It's been a good day for George Smitherman. First, he wakes up to a poll in The Star that puts him way out in front in the mayor's race. Now he's won the backing of Ralph Lean - fundraiser extraordinaire, veteran of almost every municipal campaign since 1980, and rock-ribbed Conservative.
Mr. Lean, who had planned to be John Tory's fundraising chairman, said he received calls from Mr. Smitherman and Rocco Rossi shortly after Mr. Tory bowed out. Mr. Lean met with both candidates Friday, armed with a checklist. "They both failed one test," he said, chuckling. "They weren't Conservative."
Mr. Rossi and Mr. Smitherman may be Liberals, but they're casting themselves as centre-right candidates. In an interview today, Mr. Lean said he felt confident after speaking to them that they agreed "fiscal responsibility" would be the top issue in the contest. He didn't have "a negative word" to say about Mr. Rossi (or about any wannabe mayor, for that matter: he even managed to lavish praise on Giorgio Mammoliti.)
So why did Mr. Lean pick Mr. Smitherman? The pair go way back to the days Mr. Smitherman worked in Barbara Hall's office, but, more important, Mr. Lean canvassed the city's money men and women and found that, "overwhelmingly, the people I talked to wanted me to back Smitherman."
Mr. Lean is always eager to tout his fundraising prowess. Others, namely David Miller backers, say the Bay Street lawyer is not the ATM he claims to be. (Mr. Lean, who supported Mr. Miller in 2006, broke publicly with the Mayor after the strike last summer.)
Either way, there are some interesting lessons in Mr. Lean's choice. Of the more than 100 potential donors he says he's talked to since Mr. Tory's exit, the vast majority encouraged him to back Mr. Smitherman. Many of those contacts would be Tories. Rather than search desperately for a credible candidate on the right, it seems Toronto's Conservatives intend to camp in Mr. Smitherman's big tent.
Even if Mr. Lean is more ornamental than critical, his support can't hurt. He's right about one thing: It's harder to raise money at the municipal level than it is at the provincial or federal level, especially with new made-in-Toronto rules banning corporate and union donations and capping contributions. The nearly year-long Toronto mayor's race is a marathon, even for champion fundraisers like Mr. Rossi and Mr. Smitherman.
"I told both of them," Mr. Lean said, "If they think it's going to be easy to raise $1.5-million, they're wrong."