The regional turned local Wednesday, September 15, as the five front-runners for mayor battled for students’ votes.
The debate, put on by Innis College’s urban studies program, U of T’s Cities Centre, the Canadian Urban Institute, and The Toronto Star, featured Rob Ford, Joe Pantalone, Rocco Rossi, George Smitherman, and Sarah Thomson, and was moderated by Toronto Star’s John Cruickshank.
By 7:15 p.m. all candidates save Ford were present and there was standing room only for the event scheduled for 7:30. Ford arrived late at 7:40 amid an introduction from U of T’s Richard Di Francesco, director of the urban studies program. The debate began shortly after.
Clockwise, from top left: Rocco Rossi, George Smitherman, Sarah Thomson, Joe Pantalone
Pantalone spoke first. He has served as city councilor in Ward 19 — one of two wards in Trinity-Spadina — as well as deputy mayor to David Miller. A U of T grad, Pantalone described moving to Toronto at age 13 from Sicily, knowing very little English. He claimed that “learning the English language has made [him] appreciate the importance of public service, whether you’re a teacher, firefighter, police officer, street-cleaner, or anything else.”
Pantalone went on to describe himself as a “city-builder,” claiming he has always tried to “invest in our infrastructure and our people,” specifically through environmental initiatives. He cited fellow councilor Gord Perks, who is quoted as saying, “every significant environmental initiative in the city has Joe Pantalones’s fingerprints on it,” joking, “don’t arrest me for that, please.” He criticized the other candidates as “all wanting to sell something, contract out just about everything, and shrink the city,” later calling them all “mini-Mike Harrises.”
Pantalone was a crowd favourite throughout the debate, garnering laughter and applause. Colleen Keilty, a fifth-year political science, history, and international relations joint major, found Pantalone “likable and endearing,” though she noted the “small pot shots” he took at other candidates during the debate.
However Aaron Kates-Rose, a fourth-year Peace and Conflict Studies student at U of T, found Pantalone simply “stumbled through meaningless metaphors.”
Pantalone was consistently associated with David Miller, and his opponents frequently criticized him when they discussed the last government. Pantalone accepted this association, sometimes referring to “we” when referencing the Miller government.
Ford spoke next, describing his father’s — a former Conservative MPP — business success in Rexdale, which under Ford has expanded into New Jersey and Chicago. “We battled through the recessions,” said Ford, “we had to tighten our belts, and that’s what I’m planning to do if I’m fortunate enough to be the mayor of this great city.”
Ford, who has been the councillor for Ward 2, Etobicoke North for 10 years, described three objectives he planned to implement if elected. “I want to reduce [city] council from 44 members to 22 members,” Ford said, claiming that “we do not need all this duplication and waste at the municipal level, 22 will do.” Further, he plans on abolishing the car registration tax and land transfer tax.
“The vehicle registration tax is equivalent to renovating Nathan Phillips square. Why would you go out and spend $45-million renovating Nathan Phillips Square when we’re $3-billion in debt, and have been hit with every tax,” he asked. “You do that when you’re in the black, when things are good.”
He asserted that “there’s nothing wrong with Nathan Phillips Square, ladies and gentleman, my office overlooks it, we have New Years Eve parties, we have events there almost every weekend, I’ve never had someone come up and say ‘Rob, we need new concrete.’ So we have to get our fiscal house in order, and then we can start giving everyone what they want.”
Kates-Rose found Ford “predictably uninformed and offensive.”
Keilty echoed this sentiment. “I think he has misconceptions of what the city needs based on his own experiences,” she said. “I think he thinks like a small business owner and not like a public servant, and takes whatever frustration he has against city hall and David Miller out by saying broadly insulting things,” adding that “he looks like an evil version of the Kool-Aid man.”
Frank Cunningham, professor emeritus of poli sci and philosophy at U of T and founding member of U of T’s Cities Centre called Ford a “streetfighter,” arguing his extremist position had the effect of polarizing positions in the debate, making it “mutually antagonistic, detracting from working for compromise.”
The crowd seemed generally anti-Ford, booing him on several occasions. He left immediately after the debate, while the other candidates stayed for further questions.
Smitherman, a Toronto Centre Liberal MPP for over 10 years, has served as provincial Minister of Health and Long-Term Care, and Energy and Infrastructure, as well as McGuinty’s Deputy Premier. He described himself as a “lifelong self-made resident of city of Toronto,” maintaining that “Toronto’s best days lie yet ahead.”
He claimed that as of the city’s amalgamation, “we have fallen on the bad times of a culture which constantly lets us off the hook. As a citizen of Toronto, I grow weary of the storyline which emanates from my city every budget period which projects my city as broke, and bankrupt, and powerless, when I know that it is none of those things.”
