Halfway into his four-year term, Mayor John Tory has his dukes up. You could see it on the council floor last month, as he defended his controversial pitch to toll Toronto's two main expressways.
Mr. Tory listened patiently as City Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti demanded that he step down and allow voters to pass judgment on his plans for the Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway. Days before, the colourful North York politician had sent out cartoons of himself giving the finger in protest.
As Mr. Mammoliti thundered, the mayor stood, clutching a single piece of paper. He'd come prepared, knowing what his critics would say. He'd practically given them a script a decade before when he fought David Miller on the same proposal during the 2003 mayoral race. Now Mr. Tory was unapologetic in his reversal and confident in his gamble.
When it was his turn to speak, his voice hoarse from a sore throat, Mr. Tory could not hide his glee as he pointed out that Mr. Mammoliti had actually supported the idea of $2 road tolls during his own abortive campaign for mayor back in 2010: "That's what you said! Or this has been the grossest misquotation in the history of Toronto politics!"
Much of council burst into laughs and cheers, and Mr. Mammoliti was left sputtering about an "attack on myself."
It was a rare uppercut from a politician who has been mostly reluctant to jump into the ring with the likes of Mr. Mammoliti. But with less than two years before he faces voters again, Mr. Tory is shedding his image of a consensus-building, middle-of-the-road mayor. Suddenly, he's ready to fight.
To be fair, road tolls are just the latest in a list of moves few would label as cautious or bland. Last summer, Mr. Tory made a surprise announcement to pledge to find private and public money to build a billion-dollar "rail deck park" downtown. His police reform task force has already punctured the ballooning billion-dollar police budget, something skeptics dismissed as impossible just a year ago.
He also stared down the city's two main unions and achieved significant concessions. He's had to answer repeatedly for his changing SmartTrack transit plan, which critics point out bears little resemblance to the concept he waved around during the election. And he has been quick to throw punches in defence of the increasing billions committed to Scarborough's subway extension and the expensive plan to realign the Gardiner.
Still, the road tolls, unveiled in a speech in November, are arguably the boldest policy move to come out of Toronto's city hall since amalgamation, eclipsing mayor David Miller's push to persuade council to slap taxes on real estate transactions and motor-vehicle registrations a decade ago. Despite this, the up to $200-million a year the tolls are expected to raise, critics point out, is far from a solution to the city's financial pressures.
"I think he is giving himself credit for being bold, visionary," said Myer Siemiatycki, a professor of politics at Toronto's Ryerson University. "And there is some truth to that. But the big picture is it's not nearly enough to cover what the financial shortfall of the city is."
Mr. Tory has learned the hard way the danger of being a politician with a radical idea. Before his second and successful run for mayor in 2014, Mr. Tory served five troubled years as leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservative Party. His centrist position as leader made him a target for party infighting, and he blew a lead in the polls before the 2007 election with a risky, and ultimately disastrous, promise to extend public funding to religious schools.
But some say his weaknesses as a leader at the provincial level turned into strengths in nominally party-machine-free municipal politics, where strange alliances between politicians of different stripes are common.
"There are all these people who knew John, who knew that he would make a better municipal politician than a party leader because he's got the ability to be able to mend fences and build coalitions and alliances," says John Capobianco, a veteran Conservative Party strategist who worked on Rob Ford's 2010 campaign but switched to back Mr. Tory in 2014. "As a party leader … you are doing it within sort of a set framework. Whereas as a municipal politician, you can do it in a broader way. And I think he excels at that."
So far Mr. Tory has won broad support, reluctant or otherwise, from many of his critics on council, partly a result of his bridge-building at city hall, and his attempts to restore decorum after the chaos and division of the Ford years. (He has also handed out cross-floor appointments to some key roles.) Some of council's progressives who had at first labelled Mr. Tory a kind of Rob-Ford-in-sheep's-clothing with the same Conservative yen to cut services now say he has changed and grown into the job.
"He started off kind of with the Rob Ford agenda," says east-end City Councillor Paula Fletcher, whom Mr. Tory appointed head of the city's film board. "And now he's transforming a little bit. He realizes it's not that we are throwing money around. We don't have the revenues that are required. And so, tolls were pretty brave for John Tory, who had opposed them over and over again. So I can't fault him for that."
In an interview, Mr. Tory rejected the idea that he has changed, insisting he's the same pragmatist he was the day he was elected in 2014: "I don't think it's me that changed. I mean, I have learned the job, obviously. … I said when I got elected, not left, not right, but forward. And I have really tried to be true to that, because that's who I am. I am not an ideologue. I probably have too little ideology. My ideology is, let's get some things done around here, and have people respect this government."
