Recently, I had a coffee with mayoral candidate Ari Goldkind. He’s a smart, passionate guy, and he laid out a vision of a “no B.S.” administration that would have the guts to make some necessary changes. Tolling highways, raising property taxes, banning street parking during rush hour—these are just a few of the points in his platform.
As a defence lawyer who’s often represented notorious criminals, Goldkind says he’s used to being sneered at for his role in making the justice system work. And as a man who started working as a teen at Maple Leaf Gardens and went on to put himself through law school, he knows something about beating the odds.
He’ll need both of those qualities and more to make an impression on voters in a race already dominated by Rob Ford, Olivia Chow, John Tory, Karen Stintz, and David Soknacki. As of this writing, there are 33 others running for the city’s top job, but you’re unlikely to hear much about most of them.
Sure, you may have read news briefs about musician Richard Underhill (of the Shuffle Demons’ “Spadina Bus” fame), or a mini-profile of 18-year-old Morgan Baskin. I’ve noticed mentions of Don Andrews (who’s noteworthy for being proudly racist) and Al Gore (who’s noteworthy for his name). Some of these candidates pop up in stories, but mainly for curiosity’s sake rather than their viability.
There’s a good deal of griping from candidates and democratic-reform activists about the way reporters ignore most of those who register to run for mayor. The complaint is that those outside the establishment are never given a fair chance to make their case. Consequently, many good ideas and fresh perspectives are overlooked.
But very little of the mayor’s job is about having good ideas. It’s about being able to convince people to support you and your agenda. The general public will have to buy into a candidate’s program in order for that candidate to win, and then the winner will have to sell those ideas to city council and city staff. Having the organizational tools and communication savvy to inspire others to believe in your ideas and help you implement them is the most important attribute a mayor can have.
As with any job—in this case, the CEO of a $10 billion-a-year organization responsible for millions of peoples’ daily necessities—the hiring criteria includes significant experience and demonstrated abilities as much as anything else. Which is why the press tends to focus initially on people who have a résumé that suggests they have the skills in question. Those with a record of political success, or whose names are already familiar to voters, or who have led a large organization tend to get more attention.
Occasionally, the media treats certain candidates seriously based on their experience or profile (see, for example, Sarah Thomson in 2010, Stephen LeDrew in 2006, Tom Jakobek in 2003) only to see those folks fail miserably despite the attention they received. If you cannot (or don’t) build and manage an organization and persuade voters, press attention isn’t going to help you do so.
Putting together a successful campaign is actually a pretty good proxy for many of the attributes you need to govern: managing a staff and volunteers, inspiring people to work on your behalf, raising funds, and engaging in a public debate that convinces citizens to put their trust in you and your plan. The press will pay close attention to candidates who show they can do that on a citywide scale. And so will voters.
The media basically treated Rob Ford like a second-tier novelty candidate in 2010 until he started holding rallies attended by hundreds of people and showing big strength in polls. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was essentially a fringe candidate when he began campaigning in 2010 (a month before election day, he was polling at eight per cent). Nenshi held coffee parties in people’s living rooms and built a following on social media, all of which snowballed into increasingly large public rallies. And then he surprised everyone by winning.
There’s a lesson here for Ari Goldkind and all the other candidates who are dismissed at the outset by journalists: You don’t need the press to legitimize your candidacy. Only your campaign can do that. And if you do, we’ll all start paying attention.