John Tory’s first actions as mayor aren’t divisive, they’re just smart

John Tory’s first actions as mayor aren’t divisive, they’re just smart

Denzil Minnan-Wong, John Tory’s new deputy mayor. (Image: Andrew Louis)

The Rob Ford era is over. Even if you didn’t catch a glimpse of John Tory’s swearing-in ceremony on Tuesday, you can feel the shift in the civic mood. Toronto’s genuine malaise over the crack-fueled, self-destructive exploits of its globally notorious former mayor has given way to hyperbolic partisan braying. Everything is back to normal.

Tory revealed his choices for key city hall appointments late Sunday night. Not a single councillor from within the boundaries of pre-amalgamation Toronto will chair anything noteworthy. Twitter detonated upon contact with the information, shrapnel flying from both the left and the right. Councillors wasted no time before fuming aloud in newspaper stories. It’s the same crew that ran the Ford administration was a common refrain, particularly from those willing to overlook the fact that, save for one exception, voters re-elected every incumbent councillor who ran. Voters gave Tory pretty much the same shallow talent pool they gave to Ford, and the worst that can be said about his choices is that some are uninspired.

Commentators on Twitter and in the press reserved their greatest outrage for Tory’s appointment of Denzil Minnan-Wong as deputy mayor. Minnan-Wong has run afoul of council’s left over the years for taunting and baiting them, making him, apparently, the most divisive choice possible. And yet, were it not for Minnan-Wong, council might never have mustered the will to curb Rob Ford’s power.

It was just over a year ago, on November 13, 2013, when Minnan-Wong stood up in council and tabled a motion calling for Ford to take a leave of absence and cooperate with police. In a scene that should be burnished in civic memory forever, Ford physically blocked Minnan-Wong from approaching Frances Nunziata in the speaker’s chair. A tense standoff ensued, but, in the political sense, that was the moment Ford was brought to his knees. The only recourse left to him was to use his bulk, because words could offer no defence. He was through.

Later that same day, in another memorable exchange, Minnan-Wong got Ford to admit aloud that he’d personally purchased illegal drugs. We have already forgotten—we have needed to forget—what a trying time that was, with the mayor’s craven attention-seeking antics intensifying daily and council unable to galvanize itself in opposition to him. With the global media watching, it was Denzil Minnan-Wong who administered a ruthless, thorough, and necessary public dismantling of Rob Ford. Many tried before him, but none succeeded as he did. Within days Ford had been stripped of his powers. That performance alone should have earned Minnan-Wong eternal gratitude. Instead it got him the consolation prize of the deputy mayor’s job.

He’ll be good at it. No government leader can rise above partisanship without a sidekick to whom partisan battles can be outsourced. Minnan-Wong will be to Tory what George Smitherman was to Dalton McGuinty: the human hand grenade he tosses into his opponents’ media availabilities. Arguably, a mischief-making deputy’s job is less important at Queen’s Park than at city hall, where everyone feigns collegial non-partisanship. Tory spent his first day in office showing he can play nice—with Premier Wynne, council’s left, the city bureaucracy, everyone. But the message is clear: if you don’t play nice in return you can deal with Denzil.

As for the argument that Tory no longer plans to be the unifying, One Toronto mayor he promised to be, that line of thinking has become a clichéd post-election non-sequitur. Every politician’s victory speech features bromide verses about inclusiveness, about leading for all the people—and it’s important they demonstrate efforts to do so. But that doesn’t mean political opponents should be treated as though they were fervid supporters all along. Elections also produce losers, and the 2014 Toronto election once again returned a tiny rump of NDP-backed progressives to council. One wonders where they get the idea, two drubbings in, that they’re nonetheless entitled to hold the levers of power and policy.

And just what are the policy preoccupations of downtown progressives anyway? One presumes, and hopes, that they include solving the plight of the city’s most disadvantaged populations in its most downtrodden areas, those neighbourhoods whose standards of living have been declining for decades and which have not shared in the prosperity brought by the condo boom. The downtown has its problems, but, as I have pointed out before, they are problems of abundance. The declining neighbourhoods are the places Tory has vowed to help, and as it happens none of them are downtown. They are in the far reaches of the city, in the places represented by—oh look!—many of the very people Tory has appointed to positions of power.

The administration Tory is crafting might not be progressive in the sense of being left of centre, but it is progressive in more important ways: it will be led by representatives of have-not regions, and it will not attempt its predecessor’s lone-wolf approach to reform. It also begins its work with far greater prospects for accomplishment. And that will be harder for council’s left wing to stick in their pipe than anything Don Cherry ever had to say.