James: Nervous city builders seek a Ford-slayer

September 17, 2010

Royson James


Private polling by Councillor Rob Ford’s opponents shows the candidate’s hard-right, “end of waste” agenda still resonates with voters and he has a double-digit lead in the Toronto mayor’s race.

Cornered at the Star’s editorial board this week, mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson wouldn’t give an inch, even as she voiced the fears of Toronto’s civic leaders

“I think it would be scary, yes,” Thomson said of Ford as mayor.

So, will she drop out if it becomes clear she might siphon enough votes to allow Ford to squeak out a win over, say, second-place candidate George Smitherman?

“I will not drop out,” she told the board.

Just as the city’s elite feared.

Deputy Mayor Joe “Stand Pat” Pantalone considers such suggestions an insult to his near three decades of city hall residency. So he’s staying in.

Rocco “Tunnel Vision” Rossi has raised so much money he can’t help but press on, screaming louder as fewer voters listen to now-desperate ideas. He may be running last among the Big 5, descending into irrelevancy. Besides, a lot of his votes might go to Ford as their second choice.

And Smitherman? ‘Furious George’ Smitherman, who’s managed to turn a massive springtime lead into an embarrassing second-place standing at Labour Day?

Bluntly, “George has had a tough time finding his groove,” admits one campaign insider.

The broad-based, multi-party civic guardians and self-styled city builders know they have about two weeks to find a champion. A chosen one from Pantalone, Rossi, Smitherman or Thomson might be recast as the slayer of the dragon from Etobicoke, a.k.a. Rob Ford, the anti-establishment, anti-everything candidate whose popularity has shocked and horrified the studied crowd.

For if Ford has a double-digit lead into mid-October, momentum alone will propel him into office.

At the University of Toronto last week, on a night to celebrate winners of the Jane Jacobs prize for city building, the grey-haired brigade openly fretted and fussed about the prospects of Ford occupying the second-floor corner office overlooking Nathan Phillips Square.

“I don’t know who to vote for,” they say, agitated.

“What’s happened to George? He doesn’t . . . er, connect.”

The night before, as they marked the 45th anniversary of the opening of city hall, probably Toronto’s most significant building in modern times, one Rosedale matron clenched her fist, fumed at Smitherman’s inability to fend off Ford, and implored a reporter: “You’ve got to do something.”

Former Toronto Mayor David Crombie has heard the concerns.

“It is true, they are nervous. People are perplexed,” Crombie says. “I don’t think I’ve seen it quite like this in a long time.

“They don’t know what to do, and it’s not becoming any easier” as the candidates flail away with wild campaign promises — a strategy some describe as “swinging for the fences” in a desperate bid for attention.

As such, the next opinion poll from an independent polling agency will serve as a rallying cry, as the possibility of a Ford victory becomes real.

“That might begin to sort out the field, provide greater focus and clarity and reveal a mix of strategy . . . calculated decisions,” Crombie said.

In other words, find the candidate most likely to stop Ford. And conventional wisdom suggests the progressives will give Smitherman the call, almost by default.

Rossi’s camp has veered too far right. Progressives are even wishing his numbers will improve, to keep votes away from Ford.

Pantalone, a decent, competent NDPer, doomed his candidacy by offering little that was new. He wasn’t even the top choice of the left. Adam Giambrone was, before blowing up his candidacy in a sex scandal. Pantalone is trying to protect Mayor David Miller’s legacy but wasn’t Miller’s top choice. And he’s hamstrung by a lack of campaign donations.

Thomson’s resume is too thin. No one expects her to be standing at the end. The majority of her supporters would go to Smitherman, if stopping Ford is the goal.

So, once it becomes clear Ford is ensconced in first place, watch for movement away from Pantalone and Thomson, even though the candidates stay in the race. There’s precedent: Barbara Hall’s vote collapsed and migrated to Miller in 2003, thwarting John Tory.

Will it be enough for Smitherman? That’s why people are nervous.

Royson James usually appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Email: rjames@thestar.ca


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