Author Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot in 1952. If he were alive today and watching Toronto city hall, he might have retitled the play Waiting for Tory, because that’s what everyone in Ontario’s capital city is doing these days.
There are myriad political decisions that need to be made over the next five months by hundreds of people who are considering a run for city hall in next October’s municipal elections. And they all hinge on one person — John Tory — and whether he will seek another term, as Toronto’s 65th mayor.
The conventional wisdom since he won his first four-year term as mayor in 2014 has been that Tory would serve two mandates, then stand aside and let the next generation have at it. Adding certainty to that calculus was the widely held view that Tory’s wife of 43 years, Barbara Hackett, never loved having the glare of the political klieg lights shining on her family and thus demanded “two-and-out” from her husband.
Over the past couple of years, Tory has dropped hints that he might seek a third term. But many observers figured that was his way of ensuring he didn’t become a lame duck and lose the ability to marshal his plans through city council as the spotlight moved to his potential successors. Moreover, if Tory were to run for a third term, he’d do so as a 68-year-old, making him more than one or two decades older than the mayors of other major Canadian cities. (Edmonton’s Amarjeet Sohi is 57; Vancouver’s Kennedy Stewart is 55; Calgary’s Jyoti Gondek is 51; Montreal’s Valerie Plante is 47; and Brampton’s Patrick Brown is 43.) Wouldn’t a 68-year-old, they ask, having completed two relatively successful terms as mayor of Canada’s biggest city, want to stand down and do something less stressful with his life?
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Tory’s decision will have a domino effect on so many others who want to run for mayor at some point in their careers. Many of them are current city councillors, meaning that if they were to seek the top job, others would be able to contest their council seats.
Everyone is waiting for Tory.
Having talked to numerous people about this over the past several weeks, I can give you my sense of where things stand today. The hope that Tory’s wife would veto a third term is a disappearing one. If the mayor wants to go again, he’ll have Hackett’s blessing. Furthermore, Tory is said to have told friends that he’ll announce sometime this month what his plans are. I, for one, wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if he were to call an audible and run for a third term. Here’s why.
First and foremost, most Torontonians think Tory’s done a good job as mayor. His approval ratings are north of 60 per cent — numbers the prime minister, the premier, and other political leaders would give their eye teeth for.
Second, after the utterly chaotic mayoralty of his predecessor, Rob Ford (much of which, no doubt, was brought on by personal demons and significant health challenges we should have some compassion for), Tory has restored sanity and dignity to the mayor’s office. You might not love every decision he’s made, and he might not have been ambitious enough for some, but after his predecessor (with whom, incidentally, he shares a birthday) and the insanity of the Donald Trump years, many people have discovered that “normalcy” is a highly underrated value.
The city has made some progress on social housing; there may still be huge disagreements on megaprojects such as the Scarborough subway, the various LRTs that are under construction, the extension of the Yonge Street subway north to York Region, and the new Ontario Line from Don Mills to Exhibition Place. But the fact is, the debate seems to be over, and the projects do seem to be going forward after decades of passing, then cancelling, various transit schemes.
Overwhelmingly, Tory has received positive marks for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, something he surely didn’t see on his radar screen when he ran for re-election in 2018. He has been a calm, reassuring presence during a time of occasional panic, seems to work well with the city’s chief health officer, Eileen de Villa, and successfully lobbied senior levels of government for financial assistance for property taxpayers and the transit system, whose revenues plummeted by more than 80 per cent but whose services we still needed.
Yes, Tory’s critics would have preferred a more adventurous agenda from time to time. They’re still scratching their heads, for example, over a decision to move an interchange on the Gardiner Expressway at a massive cost with little apparent improvement in commute times, when tearing it down and creating a “grand boulevard” might have done so much more for city-building and aesthetics.
The mayor campaigned hard on his transit plan, called SmartTrack, which seems to have basically disappeared or been subsumed into the provincial government’s much more ambitious $12 billion transit plans, replete with more subways and LRTs.
And they note the mayor has talked a good game on intensification and the need to build more “missing middle” housing, particularly around subway stations. But local NIMBYism still carries the day, as local councillors defend existing residents’ desires for no more density in most locations.
Having said all that, the conventional wisdom is, should Tory run again, a third term would be his for the asking. No serious candidate would dare challenge him, which is why the many on council who fancy themselves future mayors are on tenterhooks waiting for him to announce one way or another.
I suspect Tory will seek a third term for the simple reason that he still enjoys the job, he’s good at it, he seems to still have the energy to do it, his wife has given him the green light, there is no apparent opponent that could defeat him, and there are still issues he’d like to see though.
In addition, there’s the chance to make history. Currently, Art Eggleton is Toronto’s longest-serving mayor, at 11 years (1980 to 1991). If Tory were to win next October and serve the full four-year term, he’d be Toronto’s longest-serving mayor ever. That’s not a reason to run again, but it would be a happy by-product for someone who more than once looked as if he couldn’t win the big one. Tory unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2003, losing to David Miller. He lost the 2007 provincial election as Progressive Conservative Party leader to Dalton McGuinty. He then lost a byelection after that and had no apparent political future at all. The prospect of serving longer than Eggleton, Miller, David Crombie, Mel Lastman, or Nathan Phillips is surely enticing.
But, at the moment, the waiting game continues.