TORONTO — After 11-odd months of covering Winnipeg’s mayoral race, the wisest thing to do after the civic election ended was to escape to Canada’s largest city for a couple of days.
Sam Katz and Judy Wasylycia-Leis had been shadow-boxing since December 2009, when the first rumours about the Winnipeg North MP resigning her Ottawa seat floated back to Winnipeg.
Initially, this was exciting. But when the race actually got underway, the front-runners did little but evade questions from reporters and avoid discussions about actual policy. A genuine dialogue about Winnipeg’s future never emerged.
There should have been nothing in Toronto to remind me of Winnipeg’s shallow, vapid race. Our city’s politics are all but ignored outside Manitoba’s borders.
So I redeemed enough points for a flight to Toronto, took a bus and subway ride downtown and checked into the cheapest decent hotel room Priceline’s computers could cough up. When I opened the window curtains, Toronto’s asymmetrical city hall stared back at me across the emptiness of Nathan Phillips Square. It doesn’t take much of a cosmic joke to amuse me.
Toronto, as many Canadians know, elected a new mayor this week: Rob Ford, a fiscal conservative who promised to slash the operating budget and "end the gravy train" for municipal workers without really explaining how he would accomplish this.
Ford nonetheless ran a very effective campaign. In a wide-open race, he blew away former Liberal MPP George Smitherman by employing a handful of simple messages — and an election team staffed by two prominent conservative activists from Winnipeg.
Adrienne Batra, best known as the former Manitoba director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, worked as Ford’s communications manager. She moved to Toronto several years back and will remain out east.
Michael Diamond, a young former Manitoba Progressive Conservative staffer, served as Team Ford’s chief operations officer and election-day co-chairman.
Thanks to the help of these two, both the Ontario Progressive Conservatives and the federal Conservatives have new hope they can destroy the Liberal fortress formerly known as Toronto. But ironically, Ford’s victory doesn’t say much about Winnipeg.
In Manitoba, politicians govern from the centre. Former premier Gary Doer, who was the personality behind three consecutive NDP provincial victories, was a centrist in leftie clothing. Mayor Sam Katz, a small-C conservative who has also won three straight elections, is a sensitive moderate compared to Ford.
Toronto’s plain-talking new mayor campaigned against bike trails, made borderline-xenophobic comments about Tamil migrants and seemed to pride himself on caring nothing about his image. In an already-infamous interview on CBC Radio’s As It Happens the day after Toronto’s election, Ford is reached by cellphone at the football practice he’s coaching and treats his national audience as an annoying intrusion before he cuts the call short.
Katz, on the other hand, cares about his image and seems to understand it reflects upon the way the city is perceived. He has also wrapped himself in the active-transportation flag, declaring, somewhat improbably, that no other mayor has ever done more to promote bike trails.
Winnipeg’s mayor also has no patience for even a whiff of intolerance. While inner-city activists could criticize his election-year spending on urban aboriginal programs as little more than window dressing, Katz has consistently tied the future of this city to the economic advancement of the rapidly growing First Nations demographic.
Our mayor may be a disappointment to the significant minority of Winnipeggers who voted against him. But Katz is no embarrassment, as many Torontonians — including those who felt they had no choice but to vote for Ford — fear their own will become on the national stage.
Winnipeg may have just endured a mayoral race that gave us little in the way of new ideas from either viable candidate. Katz offered more of the same and Wasylycia-Leis offered next to nothing.
But we have no reason to be frightened. Not even on Halloween.
If this column appeared on a different page in this special 3-D version of On7, I’d be able to present you with a larger-than-life colour image of Rob Ford.
Instead, you’re stuck with a two-dimensional Toronto mayor. To paraphrase the wise sage Ozzy Osbourne, he’s going to stop and derail the gravy train.