Saturday, October 23, 2010

Six Cities, One Mayor

In a couple days, Toronto will elect it's third Mayor since amalgamation. Six cities with different political cultures merged over a decade ago, but the differences still linger. It's too simplistic to say that this is a race between Rob Ford's suburbs and George Smitherman's downtown core but there are elements of that. Rob Ford comes from Etobicoke: the western edge of the city sandwiched between Toronto and Mississauga in more than just geography. Ford's tax fighting approach has always appealed to his constituents who have looked enviously west at Hazel McCallion's thrifty city for years. Etobicoke has 13% of Toronto's population but 20% of its landmass making it more less dense and therefore more suburban, then the packed condo towers of downtown.

Ford's surprising strength among ethnic minorities may come in large part due to Etobicoke's eastern cousin Scarborough. Toronto's much derided Eastern half is a majority minority inner suburb with whites making up just 32% of the population. Still, as demonstrated in Calgary, people don't need to vote for someone who looks like them. Particularly, if they are speaking to their issues. The TTC is a joke in Scarborough, with 600,000 people served by just 6 LRT stops and patchwork maze of buses. Scarborough is an excellent portrait of the new Canadian experience: semi-successful, semi-peripheral. City Hall can feel a long way away when you're standing on the banks of the Rouge River and Ford speaks to that and hey, at least he acknowledges that they work hard (okay, yeah, a lot of political analysis is trying to explain the inexplicable and trying to explain Ford's success among visible minorities is one of those moments). There may be some Torontonians who like to forget Scarborough and Etobicoke exist but they do and electorally, they matter.

A lot of people may have forgotten the tiny borough of East York ever existed. Just 100,000 people call the former borough home and East York covers just 21 square kilometers. However, it has its own political dynamic. East York was always a tiny, slightly right wing version of the bigger city. It produced right wingers like the retiring city councillor Case Ootes, deputy mayor to Mel Lastman and right wing NDPers Beaches-East York MPP Michael Prue who served as its last mayor. East Yorkers are proud of their corner of the city and local issues have always been top of mind in this part of the city. From wealthy Leaside to the poorer Thorncliffe Park, tiny East York is not homogeneous by any stretch. It may surprise some outsiders to know that the borough is over 12% Muslim and about half of it's population is foreign born. In 2003, the three wards which contain the former city, voted for Miller over Tory by a margin of about 5:4.

East York is not the only former city to have faded from the memory banks. The old city of York, sandwiched between North York, Toronto and Etobicoke, is often similarly forgotten. In 2003, John Nunziata carried his only ward in York where his sister, Frances Nunziata (now on city council) was wrapping up as York's last mayor. York is far too familiar with crime making law and order an issue here. Almost as small as East York, at just 120,000 residents, York's electoral impact may not be as large its neighbours like Etobicoke, and North York.

North York
provided Toronto with its first mayor in the post-amalgamation era and much of what we are talking about today has something to do with Mel Lastman. The political juggernaut from North York brought his populist sound bite brand of driven brand of politics to new city hall. Whatever Mayor Mel did or didn't do, he was certainly a big enough personality for the new big city. Lastman's North York is famous for its high level of service, for not a lot of taxes. How to deal with some of those legacies (like city-shoveled sidewalks) has been one of the challenges for the new mega-city. North York straddles the rich and poor divide like no other part of the city. It encompasses the ostentatious Bridle Path and the troubled Jane and Finch. North York is almost as large as the old city itself and neither Ford nor Smitherman can afford a poor showing in North York.

The old city of Toronto, generally seen as Smitherman's strength is a strange political animal. The NIMBYism which saw Miller's opposition to a tiny bridge to the island airport is part of the dynamic here. But the champagne socialism of Miler has not gone down all over the old city. The dense townhouses and semi-detached houses made for resistance to Miller's new garbage bins which often have to be left on front porches for lack of options. The money made on Bay street and enjoyed in Rosedale is part of the mix too. The old city may be what most outsiders think about when they think about Toronto, but it is a small part of the city. It's voters may find themselves on the outside looking in if Rob Ford is able to win.

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