Watching debates, we are told, is a poor way to judge political candidates. You don't really learn anything. All they do is talk over each other, spout slogans and try to score cheap points. Debates reveal only how they perform as debaters, not how they would perform in office. The qualities you need as a mayor, like sound judgment, are completely different.
That would be a persuasive argument if voters were electing a chief administrator for the city. A mayor is something different. To govern, mayors need to persuade. To persuade, they need to hold their own in the rough-and-tumble debates at city council, to think well on their feet, to fence with a skeptical media, to make audiences stand up and cheer, and, yes, to score points against their rivals.
With no party to lead or tame caucus to order around, mayors of Toronto need these skills more than most political leaders. A mayor is just one vote on city council. He or she has to win over fellow council members.
So, in fact, we learn quite a bit from these debates – about how candidates for mayor would handle themselves in the sharp exchanges of political life, about how they do under the bright light of public scrutiny, about where they stand on the issues.
That was true even of the raucous outing in a Toronto high school on Tuesday night. Councillor Doug Ford tried to paint John Tory as a toff who had had everything handed to him "on a silver platter" – quite a claim from a guy who grew up well-off and inherited a family business. He called Mr. Tory a "slick-talking politician" who comes from "a different world." He even said Mr. Tory should get a chauffeur to drive him down to look at the crumbling Gardiner Expressway. Mr. Ford merely drives a huge black Lincoln SUV.
Mr. Tory fired back that at least he showed up for work, a shot at Mr. Ford's city council attendance record. Mr. Ford replied by telling Mr. Tory that, as someone who has never been a city councillor, "you don't know city hall." He asked Mr. Tory to name the committee that handles purchasing. Aha! Had him there. Mr. Tory, looking serene and amused – he has taken a big lead in the polls – said he would find out on the first day he was down there. Good answer. Besides, he said, he was bound to get on better with other city councillors than a guy (Mr. Ford) who once called them a bunch of monkeys.
Olivia Chow battered away at Mr. Tory for a flaw in his SmartTrack transit line, the fact that part of it would run on a right-of-way where housing is already being built. How many houses would you bulldoze, she demanded. Mr. Tory said he would simply build tunnels. But at what cost, Ms. Chow asked. Good question.
There were exchanges on everything from youth violence to public-housing repairs to transit to taxes. The crowd roared its support or booed its scorn. Too rowdy for you? Democracy is not a garden party. People get riled up. They shout. They jeer.
The debate carried on regardless. The most telling moment came over the annual Pride parade, which Rob Ford has boycotted through his mayoralty. Councillor Ford said piously that he supported equal rights for everyone. He said he donated to Pride and even went down there. But would he march in the parade if he became mayor, as previous mayors have done? His rivals, flanking him on either side, asked him over and over. He squirmed, he evaded, he said again he was all for equal rights. But he was dished. He simply refused to answer and came off looking foolish.
Toronto's marathon election campaign, which can last nearly a year, features dozens of such debates. Candidates joust over everything from transit to the environment to disability issues in front of groups that range from home builders to black business professionals. It's an exhaustive, and exhausting, vetting process, but by the end of it voters who want to know should have a pretty good idea of where the candidates stand and how they measure up. Yes, we learn.