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Smitherman has lost more than the mayor's chair

He can be petty. He can be a bully. He's a career politician who fights with his elbows out and has made life miserable for more than his share of adversaries, not to mention members of his own staff.

In short, George Smitherman is not a guy who attracts a great deal of sympathy. But as he stood onstage Monday night, graciously accepting defeat and hoarsely apologizing to his supporters for letting them down, it was hard not to feel sorry for him.

Mr. Smitherman lost more than just an election in his disastrous bid for Toronto's mayoralty, which ended Monday with a loss to Rob Ford. He also lost, at least for now, much of the respect he spent almost his entire adult life busting a gut to earn.

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It seems trite even to mention that Mr. Smitherman is the son of a truck driver, after he used it as a talking point at every mayoral debate. But his working-class background, his lack of a postsecondary education, has always seemed to genuinely drive him. In a political field full of lawyers and economists and others with degrees on their walls, he moved up the ladder because of some combination of street smarts, stubbornness and a willingness to work harder than most everyone else.

By last fall, he had established himself as arguably the second most powerful politician in Canada's largest province. After a lengthy stint as provincial health minister, he was made deputy premier and given control of both the energy and infrastructure ministries. He had enough files to suit his 24-hour-a-day work habits, and then some. He enjoyed the trust of Premier Dalton McGuinty, whom he was considered a leading candidate to eventually replace. And he was safe enough in his riding of Toronto Centre that he was assured of remaining at Queen's Park for as long as he wanted.

To give that all up, Mr. Smitherman knew, was a big risk. He told people that his heart said to run for mayor, but his head said to stay with the province. He ultimately went with his heart, certain he was the best person for the job.

Now, having failed to make that case convincingly, he's suddenly out of work. It would be humiliating to quickly return to provincial politics, and besides there's no easy way back. His seat's new occupant, Research and Innovation Minister Glen Murray, has no intention of going anywhere. And there's still some bad blood among Liberals because of the clumsy way Mr. Smitherman left cabinet.

It's not as though he's going to starve. Any number of private-sector firms would be happy to hire him; they won't find many people who better understand the inner workings of government. One day, he may find his way into federal politics - whenever Bob Rae vacates Toronto Centre's federal seat, or before then if Mr. Smitherman decides to take his act to a different riding.

But getting his groove back, to borrow one of his preferred expressions, might be a different story.

Before he took the municipal plunge, Mr. Smitherman was considered within political circles to be a very big fish in his city - bigger, in some minds, than outgoing Mayor David Miller. Underlying that sense, beyond the room Mr. McGuinty gave him to throw his weight around, was the belief that between his profile and his organizational skills, he could beat Mr. Miller if the incumbent decided to go for a third term.

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Instead he lost to Mr. Ford, who was considered a marginal candidate when he entered the race. Rather than coming off larger-than-life, as he did during his provincial days, Mr. Smitherman seemed to shrink during the campaign, to the point where voters paying attention to him for the first time wondered what the big deal was.

It adds up to a painful lesson, for those who operate within political circles, not to take for granted that everyone else will see what they do. And it's most painful for Mr. Smitherman, who has to know that people within those circles can be very fickle.

His friends say he's mellowed since starting a family and, as he stood onstage with his baby son, there seemed to be truth to that. Still, it's probably only a matter of time before he starts trying to rebuild the hard-won political capital he gambled away.

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Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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