George Smitherman

[originally printed in Autumnplay! The Community Issue – Fall 2010]

As the Toronto mayoral election campaign heats up in these last few weeks, George Smitherman makes a surprising bargain: “What I’m offering to people is that, if you elect me, I’m going to restore a sense of pride to the city.” Thanks to hacking-and-slashing frontrunner Rob Ford, there’s been no shortage of talk of Toronto being “broken” or “corrupt” but this may be the first time anyone has questioned the city’s happiness.

“Lots of people are proud about different parts of the city,” Smitherman explains, “They really like their neighbourhood or they really like the people but for the government of the city down at City Hall, the people who govern us and lead us, I really think there’s a sense that it’s a bit mediocre overall.”

Right after Labour Day, Smitherman announced a plan of spending and tax freezes, along with a 100-day line-by-line budget review. “The spending binge is over,” he declared. “It’s back to basics.” Is that a reference to all the bad press about outgoing councilor Kyle Rae‘s $12,000 retirement party at the Rosewater Supper Club?

“It’s a tough one for me because I went to that party,” says Smitherman, “but as I walked there, I said to the two volunteers who were with me, ‘Do not take a drink. Do not eat a canapé.'” Given that the food and drink was already paid for based on a guest list, however, I can’t help but joke that this sounds a little like Bill Clinton not inhaling.

“Kyle Rae has been one of the best city councilors Toronto’s had and he’s done awesome things for our community and for neighbourhoods,” Smitherman protests, “He’s been great. But I would have been a lot more comfortable if we were all making those nice little sandwiches where you cut off the crusts and serving them at a goodbye party for Kyle at the newly renovated 519.”

Rae insisted that the party was paid for out of a pre-approved communications budget, one he’d even previously paid into out of his own money, but Smitherman calls those budgets “outrageously generous” and vows to cut two million dollars from the cost of running City Hall. “It’s a time of restraint,” he says, “and when you’ve got an organization that spends $11 billion a year, you better damn well make sure that its leaders are exercising proper restraint.”

The frustration for Smitherman is that his frugal message is being eclipsed by the red-faced ravings of Rob Ford, vowing to cut even deeper. As this issue headed for press, the most recent Forum Research poll had Ford in the lead with 34 percent of support, Smitherman in second with 22 percent. In 1977, Smitherman was the campaign manager for Barbara Hall‘s mayoral campaign against the blustery, gaffe-prone Mel Lastman, who nevertheless beat the practical, sensible Hall. Is history repeating itself here?

“Don’t diminish Mel Lastman too easily and don’t give Rob Ford too much credit,” warns Smitherman, “Remember that in that race, Mel Lastman had a track record of 20 years as mayor of North York and in that time, North York had emerged as a pretty good place…Rob Ford’s been on council for ten years and what he’s done adds up to squat. Diddly squat. Rob Ford’s plan leads to one inevitable conclusion: Mike Harris-style cuts to the services that matter to people. He’s promised a combination of revenue reductions and expenditure increases…it’s the absence of a sensible fiscal plan. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sarah Palin campaigning for him.”

Smitherman says Toronto is actually doing better than Ford would have us believe. “Every year, Toronto projects itself as a basket case, using words like ‘broke’ or ‘bankrupt,'” he explains, “but in the last seven years, the city has received a share of the gas tax from the federal government, a share of the gas tax from the provincial government, the provincial government has uploaded very substantial costs from the Harris downloading…I’m not pretending that everything’s easy but relatively speaking, the diversification of revenue streams that feed into the city of Toronto’s revenue picture is much better than it was.”

All Toronto needs, Smitherman insists, is “some restraint and proper management…this is a big bit of the frustration that motivated me to run in the first place. I think it’s time to hunker down, work within the revenue that has been identified, quit pretending that huge, vast amounts of money are going to fall from high heights and demonstrate that we can live within our means.”

And if all that sounds like Smitherman’s leaning rightward, he isn’t worried.

“Part of why we chose purple as a campaign colour–even though I’ve been a Liberal–is that I want to restore the nature of consensus government to City Hall, and the ones who have used the factional model the most at City Hall for decades are the NDP. They are the most likely to caucus and Miller has created an inside-out situation where he knows his voting block and if you’re on the outside of it, you’re on the outside of it. Mel Lastman was much more effective, actually, at working across the aisle and across the philosophical spectrum of City Hall. Jack Layton, Olivia Chow and Joe Pantalone are all examples of people, obviously NDPers, that Mel Lastman put to very good use.”

Smitherman calls his overall approach “tough love” but reserves a small bit for himself, publicly owning up to mistakes with past drug use and the e-Health spending debacle under his watch as Ontario Minister of Health.

“I’m a known commodity,” he says and part of that includes being gay and out. “I think people have come to know me for so much more than my sexual orientation, but overall, I am who I am, as that great song goes, and I never seek to hide it or disguise it in any way. I think that part of my brand is authenticity. It doesn’t mean you love me but more likely than not, I’m gonna give it to you straight up. I think that people appreciate it more often than not.”

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About Scott Dagostino

An arts & culture journalist who's the bastard love child of Van Morrison and Jessica Mitford
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