As reporters huddled in Nathan Phillips Square listening to David Soknacki explain why he quit the race for mayor, a curious member of the public wandered by. "Who is this guy?" he asked.
That has got to hurt. Mr. Soknacki dropped $300,000 of his own money on his bid to be mayor. He spent eight months pounding the campaign trail, trying to get his message out in a gruelling round of door-knocking, debating and fundraising. Result: 2.7 per cent support, in one opinion poll published last week.
Was it all just an exercise in futility? Does his failure to make progress prove that a campaign of ideas can never succeed in the real world of hummingbird attention spans and sound-bite politics?
Hardly. Mr. Soknacki, a successful businessman and capable former city budget chief, faced nearly impossible odds in the 2014 campaign. He was up against three big-name candidates who overshadowed everyone else in the contest. Voters who want to oust Rob Ford were looking for someone with the heft and profile to do the job.
That was a hostile climate for a little-recognized long shot with a briefcase full of ideas but no clear political identity. How do you get noticed in a campaign that features Rob Ford, who can draw a media throng just to see him shake hands with an ex-con prizefighter? Even Mr. Soknacki's formal withdrawal on Wednesday was eclipsed by Mr. Ford's sudden illness.
The bright, dedicated Soknacki team hoped that he would pull a Nenshi and come from nowhere. His campaign of "politics in full paragraphs" was consciously modelled on the "politics in full sentences" that Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi ran on when he pulled off an unlikely victory in 2010.
But while the two share a disarming nerdiness, Mr. Soknacki, 60, has none of the youthful charisma. As Mr. Soknacki freely acknowledged, he lacked the presentation skills and ability to connect with crowds that it often takes to thrive in politics. He usually found himself out-scored and drowned out in the mayoral debates that are a big part of Toronto campaigns.
Even so, he was often the most honest and interesting candidate in the room. He was the only one to talk seriously and in detail about reining in the police budget. He was the only one to say right in his platform that part of the money for building a relief subway tax would have to come from (gasp) city property taxes and that "better transit isn't free."
He refused to put out a map of his transit plan "because it's not a politician's job to draw transit routes on a map; we pay professional planners and transit engineers to do that for us."
That made him stand out in a campaign that features two candidates (Rob Ford and John Tory) who are claiming they can build billions in transit at no cost to property-tax payers. His rivals, he said in one debate last week, were trying to foist fantasies on the public – and he was dead right about that.
Instead of simplistic slogans and glossy maps, he pumped out a stream of ideas: mandatory lapel cameras for police officers; a ban on street parking on critical downtown roadways to ease traffic and transit flows; free early-bird fares for TTC riders to lessen rush-hour crowding. He churned out so many ideas that his campaign often seemed scattered. Even a campaign of ideas needs a theme, especially a campaign by a relative unknown like Mr. Soknacki.
The end of the Soknacki campaign is disappointing for those who admired his candour and are discouraged by the alternatives. But it doesn't mean that ideas never sell. Even if they couldn't bring themselves to back him, for fear of seeing the disgraced Mr. Ford win again, many were attracted by his ideas and his truth-from-facts approach.
Mr. Soknacki says he is proud of raising the bar and running a positive and idealistic campaign, and he should be. Far from being a disappointment, his campaign should encourage those who hope for more straight talk in politics.