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Norm Kelly at Bridlewood Park in his riding in Toronto Aug 9, 2013. As the city’s deputy mayor, he faces a challenging and vaguely defined job.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Some people call it the "Norm Kelly mile."

The Scarborough councillor, poised to take over the deputy mayor position from Doug Holyday, takes 15 to 20 minutes to do 20 laps around the second floor of City Hall. It works out to about a mile, says the 71-year-old – who turns 72 on Sunday – and he tries to fit in some time to do it every day.

"It's a good time to just clear your head and think about things," Mr. Kelly said.

One thing bound to be on his mind these days: what exactly his new role as deputy mayor to Rob Ford will entail. It means the responsibility of stepping in temporarily if the mayor is ever unable to perform his duties – like when Mayor Ford had surgery last August – but for the most part, the position doesn't come with a job description. It's defined by the mayor and his deputy.

It can be a thankless role that sometimes means longer hours and stickier situations than a councillor faces, but without any additional pay or staff. Under Mayor Ford in particular, the job can change from day to day, Mr. Holyday said.

"Every day is a new day when you're the deputy mayor of Toronto with Rob Ford. You wake in the morning prepared for anything," he said.

On a warm Friday morning in May, the day after Gawker broke the story of the video that allegedly showed the mayor smoking crack, Mr. Holyday was the lone ally of the mayor who stood in front of the cameras and answered questions. A week later, when Mayor Ford stood behind the podium and faced the media, only Mr. Holyday and the mayor's brother, Doug, stood by his side.

Earlier this month, Mr. Holyday won the Etobicoke-Lakeshore by-election for a Progressive Conservative seat at Queen's Park, leaving his office at the city vacant. Mayor Ford threw his support behind Mr. Holyday's campaign and chose Mr. Kelly as successor for deputy mayor a month in advance.

Mr. Kelly has a knack for not making waves. Though he holds strong and sometimes controversial opinions – he's made headlines for being a climate change denier – Mr. Kelly is more likely to have a sit-down chat with a fellow councillor than a screaming match in council chambers, making him a good influence on the mayor, his colleagues say.

"I think he'd be a calm, steadying influence," said city councillor Paula Fletcher, who worked closely with Mr. Kelly on former mayor David Miller's executive committee. "He's not going to be radical. … I probably won't agree with him all the time, but at least I'll be able to have a good conversation with him."

Mr. Ford has already declared his intentions to run for re-election next October, and his new deputy will no doubt play a critical role as he transitions into campaign mode. As a loyal member of his executive who tends to make more friends than enemies on council, Mr. Kelly is a strategic choice: a steadying influence on a sometimes hot-headed chief magistrate.

Mr. Holyday was a similarly calming voice, though he said he had no idea what the job entailed when he agreed to take it on. Duties were "as needed," and included everything from representing the mayor at community events to greeting visiting dignitaries when Mr. Ford was not available, he said.

Mr. Holyday also took on a special role because of his willingness to face reporters on numerous occasions when Mr. Ford's leadership was on the ropes. "I had to be the spokesperson quite often, more so than other deputies," he said.

The day often began around 6 a.m. when the phone started ringing with reporters wanting comment on developing stories involving the mayor or his brother, he said.

Before he moves on to Queen's Park, Mr. Holyday said he hopes to sit down with Mr. Kelly to pass on some pointers.

While Mr. Holyday was often the voice of the mayor's office, former deputy mayor Case Ootes was essential in pushing then-mayor Mel Lastman's agenda at council. In David Miller's days, his deputy Joe Pantalone took a quieter, backseat approach.

"My role could be [like] any one of those. It could be an amalgamation of them or it could be something totally different," Mr. Kelly said.

He has plans to sit down with Mayor Ford in the next few weeks to define what the role will mean for him, but Mr. Kelly has already said his focus is on governance and the mayor's agenda.

Mr. Kelly is no rookie in politics. He served as a Liberal member of Parliament for four years and a parliamentary secretary under Pierre Trudeau. He's been a Toronto councillor for nearly 20 years – first on Metro Toronto council, then on city council after amalgamation – and he's sat on the executive committee of each of the last three mayors. In that time, he's watched as the position of deputy mayor adapted with each new appointee.

During Mayor Lastman's tenure, Mr. Ootes let the mayor have the spotlight while he played hardball in council chambers. He's talked to Mr. Kelly about the role, which he says is foremost about supporting the mayor and his agenda.

"Every mayor has his own particular style, so it depends on how much trust the mayor has in his deputy," Mr. Ootes said, adding he felt Mr. Kelly is well suited to the job. "I think he's a steady individual that has good sense. I don't think he's a deputy mayor that would try to overshadow the mayor."

It's tough to overshadow Mayor Ford. In the last year, he was booted from office, then won an appeal to regain his seat. He's faced allegations of drug use and saw a mass exodus of more than half of his staff in a matter of weeks. The string of headlines meant his deputy mayor often had to step in and step up when the mayor wouldn't.

"All the court cases and the compliance audit charges, the football games, there is a long list of things that seemed to go on on a regular basis that I was expected to comment on," Mr. Holyday said.

But Mr. Kelly isn't convinced that will be part of his role, saying he's looking at the future, not the past, and any conversations outside of city governance would be held behind closed doors.

Senator David Smith – who was an MP with Mr. Kelly and is a former Toronto deputy mayor – said Mr. Kelly was the logical choice due to his history of supporting the mayor's agenda and the fact that he's congenial, which he says goes a long way in politics. "You need people in positions like that who people get along with and who can bring people together and try to raise consensus," he said. "I don't think that happens daily at city hall these days."

Mr. Kelly's role will likely evolve as he steps into the job, but he says he's eager for the challenge.

"Honest to God, I can't think of any more important office today," he said.

"The issues that you have range from the minute – like planting trees on a boulevard or sidewalks that need to be replaced – all the way up to multibillion-dollar transit issues. The scope is absolutely breathtaking; there is literally never a dull moment."