Norm Kelly is not Rob Ford; but, for the time being, he’s more or less our mayor.
After a game-changing council vote last week, most of the Mr. Ford’s responsibilities and duties – even his staff, budget, and some of his office space – have fallen in the deputy mayor’s lap.
And although he has stepped into the mayor’s shoes, in many ways Mr. Kelly remains the antithesis of Mayor Ford. He’s articulate, centrist, congenial.
Where Mr. Ford stubbornly demands his agenda of council, his deputy mayor gently seeks paths to bring council to a mutual conclusion.
He’s a former history teacher and author, a one-time MP under Pierre Trudeau and a mild-mannered member of Toronto City Council for 15 years who only ever made headlines for some divisive comments on climate change.
He’s polite, diplomatic and likeable: for the past few weeks he’s shown up at City Hall every day with a bottle of something he calls “kikaboo juice:” a concoction of boiled prunes and ginseng his wife brews for him to keep him healthy.
He’s pragmatic in his politics, able to find common ground across the political spectrum. Mr Kelly supports growing the city’s industry and economy: he voted alongside the mayor on lots of issues, such as the bid for a waterfront casino. But he’s not as hard-and-fast as the mayor when it comes to taxes: he’s often challenged Mr. Ford and his brother to come up with other solutions for revenue, like with the 2014 budget.
Compared with the turbulent Mr. Ford, Mr. Kelly seems downright boring. But he’s not free of his own scandals: He’s caused a stir in the past for some questionable spending and for hiring his soon-to-be wife as his secretary.
Still, after the past few months at city hall, councillors are excited to be bored.
Mr. Kelly honed some of his leadership skills in his days coaching high school football at Upper Canada College, where he was chairman of the history department. It’s a common ground he and the mayor often met on in the past when discussing the agenda. But just as with everything else, Mayor Ford’s coaching style diverged from Mr. Kelly’s. The mayor was aggressive, pushing his team to succeed, while Mr. Kelly was more concerned with building up team spirit.
“Football’s a team sport and the important thing in a team sport is to create a team feeling and to listen closely, carefully to people on the team. Different people are motivated by different things,” the 72-year-old said in a recent one-on-one interview with The Globe and Mail.
Last Wednesday, Mr. Kelly marched out the mayor’s former staff who have now joined his office, introducing them to the media as “the team” while they stood beside him beaming. He said he’ll be turning to this group – a mix of experienced senior staffers and recent graduates – for advice and guidance.
“He’s bringing more of a reasoned and calm approach to council, which is much needed at this time,” said Michelle Berardinetti, a fellow Scarborough councillor who sits behind Mr. Kelly on the council floor.
“Avuncular,” is how one former colleague describes him.
“He’s not seen as a political threat by the members of council, which makes him probably one of the best choices for this rather challenging role that’s been thrust upon him,” said former city councillor Brian Ashton, who served with Mr. Kelly for more than a decade.
Former students describe him in much the same way as his colleagues: friendly, easy to get along with, if a little stuffy.
Although this fact is absent from his lengthy city council biography, Mr. Kelly taught history at A.Y. Jackson Secondary School – a diverse North York school that was at the time predominantly white – in the early 1970s. It was a different time.
“There were a number of teachers at the school that were smoking dope with the kids, and Norm wasn’t one of them,” said Brian Trotter, a former Grade 11 history student who graduated from A.Y. Jackson in 1974. “He was pretty straight. He can actually walk the walk in that sense.”
Mr. Kelly was also conspicuously polished, clean-shaven and almost preppy, opting for sport jackets with suede elbow patches and never wearing jeans, unlike other teachers. He was theatrical, too. Mr. Trotter said his former teacher – known as “Mr. Kelly” when others were addressed by their first names – brought history to life.
“He could capture a classroom,” he said. “He was never a teacher you’d ever fall asleep to.”
It’s a time that sticks with Mr. Kelly to this day. He said his years studying and teaching history give him a different perspective on planning for the future.
“My concept of the present might be wider than most people’s. I tend to see things moving through history,” he said.
“You get a sense of how people and ideas and institutions flow through time. You can’t divorce yourself from that. You have to be a part of it.”
But despite his uncontroversial reputation, in his close to three decades as a politician Mr. Kelly has not been free of his own scandals.
In 2000, thanks to a spending report by the city’s auditor, Mr. Kelly and others came under fire for their expenses while members of the five-person Toronto Harbour Commissioners, which was replaced in 1999 by the Toronto Port Authority.
Mr. Kelly had spent $26,306 on trips with his wife, Charlotte, to London and Belfast, for an airport conference and airport visits, and to Boston, Baltimore and Chicago, to review waterfront development. The auditor said the commission also spent $138,557 on hockey tickets and seat reservation fees at the Air Canada Centre in 1998 and 1999.
The report said Mr. Kelly didn’t break commission rules in taking his wife on the trips, although city policy bars councillors from taking spouses on city business trips. At the time, Mr. Kelly said he was governed by different restrictions in his role as a commission member, saying “I put on a different hat” and adding that he was pleased the auditor said he obeyed the rules.
He and his wife also raised some eyebrows when Mr. Kelly was first elected to Metro Toronto council, though it’s not a topic he will talk about today. Not yet married, he hired his wife to work in his office. Around that time, city council decided to enact a rule to prohibit family members from working in any councillor’s office. The hiring was frowned upon but didn’t technically break the rule: when they got married three years later, Mrs. Kelly left the job.
The few controversies of his past could explain why the deputy mayor has historically been so private and careful when addressing the mayor’s own personal issues. Unlike his predecessor, Doug Holyday, who often spoke to media on behalf of the mayor and shared his thoughts, Mr. Kelly preferred to keep discussions with the mayor behind closed doors.
But over the past few weeks, as it became clear Mayor Ford had no intention of heeding Mr. Kelly’s advice, he started to be more candid with the media. He began telling reporters he thinks the mayor ought to take a leave of absence and supported council’s move to strip Mr. Ford of his powers when it was apparent the mayor wasn’t going anywhere.
“There was a feeling that something had to be done,” he said.
Up until the mayor’s astounding confession that he had indeed smoked crack cocaine and, later, that he had driven drunk, Mr. Kelly said he still held faith that Mayor Ford was telling the truth, hoping he at least would not lie to him.
Asked if he’s forgiven the mayor for lying, Mr. Kelly hesitated.
“Yes,” he finally decided. “Yeah, because if you don’t forgive, you can’t move forward. It doesn’t mean that you don’t forget.”
Despite the added stress and responsibility the deputy mayor has taken on, he seems to be relishing the new role. He holds lengthy scrums with the media, often hamming it up for the cameras. He’s changed his twitter handle from @councillorKelly to the more ostentatious @DMayorKelly; the ‘D’ stands for deputy.
On the day after council’s vote, the mayor’s staff’s office was being transformed; locks were changed, security access updated to make the office that of the deputy mayor and his staff. Mr. Kelly defiantly declared it was not the mayor’s office, “not any longer.”
With a report from Elizabeth Church.
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