want to make Toronto politics, well, less flavourful. After spending a dozen years as a Scarborough councillor, and the past seven back in the private sector, Mr. Soknacki announced earlier this fall that he plans to challenge Mayor Rob Ford in next October’s mayoral race.
A low-key and somewhat nerdy presence (he still uses word “golly”), Mr. Soknacki, who served as budget chief during David Miller’s first term in office, plans to tell voters that he’ll bring a more even temperament and a team-based approach to contentious issues. While he has yet to settle on an overarching theme and brand, Mr. Soknacki says he won’t promise to freeze taxes, and he wants to conduct a strategic review of the Toronto Police Service with an eye to finding savings. He also intends to talk about the need for new sources of revenue for transit, but says the gas tax hike proposed this week by Anne Golden’s panel is “too narrow.”
“We need to look at a broader package of tax measures,” he said.
It is, however, highly unlikely he’ll ever produce much fodder for the American late-night talk shows. Yet Mr. Soknacki insists he’s not daunted by the prospect of running against someone who has attained international celebrity over the course of the past month. “The readers of Der Speigel don’t vote,” he says evenly. “The electors of Toronto have to decide who they want for mayor.”
The long-time Scarborough resident is targeting a swath of voters that includes “blue Liberals, business-friendly urbanists and managerial conservatives.” As he said in a speech to a small business audience earlier this week, “I’m not the anti-Ford … I’m running because I know there are fiscal conservatives out there who believe much more can be done to improve services, and to improve the bottom line at the same time.”
In many ways, Mr. Soknacki, and the third declared candidate, Eglinton-Lawrence Councillor Karen Stintz, will be looking to appeal to an almost identical bloc of voters: people who believe the city needs to maintain its fiscally prudent course, but are fed up with the antics and scandals of the incumbent. Despite that general positioning, they found themselves on opposite sides of the Scarborough subway debate. She pushed for the project; he believes LRTs are the better option.
Mr. Soknacki, whose circle of advisers now includes former Tory aide Brian Kelcey and long-time Liberal strategist Bruce Davis, also has far less of a public profile than Ms. Stintz. As the TTC chair, she has been at the epicentre of many of this council’s most dramatic showdowns – although she has been largely out of the spotlight in recent weeks.
The other rumoured candidates – NDP MP Olivia Chow, former Ontario PC leader John Tory and North York Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong – also have far more name recognition than Mr. Soknacki. Still, campaign strategists believe that it’s sometimes better for a candidate to be positioned as an underdog rather than a front-runner. Former mayor David Miller had 4-per-cent name recognition when he launched his candidacy in early 2003.
Mr. Soknacki, now 59, wasn’t aiming for politics when he left university. Armed with an MBA from Western, he wanted to build a career selling computers for multinationals like IBM. But he soon discovered he wasn’t temperamentally suited to work in large corporate environments. He found a job as a trader, buying and selling commodities like mustard seed and peppercorns. When the firm faltered, he saw an opportunity to launch his own spice and flavouring business in 1986.
A few years later, he found himself embroiled in a local planning controversy over a small park near his Scarborough home. He helped launch a neighbourhood association, and eventually ran for council, winning a seat on his second try, in 1994.
After crunching the numbers for Mr. Miller and devising a long-term fiscal plan for the city, Mr. Soknacki retired from council in 2006 and subsequently served as chair of the Parc Downsview Park board, where he smoothed over local objections to its development plans, says local Councillor Maria Augimeri.
His supporters clearly intend to play up his drama-free work ethic on the hustings. “If David was mayor, he would come to work every day,” says Paul Ainslie, a centre-right Scarborough councillor who worked for several years as Mr. Soknacki’s executive assistant and is now helping him build a campaign team.
Indeed, in what appears to be a proxy fight that is likely to continue throughout the year, Mr. Ainslie has been on the receiving end of taunts and robocall campaigning orchestrated by Mr. Ford and his brother Doug Ford, who is councillor for Ward 2.
Mr. Soknacki, in turn, has offered some advice to his former EA on dealing with the mayor’s antics, for instance counselling him how to handle persistent media requests after Mr. Ford showed up apparently inebriated to the Garrison Ball last winter (Mr. Ainslie was one of the organizers).
So though Mr. Soknacki never quite left politics after he chose not to run in 2006, it remains to be seen whether he’ll be viewed this time out as an interloper or a candidate with a genuine shot at the prize.
“There’s no question that he’s a credible and significant figure in Toronto’s political landscape,” says Ryerson University political scientist Myer Siemiatycki, adding that of the declared and likely candidates, Mr. Soknacki may be best positioned to soak up some of Mr. Ford’s support in Scarborough.
Others are not convinced that Mr. Soknacki has room to grow. Pollster Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, feels there will be an opening in the coming election for a candidate with centre-right policies but “better manners” than Mr. Ford, although he’s not certain Mr. Soknacki will be able to distinguish himself from other candidates vying to fill that role.
And, as happened with Rocco Rossi in 2010, he may be attacked as being insufficiently conservative. In Mr. Soknacki’s case, his role as Mr. Miller’s first budget chief will come under intense scrutiny, even though he eventually broke with the former mayor and backed East York councillor Jane Pitfield’s mayoralty run in 2006.
Other political insiders believe the three-stop Scarborough subway scheme, which will cost Toronto taxpayers almost $1-billion in new taxes and fees, may provide an opening for him to go after a mayor best known for his penny-pinching. Mr. Soknacki says the original Metrolinx LRT plan makes more sense – it’s fully funded – and hints there’s still plenty of time for the candidates to wrestle with council’s decision before next fall’s vote.