Now that John Tory is on his way out of the mayor’s chair, battle lines are being drawn over whether his budget – effectively his vision for Toronto this year – should be honoured when city council debates it this week.
A leadership vacuum appeared atop Canada’s biggest city when the mayor announced Friday night that he would resign and admitted he’d conducted a lengthy affair with a woman who had been on his staff part of the time. A long list of possible mayoral candidates are weighing their options on replacing Mr. Tory in a coming by-election.
As of late Sunday, Mr. Tory had not formally quit as mayor. Long-time lobbyist and political strategist Aleem Kanji says Mr. Tory’s team has told him that the mayor will try to hang onto the role until council debates the budget Wednesday.
Mayoral spokeswoman Blue Knox said by e-mail that the details of Mr. Tory’s departure would be finalized “over the coming days.” She did not rule out the possibility of him still being mayor come Wednesday.
Once he is gone, councillor Jennifer McKelvie, named by Mr. Tory as his deputy mayor, will step into the role. A council vote will be needed to start the clock ticking on a by-election race. There are various possible timelines, but Toronto residents should be going to the polls within a few months.
According to the province, strong-mayor powers are not held by an interim office-holder but will be conferred on the winner of the by-election.
A former provincial politician, Mr. Tory was elected easily for a third time in October. This term was the first under the new provincially mandated strong-mayor powers, which gave him explicit authority for crafting the city’s annual budget.
“The question will be about the mandate that this budget has,” said midtown councillor Josh Matlow.
“I think it’s a moment where council needs to make this not just the mayor’s budget, but Toronto’s budget and make sure we pass amendments that better reflect Torontonians’ priorities.”
There is limited time to do so. Legally, council must vote on the budget within 30 days of its release, which happened Feb. 1. If it does not, the budget is considered automatically adopted.
Beaches councillor Brad Bradford said that timeline meant it was unwise to tinker with the budget as presented.
“The risk would be delaying the work that we need to advance when it comes to affordable housing, when it comes to transit, when it comes to the front-line services that so many Torontonians rely on us to provide,” he said.
While neither has tipped his hand publicly, both are among the people touted as mayoral contenders.
Others possible candidates include former councillors Ana Bailao and Mike Layton, as well as MPPs Stan Cho and Mitzie Hunter and MP Ahmed Hussen. Urbanist Gil Penalosa, who lost to Mr. Tory in October, has said he is running again.
Mr. Tory has dominated city politics for more than eight years and leaves a mixed legacy. He promised to return dignity to the mayor’s office after the tumult of the Rob Ford era and largely succeeded. He was lauded for his role leading the city through the pandemic.
A fiscal conservative, he oversaw a series of low-tax budgets that critics say allowed the city to deteriorate. His boldest ideas, such as the SmartTrack transit plan and a proposal to build a large park downtown, generated headlines while largely failed to materialize. His plan to allow denser housing in a city facing an affordability crisis will not come before council until next month.
Conservative strategist Kory Teneycke, Premier Doug Ford’s campaign manager in both the 2018 and 2022 campaigns, said he doesn’t think it matters to the premier who ultimately becomes mayor and that Mr. Ford will be able to get along with any of the serious candidates. He said the province and the city still have the same priorities – building housing, easing traffic and congestion, and building transit and roads.
“There may be differences of opinion on the margins of that, but on the macro side of things, that and public safety, those are the big issues,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of light between the different levels of government on a lot of this stuff.”
Chris Ball, a political strategist and communications consultant who worked on Jennifer Keesmaat’s 2018 mayoral campaign and is a former aide to NDP leaders Andrea Horwath and Jack Layton, said the left needs to rally around a strong candidate that can win across the city and not just downtown.
“It’s time for Toronto progressives to pick a potential winner, not just pick a fight to make a point,” Mr. Ball said. “The stakes are too high, with people feeling less safe, transit and traffic still a mess and the cost of living through the roof.”
Whoever wins will take over a city that faces serious financial problems. The pandemic wreaked havoc on the city’s books, for example, slashing transit revenue. And Toronto also has a huge and worsening capital backlog for state of good repair – essentially maintenance and replacement of city assets.
The budget being debated Wednesday projects the backlog nearly doubling from $9.5-billion this year to $18.8-billion in 2032. Roads, transit and parks are all going to get worse.
Myer Siemiatycki, professor emeritus in the department of politics and public administration at Toronto Metropolitan University, criticized a mayoral fondness for lofty announcements over the nitty-gritty of running a functional city.
He gave Mr. Tory high marks for his leadership during the pandemic, but said the mayor’s legacy was tarnished well before last week by Mr. Tory asking the province secretly for minority-rule powers. And Mr. Siemiatycki said the mayor failed on basic quality-of-life issues like overflowing public garbage cans and non-functional water fountains.
“The splashy [promises] never quite came about and the day to day was never as strongly delivered as I think many Torontonians wished it could be.”