Toronto city council’s move to disarm its mayor and transfer much of his office budget and staff to his deputy, Norm Kelly, has thrust a politician used to standing behind the city’s leaders into the foreground.
With Monday’s vote, the 72-year-old Mr. Kelly goes from staunch Rob Ford supporter to a kind of de facto caretaker mayor for Canada’s largest city as it reels from the continuing scandal over Mr. Ford’s behaviour. The move pushes the low-key veteran city councillor into the international spotlight now shining on the city.
“The mayor wants to wage war, I want to wage peace,” Mr. Kelly tweeted on Monday afternoon.
Until now, Mr. Kelly – a Liberal MP in the Trudeau era – has been mostly a background figure at city hall. Joe Mihevc, a left-leaning veteran of city council, calls him a “political chameleon” who has not only managed to work with the right-wing Mr. Ford, but also previous mayors Mel Lastman and David Miller.
“He is well-suited for the current position because he is politically flexible,” Mr. Mihevc said. “He’s an affable guy.”
Mr. Kelly has made few headlines on his own at city hall, other than criticism for expressing doubts about humanity’s role in climate change. He once spearheaded a motion demanding that news media stop using the word “Scarborough” in stories about crimes in that part of Toronto.
Mr. Kelly, who said he was “gobsmacked” by Mr. Ford’s surprise admission that he had smoked crack cocaine, moved into the deputy mayor role in the summer, replacing Doug Holyday when he left city council for a seat at Queen’s Park. As the recent crisis mounted, he met with Mr. Ford and urged him to step aside. Last week, he said the mayor’s moral authority to lead was “eroding.”
According to his city hall Web bio, Mr. Kelly studied Canadian political history at Western, Carleton and Queen’s universities before working as a researcher in the early 1970s for author and journalist Pierre Berton on his railway history epics The National Dream and The Last Spike. In 1973, he took a job as a history teacher at Upper Canada College, the elite private school.
Like Mr. Ford, Mr. Kelly is a former high-school football coach. His personal website features a photo of his bookshelf-stuffed office and a long list of titles he recommends, ranging from works by John Ralston Saul to The Odyssey to hefty history titles. He also likes science fiction.
Mr. Kelly sat on Scarborough’s municipal council from 1974 to 1980, before quitting UCC to run for the Liberals. He won a seat in the House of Commons, and after the Liberal government’s defeat by the Mulroney landslide in 1984, he went into real estate.
Liberal Senator David Smith, a colleague of Mr. Kelly’s in the Commons under Pierre Trudeau and in local politics, praised him as someone who will help steer Toronto at a difficult time.
“I think they need somebody who can help consensus-build,” Mr. Smith said. “ I have a high regard for Norm’s ability to address the challenges that city council is basically faced with.”
After two failed bids for Scarborough mayor, he returned to municipal politics in 1994 as a Metro councillor. He has sat on the amalgamated city’s council since 1997, and was re-elected in 2010 with 74 per cent of the vote in his diverse Scarborough ward.
Supporters say Mr. Kelly’s lack of high-profile grandstanding is a good thing.
“If it was Norm who was mayor in the first place, none of this would have happened,” said Eddy Jagan, chairman of the Kennedy Road Business Improvement Area in Mr. Kelly’s ward. “The city really needs some help, a steady hand.”