Smitherman asserts he will do “what is necessary to ensure that that motto, ‘diversity our strength,’ which we as politicians repeat so often, is actually a motto we bring real life and meaning towards.”
He argued, “the opportunity lays ahead of us not to slash council in half or what have you, but to find a model where the citizens are engaged in a way that gives them real power.”
Keilty found Smitherman “the best speaker of the bunch,” while Kates-Rose called him “the candidate that upset me the least.”
Thomson spoke next. “At 16 I started pumping gas. At 18, I started my own company,” she said. Her platform is four-pronged. She plans to build “an expansive subway, stretching out to the airport,” because she claims “it is so important that we open up Toronto to the world, and that subway line is a way to do that.” She plans to act as “the chief job hunter for this city as well as the mayor,” asserting that she “knows how to sell this city.” She aims to “make this city a business-friendly city” by “lowering taxes, and getting rid of red tape.” She hopes to improve planning by “putting public consultation first.” Thomson agreed with Ford that “we have a huge spending problem,” arguing that the issue was that “decision-makers aren’t hearing our problems,” planning on getting rid of “the middle layer” to rectify that.
Rossi, a senior executive turned backroom politician, described himself as “the proud son of immigrant parents.” He said, “I started in modest circumstances, and I was able to be exceptionally successful. Part of that was hard work and part of that were opportunities provided by the city and others to bridge that divide from a poor start without knowledge of the language to a very successful existence. For me that came through education, winning scholarships to Upper Canada College, McGill, and Princeton from where I received an MA.”
Rossi claimed Toronto needs better “planning on the financial side, and planning on the planning side,” calling the fact that the city budget is planned on an annual basis “ridiculous.” “When you do that,” said Rossi, “You’re not able to make the kinds of decisions necessary to be made to see a wave of immigrants coming as not a problem but opportunity.”
The issue of immigrants and permanent residents came up in a question asked by U of T professor Shauna Brail, who asked whether the candidates “favour extending the vote in city elections to residents who are not yet Canadian citizens.”
Pantalone, Smitherman, and Thomson supported extending the vote, with Pantalone claiming he was the first to suggest it.
Rossi and Ford did not support extending the vote. Ford justified his position by pointing to the fact that permanent residents could not run for office, thus they should not be able to vote. He further argued that “we’re talking about gridlock, we’re talking about housing shortages, there’s not enough doctors, everything, we’re maxed out. Now we’re saying, let’s bring in another million people. Well that doesn’t make sense if you cant take care of the 2.7 million you have now, how can you accommodate another million people? So where are they gonna go, where is the housing gonna come from, where are the doctors going to come from?”
Smitherman drew loud cheers from the crowd when he responded “well, I say, Mr. Ford, they will be the doctors because 25 per cent of them will be,” adding that in a previous debate, Ford had supported extending the vote to 16-year olds.
“While the debate seemed rarely to discuss real matters of policy or vision, it did provide a full house crowd with a look at which of the candidates could perform respectably in the mayor’s office,” said Kates-Rose.
The mayoral candidates speak
Rocco Rossi: “[It’s] important that the mayor have the president of the U of T’s number on speed dial because I think there are lots of things, lots of intersections. Clearly the municipal level of government doesn’t have huge responsibilities over universities but where it does have responsibility is in building permits, is in facilitating the growth of the university, which has been spectacular and it’s a magnet for great talent from around the world and we want to continue to have that. […] I’ve called for a freeze on TTC fairs for next year to give some sense of security on this issue because it’s a huge expense.”
George Smitherman: “[We can] work really closely with the university, because the relationship between the mayor’s office and the university at present is very, very poor; to recognize that [U of T is a] key driver of economic opportunity and success [and] to create jobs, so I have a youth employment plan. Obviously, a lot of students are struggling with high debt loads and [with] city services [for example, we can] develop a transit system that’s youth-accessible and youth-friendly. […] I think that the University of Toronto is a powerhouse [and we’re not] taking full advantage of that.”
Joe Pantalone: “I will try to better integrate [into] the city processes, urban studies for example: we deal with urban issues all the time at city hall. Where is the integration, where is the cooperation happening? [We could consider having] students do actual practical projects which could improve a neighbourhood. […] Students can be actors of social change, so I think the issue of permanent residents getting the vote [would be supported] because [students] understand. […] They know they come from somewhere else and why would they feel that they are excluded even though they’re here now.”
Sarah Thomson: “Well I’m looking at creating more jobs and that’s where we get more businesses in, so small businesses and mid-sized businesses create about 80 per cent of the new jobs; so for me I think that what we have to do is do everything we can to reduce taxes for them, to reduce the red tape, to cut the red tape, and create more jobs. Because at the end of the day, students need money, so if we have more jobs for them once they graduate I think that’s a great thing.”
Rob Ford could not be reached for comment by time of publication.