December 31, 2010
Sandra Bussin says she knew she was toast long before voters made it official on Oct. 25.
Throughout the city, entrenched left-wing incumbents who had been power players under David Miller appeared beatable for the first time in years.
Perhaps none was more vulnerable than Bussin, the sharp-tongued council speaker and former deputy mayor.
With Miller ruling out another run, heir-apparent Adam Giambrone blowing up early in a scandal and deputy mayor Joe Pantalone stalled in a lifeless campaign, Bussin was one of the few Miller-related targets worth hitting.
Not that the four-term Beaches-East York councillor didn’t provide ample ammunition.
From her temper tantrum on John Tory’s radio show to her taxpayer-covered libel lawsuit, from an expensed $205 Easter bunny costume to her role in the now-infamous Boardwalk Pub contract — for each of the charges Rob Ford levied against city hall, Bussin seemed to supply the evidence.
Within the ward, Bussin was cast as the Wicked Witch of The East. Across Toronto, Bussin put a face to the supposed entitlement and waste Ford was vowing to stamp out.
When voters soundly elected quirky political newcomer Mary-Margaret McMahon, a local paper ran an editorial cartoon of Bussin being crushed by a house.
Many of her critics concede the venom flung her way during the 10-month campaign was unusually harsh. Her supporters charge that the smears were laced with sexism, of the sort that may discourage women from running for office.
For Bussin, the experience left her sure of only one thing: She is done with politics.
“I was canvassing in a convenience store and two guys looked at me and said ‘bitch’ — like it was nothing,” Bussin said, sitting in the living room of her east-end home, a framed photo of herself, Miller and Jack Layton propped up near the window. “I’ve never accepted this whole thing that you need skin as thick as an elephant’s to be a public official.”
To those who have watched her chair a council meeting, or heard her sometimes cold responses to hostile constituents, Bussin’s assertive persona can come off as severe. If she were a man, she might be described as firm, confident, tough. But as a woman, adjectives such as frigid, unfriendly and shrill are often used.
Particularly towards the end of the campaign, she concedes, the name-calling was getting to her.
“In my case, you can change someone’s reputation in six months. Someone says something about you, whether it’s true or not, and they just keep saying it over and over, hammering on a theme, and people start to believe it,” she said, referring to rumours she was in bed with developers and finagling deals for campaign donors.
In regards to the former, Bussin launched a libel lawsuit against a community tabloid, which she believes is backed by “powerful people” in the development community bent on smearing her name. The latter was probably the root of her undoing.
Ford seized on the city’s sole-sourced 20-year deal with Tuggs Inc., which runs the Boardwalk Pub in the Eastern Beaches, as a galvanizing example of waste, mismanagement, even corruption at city hall.
It was at Bussin’s urging that council awarded the contract, despite a city staff recommendation that it should be put up for tender. The family that owns Tuggs has made campaign contributions to Bussin in the past.
She says she was just doing her part to advocate for a hardworking family business in her ward. Her opponents have insinuated something more sinister.
Tuggs owner George Foulidis has since sued Ford and at least one of Bussin’s council opponents for suggesting that there was wrongdoing in the deal. Ford says the claims in the suit are unfounded and that any comments he made were done in the public’s interest.
For Bussin, this was just one of the many east-end controversies that wouldn’t go away.
In May, she was again at the centre of a widely covered firestorm, that one involving a woman in a wheelchair and a heritage property designation.
Geoff Teehan and his wife, Melissa, purchased 204 Beech Ave. in hopes of tearing down the century-old house to build a fully accessible home for themselves and their two sons. But when a neighbour complained, Bussin took it to community council. The Heritage Preservation Services department was asked to investigate whether the property should have heritage protection.
In December 2007, Bussin infuriated constituents in the Upper Beach by supporting a controversial construction project that would convert an abandoned banquet hall at Gerrard and Woodbine into a complex for mentally ill homeless people.
When it began accepting residents this summer, old grudges were awakened and the project was once again making headlines.
“It just seemed everything in my ward was big news. I was seriously waiting for the coyote issue to become an election issue. There was too much noise all the time,” said Bussin.
The Beach has always been a politically charged region of the city. Educated, well-to-do residents “know how to call a newspaper,” as Bussin puts it. It may not help that perhaps a disproportionate number of the city’s journalists live within its borders.
Like Miller, Bussin holds some resentment towards the media and how it has covered municipal issues. The real news is ignored while trivial tiffs are played big. Ford, says Bussin, is a product of the kind of journalism that only skims the surface.
And she thinks she can help.
Moving forward, Bussin has been looking at some chief administrative officer positions, but what she would really like to do is host her own talk-radio show.
“I really think there is a progressive perspective missing out there right now. I think that would be really fun,” said Bussin, who has a fine arts degree from York University and has dabbled with media in the past.
That’s not including the time she anonymously called into CFRB’s Strong Opinions show to defend mayor Miller, only to end up telling host John Tory he was a “three-time loser.”
That was late September 2009. At the time, Bussin was in the middle of separating from her husband, and her ailing father was just days away from dying.
“I don’t regret it. Tory’s co-host was saying some really horrible, personal things about David (Miller), but it was also a difficult time,” she said.
Looking back, Bussin says she wouldn’t do anything differently — including going to bat for the Boardwalk Pub.
“You can’t predict what’s going to become an issue. Pretty well the same kind of deal passed (in High Park) this summer without any debate. Why did one become an issue? Who knows? I did what I felt was right.”