The young, media-savvy team behind David Soknacki’s bid for mayor has used memes, viral videos, and goofy stunts to spin his nerdy all-substance, no-style persona to his advantage. But in a race dominated by celebrity candidates, can an Average Joe with a solid plan really compete?
David Soknacki arrives at the McCowan RT station one sunny Saturday in late May dressed in head-to-toe beige. Up top, a Tilley hat, on his feet, well-worn boat shoes, and in between, a pair of Dockers and a no-name polo shirt, both made for someone 20 pounds heavier. He makes his way to a knot of volunteers and campaign staff, clustered in front of a tall banner bearing his (better groomed) likeness. “David Soknacki for Mayor of Toronto,” it reads in capital letters above a shot of him in a blue shirt and red tie, eyes cast optimistically upwards. A local resident beetles straight past him, approaches me, and asks, “Do you know where David Soknacki is? I’m here for his event.” When I point out the candidate, who is standing, smiling, only a few metres away, beside a big sign with his name on it, the man replies, “Yeah, well, I have no idea what the guy looks like.”
The guy gets this a lot. In the eight months since Soknacki declared his candidacy to lead North America’s fourth largest city, the unassuming, self-described nerd has had trouble penetrating Toronto’s consciousness. His campaign staff has been spinning this lack of celebrity as a virtue. In February, during yet another act in Mayor Rob Ford’s epic dramedy, they created a clever meme that circulated among local media and municipal affairs geeks: a photo of Soknacki with the slogans “Never heard of me? Neither has 52 Division” and “Never heard of me? Neither has Jimmy Kimmel.”
Soknacki, however, is far from a fringe candidate or political newbie. The 59-year-old businessman, who holds an MBA from the University of Western Ontario, once served as Mayor David Miller’s budget chief. He was born and raised in Scarborough, where he and his wife, Florence, still live, and he runs a successful food flavouring company. While representing his ward on council from the mid-’90s to the mid-aughts, he developed a reputation for integrity, efficacy, and bipartisanship. Despite these bona fides, his modest, beige-on-beige persona tends to get lost in a colourful 2014 mayoral field that includes the internationally infamous Ford and high-wattage figures like John Tory and Olivia Chow.
Today’s event, a ramble along Progress Avenue from the station towards Sheppard Avenue East following the proposed route of the contested Scarborough LRT, is modelled on Jane’s Walks—neighbourhood tours named after the late Toronto urbanist Jane Jacobs. It’s another creative volley by Soknacki’s young and energetic campaign team to raise the candidate’s profile by letting him do what he does best: talk sanely and seriously about city planning and policy. Earlier in the week, he hand-delivered copies of his cycling plan to bike shops across the GTA, pitching it directly to riders. As much by necessity as sensibility, his tiny staff has used social media and off-beat events to position Soknacki as the wonkish, outside-the-box alternative, hoping to appeal to voters frustrated by political preening and City Hall gridlock.
Of the two-dozen or so people congregated for the walk, half appear to be journalists or campaign workers. Undaunted by the turnout, Soknacki ensures that everyone has sunscreen and a bottle of water and then forges ahead. The LRT, which had a full funding commitment from the province and would have offered seven stops on a dedicated right of way, was killed by council earlier this year in favour of Ford’s “subways, subways, subways” plan. Soknacki continues to champion the LRT because he says it’s faster, cheaper, serves more citizens, and would be completed in less time.
At the first stop, a busy intersection near a ramp to the 401, Soknacki recounts the history of the transit debate, scrupulously differentiating between the facts and his own opinions. “Okay, folks, so this is where it gets political and where I’m editorializing,” he says, before describing how the mayor bullied councillors into supporting his subway plan. When he’s finished, we begin walking to the next stop. I find myself beside Rishi Maharaj, a young electrical engineer who’s been invited along to explain the technical merits of the light rail system. His only previous involvement in politics was with a student group advocating for election reform. He was initially drawn to Soknacki’s support for ranked ballots, but he’s come to appreciate the candidate for his reluctance to pander. “He’s rational,” Maharaj says. “He makes data-based decisions. He doesn’t just tell people what they want to hear.”
All the thoughtful, rational ideas he can deliver, however, may be irrelevant: Soknacki’s ability to reverse the decision on the LRT as mayor seems, at this moment, as much of a longshot as Soknacki getting elected in the first place. A recent poll asking Torontonians who they would vote for have him at five per cent, just ahead of Karen Stintz (four) but well behind Chow (38), Tory (28), and Ford (20). Hiking the concrete byways of northeast Scarborough to talk about the LRT feels a little like playing Sancho Panza to Soknacki’s Don Quixote. Because even though the candidate has bold ideas, a progressive platform, and widespread respect, his quirky underdog campaign is running out of time. Unless his momentum shifts soon, he may turn out to be the best mayor we’re never going to have.