But he made no apologies for doing relatively little – despite repeated warnings from city manager Peter Wallace – to address the annual revenue shortfalls that plague the city's operating budget. While taking the leap on tolls, Mr. Tory has rejected a long list of other new taxes, such as on booze or parking spots, and refuses to hike property taxes beyond the rate of inflation. His request for a hotel tax, and some other proposed tax-policy changes, will not rake in sufficient cash to put an end to the annual budget gaps.
Mr. Wallace has said that keeping property taxes low, and relying heavily on the city's spiralling land-transfer tax for new revenue, could put the city in a tough position if the housing market were to crash. Even after demanding a 2.6-per-cent cut across city departments, Mr. Tory says even more "efficiencies" are the way forward, even though critics point out that the proposed 2017 budget would mean funding cuts to some daycares, hikes to user fees and higher transit fares.
"There's a long way to go in this government in terms of achieving maximum efficiencies and doing things in a sort of a best-practices way," the former Rogers Cable CEO said, saying the city is saving money by using new technology and other means, rather than simply slashing services. "… I am conservative about money, and making sure you spend it properly and efficiently and don't take any more from people than you have to. But I also have a social conscience."
Not everyone is pleased with the way the mayor has acted on that social conscience, embodied in the laundry list of measures in his "anti-poverty strategy." Critics say his budget restraint has left some programs meant to help the poor out in the cold.
"He's good at committing to build things," said Janet Davis, a city councillor for Beaches-East York and one of Mr. Tory's most vocal left-leaning critics on council. "But we also have to invest in people. The city is funding big infrastructure projects, and yet we squabble over small allocations for the things that are important social infrastructure."
She adds that his office's practice of trotting the mayor out for almost daily campaign-style announcements on items on which council has yet to decide has also rankled some: "I think he's governing like he is a minister in a parliamentary system, as opposed to a mayor."
You could forgive Toronto Mayor John Tory for feeling optimistic about the remaining two years of his term. In December, he easily won council approval for his controversial road-tolls plan, suggesting he has a free hand at city hall. His approval ratings for much of the past year have hovered around 70 per cent. His time has also been scandal-free, a stark contrast with his predecessor, Rob Ford. But here are five issues some observers say could trip him up as he enters his second half:
For whom the road tolls
Toronto needs permission from Queen's Park to impose Mr. Tory's road tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway. While so far Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has not said she would block them, opposition from the 905 belt around Toronto could mount. Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown has vowed to kill the idea if he forms a government after the 2018 provincial election. If it does go ahead, it might take much longer to implement than the overly optimistic three-to-five-year timeline that has been floated. And the plan could also eventually sink under its own weight: Imposing a toll on drivers just as the Gardiner rebuild strangles traffic, for example, might prompt a backlash.
The Better Way does not get better
Complaining about the cramped, delay-plagued Toronto Transit Commission has become a citywide sport. Mr. Tory has promised to build new transit lines after the controversial one-stop Scarborough extension, including his significantly scaled-back Smart Track plan and the downtown relief subway line. But any promised new transit is many years away. In the meantime, too many more debacles such as the one last summer when many subway cars lost their air conditioning, coupled with annual fare hikes and potential service reductions, could call Mr. Tory's claim to be a transit champion into question.
The Ford focus
While the current populist political climate is unpredictable, the only prominent challenger who regularly publicly muses about taking on Mr. Tory in 2018 is former Etobicoke councillor Doug Ford. The brother of the late Rob Ford immediately took to local cable news TV to denounce the road tolls idea, which would be red meat for any populist insurgency. But it is unclear to some observers just how many "Ford Nation" supporters Mr. Ford himself can muster, and whether he actually intends to run: He has spent much of the past year dabbling in provincial politics and hawking a memoir. Still, much of the "positioning" out of the mayor's office this year will be in anticipation of a possible run by Mr. Ford, Ryerson University political scientist Myer Siemiatycki predicts.
All things being unequal
Left-leaning councillors and social activists have been quick to criticize Mr. Tory's anti-poverty strategy, saying that while the mayor refers to it often, not enough is being done as inequality grows. Some say an insistence on holding property taxes – through which most city programs are funded – at or below the rate of inflation will inevitably further starve city services, such as recreation centres and libraries, on which the city's poorest rely. Homeless shelters remain jammed. Service cuts, or a recession that worsens poverty dramatically, could prompt some on Mr. Tory's left flank to abandon their support. While no left-leaning mayoral challenger appears on the horizon now, that doesn't mean one won't emerge.
The bubble bursts
With property taxes rising only at or below inflation for years, the city's annual operating budget has become extremely reliant on the land-transfer tax brought in under mayor David Miller in 2007. In almost every year since, the city's red-hot real estate market has produced tens of millions more than anticipated for the city's coffers, bringing in more than $100-million over what was budgeted for in 2016 alone. If the housing market were to crash, this rising revenue source could level off or even decline, forcing Mr. Tory to support a large property tax hike, or a slash to city services, or both, and face the consequences.