If he completes the four-year term he won in Monday’s election, John Tory will have served as mayor of Toronto for longer than anyone else. That is a considerable achievement.
Twelve years in office is a good long stretch for any democratic leader. (Liz Truss lasted 45 days.) For Mr. Tory, it is a personal vindication.
A former business executive, community fundraiser, political fixer and broadcaster, he fumbled his first forays into electoral politics. He lost to David Miller when he first ran for mayor in 2003. He lost again when he ran for premier of Ontario as leader of the Progressive Conservatives, shooting himself in the foot by pledging to provide funding to schools of all faiths, instead of just Catholic ones. He lost his own seat in that election, then lost a by-election bid to get back into the legislature. He was all but written off as a political force – a three-time loser.
Now he is a three-time winner. He defeated Doug Ford and Olivia Chow in 2014 and former chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat in 2018. This time around, he bested urban consultant Gil Penalosa, not the greatest feat given the low profile of his rival, but a satisfying one all the same.
All going well, he will surpass Art Eggleton’s record of 11 years in office and hold the mayor’s chair for 12. But whether he will be remembered as a truly important mayor is still an open question.
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To give him credit, Mr. Tory restored sanity and civility to city hall after the hot mess of the Rob Ford years (though that is some time ago now); pushed to build out Toronto’s insufficient mass transit (though much of the money is federal and provincial); led the city calmly and firmly through the worst of the pandemic (his finest hour); made progress on road safety (lower speed limits, more crosswalks and traffic lights); and took measures to address the spread of homelessness (more supportive-housing units).
But his SmartTrack transit scheme was a bust and his plans for a big urban park built over top of the city’s downtown rail corridor has gone nowhere. In fact, it is hard to think of a single project that will stand as his legacy.
Mr. Tory is a steady as she goes kind of guy, not a galvanizing figure or a visionary. That’s not always a bad thing in a tumultuous world. But it can be a fault at a time when citizens are looking for someone who can command their attention and inspire their hopes.
This is such a time. Torontonians are feeling frustrated and a little discouraged at the state of their city. Though it is still a dynamic, attractive place, it is fraying around the edges. The roads are clogged again, the transit service often unreliable. The cost of housing threatens to push many residents out. People without homes are camped out in many city parks. The city’s financial resources have been pushed to the maximum after the burden of fighting COVID-19.
Toronto and its ring of surrounding cities are due to take in hundreds of thousands of new residents in the coming years. To accommodate them, the city will need more extensive and more efficient transit, more housing across all price ranges, more and better-maintained public parks and community centres, a strong police force. Just as important, it will need to do the little things better, like emptying those sidewalk trash bins and turning the water on in park washrooms in the springtime.
Steady as she goes won’t cut it. Mr. Tory will have to switch to a higher gear in his third term. With extra powers under the provincial government’s Strong Mayor legislation, allowing him to appoint senior city staff and exercise a veto in some cases, he won’t be able to argue he is just one voice on city council. He is a veteran mayor with a fresh mandate. If he is to be remembered as a significant leader and not just a long-serving one, he needs to use it.