Smitherman’s desperate lurch to the right

September 08, 2010

Royson James–smitherman-s-desperate-lurch-to-the-right

The mayoral candidate George Smitherman that emerged Tuesday as the city hall Budget Buster may have arrived eight months too late. Then again, the desperate play to tap into the well of citizen discontent over taxes may be his last chance to get back into race he’s blown as winter turned to spring and summer.

The former deputy premier showed again, with his plan to freeze spending and taxes for one year as he personally conducts a 100-day budget review, that he has a mature and responsible understanding of how to manage a big, 21st century city.

Smitherman’s problem is not the policies he proposes; his problem is atrociously bad timing, a trait that can cripple the best of campaigns. In trying to be all things to all people, a strategy he embarked on to capture the city’s intelligentsia and position himself as the one to carry on David Miller’s vision without the Miller tag, Smitherman missed a large group of voters waiting to be wooed.

Now, as the Toronto mayoralty heads into the final weeks and an Oct. 25 voting day, Smitherman is struggling to create a persona, an easily digestible vision of what he stands for.

Wasteful spending at city hall is the core issue driving the 2010 municipal election. Councillor Rob Ford entered the race with that as his sole target and has soared on that wave of public anger. The fact that Ford’s popularity has confounded analysts and pundits and the chattering class suggests that Smitherman has company in misreading the public.

Smitherman, Furious George, the guy with the sandpaper personality and known as a pit bull who might not be afraid to confront the bureaucracy and squeeze savings out of city hall, should have owned the mantle of “outsider riding in to clean up the mess at city hall.” But instead of mining that electoral gem, Smitherman spent the entire spring and summer addressing a roster of urban ills.

Youth need jobs, the city needs green energy, our built heritage is important — all issues Smitherman spent the summer addressing. But if Smitherman and his team were paying attention for the past two or three years, they would have recognized that the Ford “war on waste” message took precedence. It’s what has consumed a large swath of voters, especially those outside the downtown core.

So, shifting to the right, now, even as he’s shifted left all summer to placate the city’s political left concerned about his agenda, Smitherman has opened himself to criticism that he is, at best, unfocused.

Of course, if most voters start paying close attention to the municipal election only after Labour Day, there may be time to rescue a disastrous campaign.

What of his announced intention to declare a “war on waste” and put the “big spenders at city hall on a diet”? Can he find $2 million in savings from the mayor’s and councillors’ office budgets? Free property taxes for one year without chopping services? Reduce the travel budget of councillors? Change the culture of entitlement among his councillors? Develop an environment where councillors and staff realize they, too, must “sacrifice” with taxpayers?

Yes, all the way.

This is such a basic, must-do, first step, first order of business, number one priority that one would expect every serious candidacy to have it inscribed in the opening paragraphs of their platform.

Smitherman’s (and candidates Rocco Rossi’s and Sarah Thomson’s) mistake has been to position himself as anti-Rob Ford when the public see Ford as their defender.

He could have owned this issue. Now, all he has left is a risky gambit that might confuse voters.

Royson James usually appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Email:


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