A few weeks earlier, Soknacki met me at a Starbucks on Queen West with his press secretary and spokesperson, Supriya Dwivedi, in tow. Soknacki can appear stiff and, at times, a little testy. Back in March, during an interview on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning, he and host Matt Galloway tussled over a statement that Soknacki had made, then later softened, a week or so earlier about Olivia Chow being a “downtowner for downtowners.” Soknacki became defensive, and at the end, when Galloway asked him to go off message for a moment and “inspire us” with his vision of Toronto, the candidate consulted his notes and rhymed off a boilerplate statement about “making changes not excuses.”
In person, however, he is warm and relaxed. He shakes my hand, declines a coffee, then launches into an outline of his platform. His ambition for the city is grand in vision and precise in detail, emphasizing democratic reform and government accountability. As well as a ranked ballot system, he wants regional representation on the executive committee and citizen consultation on the budget process; data transparency and public access to the mayor’s schedule; community participation in the oversight of the city’s parks; less red tape for small businesses and start-ups. Having found himself with free time over the recent Easter weekend, he tells me, he used it to work out a comprehensive “decongestion plan” that would expand cycling and transit infrastructure. (Since we spoke, he’s also proposed a ban on street parking in the downtown core.)
It’s a very lefty program for a man who has traditionally defined himself as a conservative. “That’s the beauty of local government,” he says. “It’s about community interests, not political parties.” Most heretically, Soknacki is willing to raise taxes—“transit isn’t free,” has become one of his signature lines—and look into cutting the police and fire budgets. When I suggest that these are surprising positions for a conservative, he replies, “But those are the only truly conservative elements of my platform. It’s the bedrock of conservatism to want the best value for your money and to avoid buying things unless you have a plan to pay for them.”
These flexitarian politics extend to his team, which includes everyone from religious conservatives and libertarians to socialists and Greens. Dwivedi describes herself as “a default Liberal.” A transplant from Montreal, she landed in Toronto around the time Mayor Ford admitted to smoking crack cocaine. She was casting about for a campaign to support and a friend directed her to Soknacki. He showed up to meet her “in a Cosby sweater!” she tells me, and she wondered what she had gotten herself into. By the time they finished their coffee, Dwivedi was swayed, she says, by his passion and his substance. “Voters don’t want to be infantilized,” she says.
Voters do, however, like to be entertained. Early on, it was clear that a dark horse like Soknacki, who is partly funding the campaign himself, required a non-traditional strategy. Campaign manager Brian Kelcey, “an urbanist conservative” and former operative for the provincial Mike Harris government, divided the race into three phases. The early weeks of 2014 focused on getting the candidate’s name out, hence the memes and a Reddit chat. The second, which runs until Labour Day, has been dedicated to releasing policy positions on major issues via grassroots events and social media. Though Soknacki’s tastes run more to Gregorian chants than Instagram, he agreed to the strategy and allowed Dwivedi to coach him on tweeting. In April, the team released a video in which Soknacki recited Kevin Bacon’s “This Is Our Time to Dance” monologue from Footloose to protest council’s vote to ban EDM parties in Exhibition Place. Dressed in a suit and standing against a white wall, Soknacki, who wasn’t familiar with the film (or EDM, for that matter), delivers the speech in a manner that its target demo might characterize as “adorkable.”
These stunts, along with Soknacki’s forthrightness, have earned praise from municipal politics watchers, even if the candidate hasn’t yet captured the attention of the city at large. Kelcey says that the campaign is saving its best material for the final days of the long race, which he regularly reminds his team is a marathon, not a sprint. “There’s a wait-until-you-see-the-whites-of-their-eyes strategy,” he says. Still, I ask how they maintain their morale faced with a pair of well-funded frontrunners and an unpredictable incumbent who is in rehab and yet still polling far ahead of them. “What’s going on now doesn’t matter,” Kelcey says. “This race will be won in September and October. Anything could happen by then.”
Skeptics of Kelcey’s theory are directed to examine the trajectory of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who back in 2010 was a nerdy urbanist business professor trailing a 15-candidate-strong mayoral race led by a longtime alderman and a popular newscaster. He pitched his “politics in full sentences” to handfuls of voters at a time, at house parties, picnics, neighbourhood gatherings, and even high schools (the students were too young to vote, but they talked him up to their parents).
