For the first time in its modern history, Toronto may have managed to correct a previous choice for mayor without overcorrecting it.
The winner of Monday's election, John Tory, was accused through the campaign by rival Olivia Chow of not representing all that dramatic a change from Rob Ford. If she was right, it could prove a blessing.
Mr. Tory is not a politician who inspires great passion even in most of his supporters. But what is most exciting about his victory is the possibility that it ends the wild pendulum shifts that have plagued the politics of the country's largest metropolis since the late 1990s, when the old city of Toronto was merged with its surrounding suburbs.
The amalgamated city began with an unpolished right-of-centre populist, Mel Lastman, who championed the suburbs. During his first term he did a decent job of working with a fragmented council; he also pandered to supporters with an ill-advised property tax freeze that wreaked havoc on the city's budget during a generally disastrous second term, during which he also became embroiled in scandal and repeatedly embarrassed the city on the international stage.
By 2003, Toronto was ready for something very different. So with Mr. Lastman not seeking re-election, it turned to nearly his polar opposite in the worldly, left-of-centre and decidedly downtown-oriented David Miller.
Mr. Miller had a reasonably well-received first term himself, as he set a much higher ethical standard and trumpeted modern city-building strategies such as downtown densification and better public transit. But then his act wore thin; by the end of a second term that included an abandoned fight with organized labour and the imposition of new land-transfer and vehicle-registration taxes, he was perceived particularly in the suburbs as some combination of aloof, elitist and ineffectual.
When Mr. Miller voluntarily made his exit, the electorate turned to someone who made Mr. Lastman look like Jane Jacobs. The many ways in which Rob Ford caused some of the people who voted for him to regret that decision need not be enumerated; suffice it to say that well before the end of his first term, the pendulum appeared ready to swing again.
In the early stages of this campaign, when Olivia Chow was cast as the front-runner, it appeared the familiar pattern would continue with a shift back to another favourite of the urban left. Ms. Chow largely campaigned as a moderate, and tried valiantly to reach out beyond downtown. But it was nevertheless easy to envision that, if she governed true to her NDP values, the city would be primed for another lurch back to right-wing populism in four or eight years – something for which, based on the roughly 34-per-cent support the incumbent's brother/stand-in Doug Ford received in Monday's vote, there is still a considerable support base.
In some ways, despite Ms. Chow's claims, Mr. Tory's victory does represent a dramatic shift. But the city's penchant for replacing incumbents with their opposites seems to have mostly been indulged in terms of personality, by replacing a drunk-driving, racial epithet-hurling crack smoker with a blandly upstanding member of the business class. When it comes to policy inclinations and political alignment, the change is still significant – but for once, not a complete one-eighty.
Mr. Tory has far more interest than Mr. Ford in making social investments, is not known to hate bicycles, and needless to say does not have knee-jerk hostility to people he considers downtown elites. But he also shares a hint of Mr. Ford's mistrust of government spending, has more faith in the private than the public sector, and is nobody's definition of a fierce urbanist.
For the first time in its current incarnation, Toronto has chosen a compromise candidate – someone who excites neither the left nor the right, neither the suburbs nor the core, but who all concerned might be able to live with. And by virtue of that status, Mr. Tory has the best chance among its mayors to date of uniting the city's disparate constituencies.
As with almost every politician, Mr. Tory will eventually outlive his welcome. But if replacing him requires a smaller correction than electing him did, he will have done Toronto a valuable service.