By Edward Keenan
As Matt Elliott explains in his column today over at Metro, there are a bunch of reasons why council should appoint someone to fill the city council seat vacancy recently created by Doug Holyday’s election to Queen’s Park. There’s the cost, of course—$175,000 to $225,000, according to staff estimates. Not just the cost in isolation, but in context: city council will vote on the issue of whether to hold an election on August 26, then the clerk calls an election campaign of about 45 days, which puts the election itself in or around October 11. That councillor who is elected would take his or her seat at the next meeting, November 13, and be active in the budget meetings in December. UPDATE: According to the mayor, actually, the election would be even later than that:
Then January 1, nominations open for the next regularly scheduled election. So we’d have a two month campaign, two months of governing, and then right into another 10 months of campaigning. Add the observation that it takes a year for most councillors to even get any idea what they are doing and it seems that in the circumstances, as Elliott concludes, someone appointed to represent the constituency concerns of Etobicoke Centre residents could hold down the fort for a couple months until voters get a chance to look at candidates over the course of a regular election, in the context of a whole city-wide campaign so local and regional interests can be considered together. As Doug Holyday himself suggests, the appointee could be someone who approves of the same general principles as Holyday, who was elected last time around. Basic continuity can be achieved.
REASON ONE: DEMOCRACY IS WORTH IT, EVEN WHEN IT’S EXPENSIVE AND INCONVENIENT
But there are a couple reasons you might prefer a by-election. Mayor Rob Ford is a big booster of holding an election, and his stated reasons are not, on their face, nonsense. “In the coming weeks and months, City Council will be wrestling with a number of vital issues, including the 2014 Budget,” said Mayor Ford in a statement emailed to reporters. “These important decisions will have significant impacts on the everyday lives of Toronto residents. A by-election is the only way to ensure the 52,000 residents of Ward 3 have proper representation at City Hall during these crucial debates.”
We live in a representative democracy, and the voters should get to choose their representation. The issues council is dealing with—including the budget, and possibly the next chapter of the Scarborough RT replacement debate— are going to be highly coloured by the coming 2014 election and highly divisive, but they are not trivial issues. And whoever is in that seat will be asked to make complex, difficult calls. It’s not necessarily a place for a “caretaker.”
And if the cost of getting residents of one of Toronto’s 44 Wards fair representation for a year and a bit is a couple hundred thousand dollars, then so be it. Because even though the next election campaign opens for official nominations on January 1, 2014, the actual active campaign period, during which signs can be posted and whatnot, is only 25 days before the election. In the lead-up to the vote, pretty much all but urgent business at City Hall stops, but well into the spring and early summer the city’s government is actively governing. So we’re not talking about a few months of representation, we’re talking about a year or more. And the decisions council will be making involve the fate of billions of dollars of city money and potentially tens of billions of dollars in future spending and income for the city—so $225,000 may be worth it, if that’s the price of ensuring fairness in that decision-making process.
All of those are reasons why it’s possible that even some of the councillors least friendly to Ford could—at least possibly—be on his side on this issue. Councillor Gord Perks has, according to Elliott’s council scorecard, voted with the mayor less often than anyone else, less than 2% of the time. He’s the anti-Ford. He is on vacation right now, and he hasn’t told me how he’s thinking on this, but in the past he has been a vocal advocate of letting voters decide, of spending the money required to ensure democratic processes are followed. It’s conceivable—it wouldn’t even be surprising—if he and the mayor has one of their rare stopped-clock moments and found themselves on the same side of this. But as I say, he hasn’t told me how he’s voting, so he could have different thoughts.
REASON TWO: PARTISAN POLITICAL GAIN
All of that above is about principles, and it’s what people—including the mayor—are willing to discuss openly when offering reasons for this. But it’s not hard to see how political scheming plays into it as well. Now, some people scheming for the Ford side might think an appointment works: Doug Holyday or those who like him hand-pick a successor, appoint that person, and then he or she votes with Team Ford on the budget, subways and whatever else. And then going into the next election, whatever meaningless pledges of caretaker status were made waved off, that person is an incumbent and enjoys all the advantages of that. And those advantages are substantial, especially in a place like Ward 3 where voters might be inclined to support the status quo (they like Holyday’s status quo for a generation or more, and Holyday likes the city hall status quo fine, it’s fair to say).
But that a) looks unseemly and b) overlooks a possibly bigger opportunity. Rob Ford likes nothing better than campaigning. He’s been saying the next campaign for mayor is on since a few months after he was elected. Much of what he actually does as mayor is simply campaigning rather than governing—meeting constituents, talking on the radio, demonizing opponents, shifting focus to high-level slogans rather than detail-level policy debates.
So from the start, Ford will welcome any opportunity to actively campaign—and I expect if there is an election, he’ll be an active presence in it. In fact, for a long while on his radio show he’s been talking about recruiting friendly candidates for city council he can support and help. So he may already have a hand-picked preference, someone ready to go that he wants to be able to campaign beside.
And his desire to campaign may be heightened at a time like this when he’s been dealing with bad news at City Hall—when it comes to policy in the chamber, he lost control of council long, long ago; when it comes to procedure, he has a hard time staying onside of all the integrity officers and courts and laws and things; when it comes to personal conduct, well, you know all that. But when he gets out there to campaign, the yardstick becomes different—it’s not, Is he right or wrong? Competent or incompetent? It’s can he win? He likes that. His active part in Holyday’s provincial by-election victory was one of the biggest good news stories for him of the year. On election night, panelists on TV were asking if this was a complete recovery from the crack scandal. For Ford, that kind of press is golden.
And if the question is, Can he win? The answer is more likely to be yes in Ward 3 than almost anywhere else. His second-most loyal ally on council—the man leaving for Queen’s Park—has represented that Ward for as long as this city has existed. He won it without actively campaigning for the past decade or more. So whoever Holyday and Ford choose support in a by-election would stand a very, very strong chance of winning. As close to a sure thing as you get in a contested open seat, I think. And yet, if a Ford-approved candidate runs with his active help then the headlines on election day are absolutely certain to focus on this being a victory for Rob Ford.
That’s a story he’d like to have on the front page when it’s time to have the budget meeting—the resurgent power of Ford Nation as an electoral force. Especially when the opening of nominations and fundraising and spending for the next general election are only two months away at that point. It might be worth a few bet-hedging votes of support on council for budget and subway season, and it sets up the Ford election juggernaut for 2014.
And he gets to do all this while being on the principled side of democracy—even as a cost-cutter, he gets to claim that the will of the voters is the highest principle, even trumping saving money.
There are other ways to see the politics: if a non-Ford approved candidate were to somehow win, it would be a huge triumph for his opponents. And even if there were a competitive race, where the Ford/Holyday candidate won narrowly in a tough battle, that could both be viewed as a danger sign for the mayor and set up an epic rematch in next year’s council election. That could be an opportunity, given the attention and concentration of resources in a one-off by-election that doesn’t happen in a regular general election, for a non-Ford/Holyday candidate to stand a chance next year. An opportunity that could be less likely to materialize in a caretaker-appointment-business-as-usual scenario.
Personally, I’m not sure what my own position is on this, in principle. But I can see clearly at least two reasons why some people would want to go to the voters. One of them is a good reason based on good values. The other is a partisan opportunity that must be at the front of Ford supporters’ minds—and at the front of his opponents’ minds—as they weigh the decision.
PHOTO: TORONTO STAR