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Toronto Mayor David Miller speeks during a City Council meeting on July 31, 2009. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto Mayor David Miller speeks during a City Council meeting on July 31, 2009. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Brian Topp

Maybe two runoffs, and then the main event Add to ...

In this little corner, it's "do not write about Mr. Ignatieff and the federal Liberals" week.

So let's turn to a topic that is much more popular all across this land of ours -- the City of Toronto.

Among other consequences, Mayor David Miller's announcement that he will not run for a third term has fundamentally altered the dynamics for both Ontario deputy premier George Smitherman and former Progressive Conservative leader John Tory.

To wit -- painfully obviously -- the next Toronto mayoralty race is no longer going to be a referendum about Mr. Miller. It is going to be an open race about who can best do the job. That may diminish the prospects for both Smitherman and Tory, and create an opening for "insider" candidates on both the progressive side and on the side of special interests, dark dealings and populist nonsense.

Indeed, somewhat contrary to current expectations, the first half of the coming mayoralty race may well shake out into a pair of primaries, one for the progressive side and one for the dark side -- each featuring a money/organizers/popular support runoff between one of the outsiders and a council insider.

On the dark side, Mr. Tory enters the race with enormous advantages -- and problems.

He is widely respected for his unquestioned decency, moderation and common sense. He has a superb network in the Rosedale/Oakville/Bay Street family compact, and so has no money problems. He's a likeable urban/suburban conservative in the mould of Bill Davis and David Crombie. Toronto could do worse (and under former mayor Mel Lastman, it did).

But Mr. Tory has a big problem with his base. Some of the best Conservative strategists talk about Mr. Tory the way the best Liberal strategists used to talk about Stephane Dion, and are now quietly beginning to talk about Mr. Ignatieff (oops... must not write about Mr. Ignatieff). Many, possibly too many, of Mr. Tory's former colleagues seem to think of him as the captain of the Titanic applying for another ship.

In a one-on-one contest against David Miller, Mr. Tory would have had the luxury of a campaign focused on his opponent. But in the present contest, when the campaign will focus on him as a perceived front runner, there is therefore now room on the dark side for an insider.

Specifically, room for Councillor Karen Stintz.

Torontonians mostly know Ms. Stintz for her unfortunate decision to use her expense account to fund voice lessons. But in the months to come, they'll learn more about her. About how she got into politics in a nose-to-nose fight with a major developer in her neighbourhood, during which Ms. Stintz won a David-versus-Goliath electoral battle against an entrenched, pro-development council heavyweight . About how she has slowly emerged as one of Mr. Miller's principal adversaries on City Council. And about how she might quite possibly be a more compelling spear-carrier for right-wing populist blather in Toronto than Mr. Tory, who is too sensible to sound believable railing against taxes, municipal public services and the poor.

Ms. Stintz's problem is that her original principal opponents in her entree into politics -- developers and special interests -- are now the base of support she needs to rally to win the dark side primary. To get their wholehearted support she must commit to being their wholehearted instrument. But if she does that, she gives her opponents what they need to defeat her -- in either the dark-side primary or the main event.

On the progressive side -- if that word can be said to apply to this candidacy -- Mr. Smitherman also brings formidable assets to the field. Being deputy premier in a generally competent, up-to-now fairly popular provincial government isn't a bad place to start. He too has access to the Family Compact and its plentiful funds. His identity is an asset in these times. His formidably energetic approach to public business fits the mood in Toronto to have the city appear to be more energetic and exciting as it tackles the complex, long-term challenges before it.

But again, Mr. Smitherman will not have the luxury of a race focused on his opponent. His "furious George" persona is a poor fit for the patient, consensual coalition-building required to get results in municipal government. His stint at Queen's Park may also become a significant albatross. In particular, yesterday's revelations about the province's eHealth initiative reflect little credit on him -- a problem that I bet is not going to improve with time.

That creates an opening for one of the heavyweights on the current team at City Hall to step forward and offer to lead Toronto to the next level in its renewal, reconstruction and rejuvenation.

There are a number of strong people who fit the bill.

Councillor Shelley Carroll, for example.

She is bright, articulate, and has wrestled with the toughest problem facing the city -- its budget. When you are looking for the next leader, it is never bad to look for the person on the team who is successfully tackling the biggest problem you've got. But then again, the hard realities of public finance don't seem to make voters love those who try to address them. Ms. Carroll's access to her natural base, the Liberal apparat and its money, is blocked by Mr. Smitherman.

Another excellent prospective "competent progressive": Councillor and TTC chairman Adam Giambrone.

Like Ms. Carroll, Mr. Giambrone has rolled up his sleeves and worked successfully to tackle a problem of pharonic dimensions -- the future of transportation in a sprawling metropolis. Unlike her, he would have a clean run at key elements of Toronto's progressive political base. His combination of deep hands-on experience and shocking youth might play well against a crippled Smitherman in the progressive primary. His competence might also play well against right-wing populist blather in the main event. After all, that blather hasn't been selling well in Toronto lately.

If he decides to take the plunge, Giambrone's challenges include persuading Toronto's public-sector workers to step back from yet another kamikaze attack on their own ship -- in the style that helped create the catastrophic Harris government in Ontario and the similarly unfortunate Devine government in Saskatchewan. If he cannot achieve peace in his base he can't grow out of it. But if he can, then the progressive primary might turn out to be as interesting as the dark side one promises to be.

And the Toronto mayoralty race might prove to be a very different event -- possibly with different players -- than conventional wisdom in this town currently suggests.

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