Having scraped the bottom of the barrel and come up empty, my colleagues at Film Ontario (the province's film industry trade association) asked me to moderate a debate between some of Toronto's principal mayoral candidates. That debate was held on Wednesday, Sept. 8 in Studio 1 at Pinewood Toronto, Canada's largest and best purpose-built film studio. The focus was on what the next mayor should do to keep building Toronto's film industry. The candidates auditioning for the job were former Ontario deputy premier George Smitherman, Toronto deputy mayor Joe Pantalone, Councillor Rob Ford, and Rocco Rossi, most recently of the federal Liberal Party.
Here are some impressions:
Mr. Smitherman entered a roomful of friendly, curious film industry people and stood by himself with an aide, talking in short bursts about something and not looking very happy. I tried to chat with him and found it a little tricky, since he answered all conversational sallies with a short, declarative sentence followed by silence. Perhaps he was thinking about his lines. On stage, as the debate unfolded, he became increasingly impressive. He had clearly thought carefully about how the city should promote its economically-critical creative industries, drawing on his experience as a senior official in the mayor's office pre-amalgamation. As he got comfortable in the hall, he started smiling more. His concluding statement was a nicely-turned, rousing pitch that got the best applause. The George Smitherman at the start of this event is a slightly incongruous person to find in politics. The George Smitherman with the sharp, detailed answers and the warm engaging smile, the guy passionately calling the city to action, was in this race.
Mr. Pantalone is the candidate with the most impressive experience at City Hall, and it showed in everything he said. He dismissed Mr. Ford's claims about Toronto's supposedly sky-high taxes as nonsense, and set out the truth of the matter -- Toronto's residential property taxes are significantly lower than surrounding communities and most of Canada's major cities. He argued forcefully that the City of Toronto is a great city; is well-run; cannot improve its services if it cuts its taxes; and has a big role to play in building Toronto's creative industries. He called on the city to aspire to be Paris or New York, not a city like Detroit, Buffalo or other American rustbelt cities -- destroyed in part by earlier crops of tax-cutting populist right-wingers. He was also, by a country mile, the candidate most prepared to debate his opponents. He confronted them on a number of points with some pretty good zingers. Mr. Pantalone is a committed environmentalist as well as a "get it done" City Hall veteran. He clearly had his heart in the right place and played well in this crowd.
Mr. Ford is a very smart, superbly tuned, disciplined and determined right-wing populist who knows exactly what he is doing. People who attack him as a buffoon underestimate him, and help his campaign by building his brand among the kind of voters he is targeting. He is speaking to the 30-35 per cent of the electorate who are always there for right-wing candidates in Toronto. People who believe that many dirty deals are done behind closed doors. People who resent Toronto's elite (although Mr. Ford is that elite's avatar). People who believe that by cutting the $2-million city councillors spend staying in touch with constituents, Toronto's $7.8-billion budget will be healed. People who believe that by cutting taxes, there will be more revenue. People who believe that by electing a mayor whose brand proposition is a relentless assault on the honesty and integrity of his city council colleagues, we will have a mayor who can get better results from those colleagues. Seems unlikely to me. But Mr. Ford doesn't need to persuade me, or anyone like me. He just needs to hold his franchise, while the two-thirds of the electorate who see the world as a more complex place split their votes between three or four other candidates. In other words, Mr. Ford is running a well-scripted, right-wing minority, Karl Roveian, modern U.S. Republican-style campaign. He is seeking to reproduce Stephen Harper's minority victory in Toronto. He was perfectly on message in this debate, ignoring many of the questions to repeat his simple, clean messages.
Mr. Rossi was, perhaps, the surprise of the debate for those attending. His photos in the media (inevitably showing him with a unflattering grin) and television clips don't do justice to him. He struck many in the room as serious; eloquent; detailed and well-briefed; on the right wavelength on the issues film industry people care about; and well able to hold his own in a sometimes bruising set of exchanges with the political veterans he was sharing the stage with. He worked the room well. He played well. People I spoke to afterwards said there seemed to be quite a bit more to him than the tax-cutting, budget-slashing, anti-worker Mike Harrisite his campaign has set him up to be.
Some miscommunication between event organizers and Sarah Thomson resulted in her not participating in this debate. Film folks were hoping to speak to her in coming days.
So what to make of it all?
Contrary to the popular view, Torontonians are going to need to pick from among some impressive candidates in this election. And somebody -- Mr. Pantalone, Mr. Smitherman, or Mr. Rossi -- is going to need to figure out what to do about Mr. Ford. It won't be by competing for his core votes, I don't think. Mr. Ford is scripted, Hollywood-perfect, to tell those voters everything they want to hear.