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John Tory’s Toronto bid: So non-crazy it just might work

So here, at last, is John Tory, borne into Toronto's mayoral race on the surprisingly burly wings of indecision.

The man who, for four years, could not say whether or not he was going to run for mayor, made a splash by making up his mind. As fate would have it, he happened to do so the very night before poor councillor Karen Stintz – who made the mistake of being perfectly, undramatically straightforward about her ambitions – was set to announce her own candidacy, stomping her coverage.

Surely some coincidence? Not so, Tory assured us.

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"We'd said way back in November that we'd be doing something the last week of February," he smiled at a local TV host, as if his late uncertainty was a fever dream remembered by everyone except for him. "Monday was our day, and here we are!"


So now we know that John Tory is going to play hardball. But does that mean John Tory has a shot?

Conventional wisdom suggests that he's in a tough spot, because there's an abundance of candidates competing for conservative votes, and his poll numbers in split races weren't exactly stellar.

Rob and Doug Ford are rallying the stalwarts of Ford Nation, hunkered down in their basements with colanders on their heads. Meanwhile, Karen Stintz is a sharp and telegenic candidate who's established herself as a fresh public figure. David Soknacki will be taken seriously enough by the media that voters will at least get a chance to know him, if not learn to spell his name. The three of them will presumably be clawing at each other for the same centre-right votes, while Olivia Chow could lay claim to the entire progressive vote unchallenged.

But reality is usually much more interesting than these zero-sum predictions allow for. Out of the gate, Tory is talking a great game about civic unity, but has staked out a strikingly conservative policy that knows exactly which voters it wants. Take his three handy buzzwords – every candidate needs buzzwords – which he's repeated endlessly on his first day alone: "Liveable," "affordable" and "functional."

As Tory explains it, "Liveable" has to do with transit; he would build the Relief Line, the proposed subway that's so universally liked it would be a prohibitive favourite if it decided to run for mayor. "Functional" is his way of saying he's not Rob Ford, though, in fairness, anybody who's not being sued for allegedly orchestrating a jailhouse beating could say that. But it's "Affordable" that's the telling one. To Tory, affordability chiefly seems to mean keeping property taxes down.

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There are lots of ways to gauge the affordability of a city this large – cost to rent, cost to buy, cost to eat, cost to drive, cost of waiting for the bus to fail to arrive – but Tory is doubling down on the one that means everything to the single-family homeowning middle class.

In fact, his pitch – build subways, keep taxes down, skimp on spending – is pretty familiar. Tory is running as Rob Ford Done Right: "I'll keep your taxes down and build a subway, and, as an added incentive, I'm not barking mad." It's not the worst pitch I've ever heard. At least you know where the guy is coming from.

Conservatism suits Tory. His opening pitch is conciliatory, but in substance, he reaches out to Rob Ford's Toronto, that place where change is the enemy and not the norm. As for his political chops, let's not forget his last home, as a drive-time host at NewsTalk 1010 for four long years. AM radio is what gave Rob Ford his first citywide platform, and it's hard to thrive in that job without an ear for the middle-of-the-road concerns that carry the day in Toronto.

Anything could happen between now and October. Olivia Chow's impressive pre-campaign support might not materialize on voting day if she can't connect with voters beyond her own loyalists. Almost certainly, there will be a last-minute rush from all quarters towards whichever candidate is the designated Not Rob Ford. And, implausible as it might seem, it might be Rob Ford's support that collapses. The police are still investigating his troubled personal life, there are still dark rumblings about further videotapes floating around out there.

Tory's gambit is to sound more progressive and act more conservative than his competitors. It leaves him in a pretty good position to capitalize on the unforeseen. True, he is unexciting. True, he is yesterday's man, and last week's as well. A telephone town hall he held Monday night was a tightly-scripted, highly polished affair. It felt like sitting in on a board meeting, where getting called by one of Rob Ford's tele-town halls in 2010 felt like getting ambushed by a religious revival.

But it was professional, predictable, competent, and ready to go. Tory will be standing by if, after four years of chaos plus an endless campaign, voters decide to dial E for Establishment. They just might.

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Ivor Tossell writes about online culture, urban affairs and technology

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