A month before the election, Nenshi, whose “Better Ideas Campaign” promoted government accountability, transit improvements, affordable housing, and poverty reduction, was polling at eight per cent. Within two weeks, he jumped to third place and went on to win a race marked by a relatively robust municipal-voter turnout of 53 per cent. Many of those who showed up on election day were between the ages of 18 and 34, a demographic that loves Nenshi and doesn’t track in traditional polls because they don’t have landlines. He outmatched and outsmarted his competition on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Much of the Nenshi platform and strategy can be found in the Soknacki playbook—the social media activism, the community events, and the nonpartisan approach to civic issues. But there are significant differences between the two. Nenshi was only 38 when he was elected—21 years younger than Soknacki is now—and is a digital native with a compelling biography as the son of hard-working Ismaili Muslim immigrants. What’s more, Nenshi possesses charisma of the Obama and Clinton variety: He’s policy-smart, but people-smart, too—intuitive about how to connect with voters on a personal level and savvy about running an inspirational campaign. As Calgary journalist and author Chris Turner put it in The Globe and Mail in 2010, “The real key to the Nenshi phenomenon is that he electrified the city with a new vision of itself.”
By comparison, it’s hard to imagine Soknacki electrifying anyone. He’s smart and his ideas for the city are gutsy. But in politics, charm, relatability, and personal narrative matter, too—especially for a mayor, the only level of leadership elected directly by the voters. Nenshi didn’t win because of his youth or his race and religion, but his positioning as a change candidate was enhanced by the fact that he looked and felt like a genuine alternative to the status quo. Selling Soknacki—an older, well-off, establishment white guy—as the change candidate poses a tougher challenge. Especially since Chow and Tory, in different ways, present their own stark contrast to Ford.
And then there are the missteps: Kelcey calls the candidate’s “downtowner” comment about Chow “the worst moment” of the campaign. “We had done our best as a group to avoid sniping and attacking,” Kelcey says. “We wanted to move on from the Rob Ford era.” The remark was hurtful to the team, he says, which includes downtowners as well as suburbanites, but it inspired them to renew their commitment to running a non-divisive campaign. “We’re excited by the idea of unifying the city,” Kelcey says, “and we know that to do that we have to live that unity among ourselves.”
Another struggle for Soknacki lies in the limits of his campaign’s so-unhip-he’s-hip schtick. During our interview, he refers to himself as being square, and then brings up Drake as an example. “I have no idea who Drake is. He—he is a he, right? He’s a basketball player, I think?” This cluelessness would be cute in a goofy-dad way, if I hadn’t already heard him use variations of it in other interviews. Now the line just sounds canned. Worse, it makes Soknacki seem out of touch and not so different from councillor Doug Ford when he said in 2011, “If [Margaret Atwood] walked by me, I wouldn’t have a clue who she is.”
Back on the transit tour in Scarborough, there is a break at Centennial College, where the proposed LRT stop would have expanded and improved TTC access for the campus’ 10,000 students and staff. From there, we hike to the final destination at a park in the Malvern neighbourhood, where there will be closing remarks. The crowd is small but lively, with a palpable sense of delight in having a discussion about Toronto politics that doesn’t involve the words “crack” or “video.”
Bruce Kyereh-Addo and Victoria James, two young campaign workers, hustle about arranging rides back to McCowan station. They represent an unlikely mix of political allegiances: He’s been involved with the conservative Manning Centre (named after Preston) and Alberta’s Wildrose party; she supports the NDP. Kyereh-Addo, who is the campaign’s director of organization, grew up in Scarborough and has been a longtime fan of Soknacki’s constructive brand of politics. “He wants to fix what’s broken in the city, like transit,” Kyereh-Addo says. “That’s not a right- or left-wing issue.” James, who signed up to volunteer the day after Soknacki declared his candidacy, says her choice was simple. “I want a grown-up for a mayor.”
I recall a conversation I had a few weeks earlier with Ahmad Ktaech, the campaign’s director of digital strategy, in his office at Spadina and Richmond. He describes the city as being “in a reactive mode” for the past year, and indifferent about municipal politics for longer than that. “Five out of 10 eligible voters didn’t show up at the polls during the last election,” he says. “And I can’t say I blame them.” Citizens haven’t been given the opportunity or inspiration by politicians to talk deeply and seriously about a new vision for Toronto, he says.
In the last election, Ktaech worked for mayoral hopeful Joe Pantalone under veteran political strategist John Laschinger (who’s now running Chow’s campaign) and was approached by other candidates this time around. He explains that he was drawn to Soknacki because he offered a vision that was dynamic and not beholden to a single ideology.
Like any political campaign, Team Soknacki is stacked with true believers. But what’s interesting is that while they speak admirably about the candidate, they seem even more excited—electrified, even—about the kind of city they could each envision themselves if local government was less fractured and more functional, if transit worked, if our parks and public spaces better met the needs of the community, if artists and entrepreneurs could flourish. The genius of Soknacki’s campaign is that it’s creating a cult of personality without a big, overpowering personality at the centre. The memes are right: You don’t know who David Soknacki is, but his team is banking on the fact that the message matters more than the man.