John Tory had absorbed the verbal jabs and endured the criticism of his record as his rivals at this week’s mayoral debate slammed his eight-year tenure leading Canada’s most populous city.
But there came a point where Tory fired off a response that highlighted a key selling point of his campaign.
“The great thing about our system is people will render their judgment,” he said. “They will look at the experience that will be necessary to lead us through some very uncertain times ? that is what they’ll pick.”
Experience and a steady hand is what Tory has returned to time and again as he makes his pitch for a third term.
“There’s no replacement for experience,” the veteran politician said in an interview. “I have experience in dealing with the other governments … and getting deals with them and dealing with the people involved.”
Whether his brand of leadership is what Toronto needs as it looks to recover from the pandemic and address a host of issues — including housing, aging infrastructure and affordability — is the question voters will decide on Monday.
Experts and pollsters certainly expect Tory, 68, to cruise to victory despite a crowded field of 30 other competitors, many who were largely unknown before the campaign.
In Tory’s appeals at debates and on the campaign trail, political experts see an incumbent content to run on a platform that’s largely absent of big-ticket promises, with the aim of staying the course.
“Mr. Tory has, I think, a record of clinging to the middle,” said Myer Siemiatycki, professor emeritus at Toronto Metropolitan University who studies municipal politics.
“He’s kind of signaling … let’s not rock the boat.”
The campaign has often returned to the three issues of transit, housing and affordability.
On the first point, Tory cites his commitment to the city’s $28-billion transit plan, led by the province.
When it comes to housing, he wants to increase supply, in part by permitting more “missing middle housing” — anything from duplexes to small apartment blocks — and by making it easier to build mid-rise apartments along major transit corridors.
Tory has also expressed support for the province’s move to give the leaders of Toronto and Ottawa so-called strong mayor powers to veto bylaws, prepare budgets, and appoint chief administrative officers. He hinted at the possibility of using the new powers to pass some of his proposed housing plan if it encounters opposition.
“There are some opportunities, perhaps, to use some of the enhanced authorities that have been given to the mayor,” he said. “But I still think you’re gonna have to have, on most of this, the consensus of the council, which I think we’re gonna get.”
On affordability, Tory continues to pledge to keep taxes below the rate of inflation.
He’s also said he’ll never support cuts to police service funding. And he points to his leadership through the pandemic as well as the construction of supportive housing when asked about the legacy of his first two terms.
The campaign, however, has opened Tory to criticism about the state of the city under his leadership.
Some pledges dating back to his first term — when he succeeded the late controversial mayor Rob Ford and beat now-Premier Doug Ford to win office — have been dramatically scaled back, including the SmartTrack transit proposal that would take advantage of GO Transit infrastructure within the city.
The city is in the midst of an historic housing crisis. Thousands of people are homeless and Toronto’s shelter capacity is stretched. Residents regularly make note of overflowing garbage bins, shuttered parks and aging infrastructure.
Toronto’s parks and recreation facilities are, on average, 40 years or older, leading to breakdowns and facility closures, budget documents say. The backlog in upkeep costs for that infrastructure has ballooned to over $600 million.
Against that backdrop, the next mayor will also be charged with grappling with the city’s estimated $857-million pandemic-driven budget shortfall.
“I think (the deficit) is a really big challenge,” said Enid Slack, director of the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities.
“Cities balance their budget and Toronto has done that, up until the pandemic, but it’s often times at the expense of the state of the infrastructure.”
Progressive urbanist Gill Penalosa, Tory’s main challenger and the founder of the non-profit 8 80 Cities, said he was motivated to run after talking with residents who felt the city was “falling apart.”
He is pledging, among other things, to replace the east Gardiner Expressway with boulevards and affordable housing, to add 62 kilometres of high-speed bus lanes and to open all library branches on Sunday year-round.
“There is a desire of change in the air and I think that people are tired of Tory,” Penalosa said. “Also, people realize that we need something radically different.”
For Tory, however, the opposite of radically different is what he’s hoping voters will opt for.
“There is a risk that we put our progress (in) if we put all these issues into inexperienced hands,” he said. “I think that’s why this election is important and why I’ve taken nothing for granted.”