June Morrow
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City columnists have more influence than many think. In fact, as just happened in Toronto, they can dramatically affect the outcome of a municipal election

“I made my choice for mayor two years ago.” So begins John Barber’s glowing 700-word endorsement of David Miller in the Aug. 23, 2003 issue of The Globe and Mail. The election is still three months away and, in the wake of SARS and a province-wide blackout, it’s hardly a hot news item. Yet the Globe wants its coverage to appear as unbiased as possible, and the municipal columnist’s unabashed enthusiasm for a would-be mayor – particularly a left-wing underdog – raises eyebrows at headquarters.

Still, his editors let the incident slip. In over a decade at the daily, Barber has proven himself a solid writer, and with Miller at a mere 13 per cent in the polls, neither the columnist nor his editors believe the candidate can win. But Barber is hopeful and wants to make his preference clear. “At some point you cross the line into propaganda,” he says. “I want to let people know whose side I am on.”

Over the next two months, his counterparts – the National Post’s Don Wanagas, The Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy and the Toronto Star’s Royson James – follow suit, revealing their own biases, if not by stating them outright then through the tone of their columns and number of inches they devoted to each candidate. Their readers, half of whom still haven’t decided who to vote for one month before the November 10 ballot, will be open to suggestion.

Each editorial board may endorse its preferred candidate in the days before an election, but the real opinion leaders are those journalists who make their living scrutinizing the players 365 days a year. As regular purveyors of opinions on municipal politics, these writers, perhaps more than at any other level of government, influence how elections play out. Certainly this is the case in the Toronto election. Of the 44 candidates running to replace the retiring Mel Lastman, the three leading contenders are Barbara Hall, mayor of pre-amalgamated Toronto from 1994-1997; John Tory, former Rogers CEO and Lastman adviser; and David Miller, a nine-year, left-wing downtown councillor. At stake is public confidence in city hall. In the past two years, council approved a controversial bridge to an unprofitable island airport, overlooked a dubious bidding process for renovations to Union Station and launched an inquiry into a scandalous computer-leasing contract that ballooned from $43 million to $102 million. Meanwhile, the increasingly paranoid Lastman made in-camera meetings a regular part of decision making and dismissed the media as liars.

The most astute observers – the municipal columnists – aren’t simply ready for a change, they want a complete overhaul. And the rest of the city isn’t far behind. In October, as campaign signs start springing up on lawns like weeds after a pesticide ban, Torontonians turn their attention to the race. Jaded by an administration that has let them down, few know who to trust. Over the next six weeks Barber, Wanagas, Levy and James will pick apart the candidates’ styles, platforms and histories, and help the citizens make up their minds. Hall, who started the year with 50 per cent support will end in the single digits, while Miller and Tory, currently barely in the teens, will fight for first place. On November 10, the top choice of three of the columnists will win – and the city hall beat may never be the same.

* * *

On October 1, a month and 10 days before the election, Don Wanagas is in his office. at Toronto’s City Hall bureau. Most of the 10 media offices at Toronto’s City Hall bureau are grey cubicles, indistinguishable from any other corporate environment save for the monitors tuned to council meetings. But D. Wanagas Communications – featuring two aquariums, a couch, coffee table, credenza and record player – looks like a rec room. Independence, it seems, has its privileges.

His accounts of the civic soap opera appear regularly in the left-wing newsweekly NOW and until recently, in the National Post. Ten years ago, the 52-year-old former Edmonton Sun staffer moved to Toronto and soon became The Toronto Sun’s city hall columnist, but left in 1997 for a similar position at the Post. (Wanagas says he lost his Sun column because Paul Godfrey, then Toronto Sun publisher and a Lastman crony, thought he was too critical of the mayor.) A casualty of the Post’s downsizing in 2001, the columnist found work at NOW. When the Post asked him back a few months later, Wanagas agreed, but only on a contract basis (he left again in January 2004).

Today, he is in the midst of covering his fourth civic election in Toronto. Looking slightly disheveled in jeans and a T-shirt, the portly writer smiles under his beard. “The nice thing about municipal politics,” says Wanagas, “is that people aren’t elected on the basis of party affiliation. To a certain degree, it’s personality politics.” Like Barber, he wants Miller to win, but his main concern right now is Hall. In his semi-weekly columns in the Post, Wanagas revels in showing not only who shakes hands with whom, but who has their fingers crossed behind their backs. To this end, he suspects the one-time mayor (enjoying 44 per cent support next to Tory’s 13 and Miller’s 12 in the latest poll) isn’t being completely truthful about her “Friends of Barbara Hall” campaign. While she claims the purpose of the $107,000 pre-election fundraising effort was to convince her to enter the race, Tom Jakobek, the fifth-place candidate and a former councillor ensnared in the computer leasing scandal, alleged it gave her an illegal and early advantage.

Last month, an Ontario court ruled the issue beyond its jurisdiction, but Wanagas refuses to let the matter drop. In September, he wrote, “It’s hard to sell someone as the paragon of integrity in municipal politics when words like ‘cheat’ and ‘cheater’ are being tossed around courtrooms like they were yesterday.” Although he doesn’t explicitly tell voters not to support the grandmotherly candidate, in the last leg of the race, the writer brings up the potential scandal in one out of every five mentions of Hall, accuses her campaign team of “shenanigans” to unbalance Miller, and accurately predicts, despite her lead in the polls, that Hall has “nowhere to go but further down.”

Wanagas isn’t alone is his disdain for the frontrunner. Twenty feet away, Sue-Ann Levy, his replacement in the Sun bureau, is equally dismissive. In her tri-weekly rants on fiscal responsibility, Levy likens pinning down Hall’s platforms to “trying to catch a helium balloon.” As she reminds the Sun’s 1,379,400 readers, the candidate belonged to the old city of Toronto’s “cult of spending.” The only thing worse would be belonging to the NDP – that is, until she dined with one of its card-carrying members.

* * *

Three weeks before the election, Levy is smiling as she returns from a $35.05 lunch with David Miller. Not only did the 46-year-old journalist stick to her diet (a program of restraint that helped the petite brunette lose 29 pounds over the past few months while serving as a handy metaphor for what she wants to see at city hall), the potentially quarrelsome interview went down like a pint of Weight Watchers ice cream. “I never thought chewing the fat with David Miller could be such a tasteful experience,” she writes. A staunch conservative, Levy expected to butt heads with the lefty candidate. Instead, she appears to be developing a crush on him (in the coming weeks she’ll repeatedly describe the tall blond as “charming” and “attractive”). Yet, like a Montague in love with a Capulet, even as she writes the flattering profile, Levy can’t forget she and the NDPer are of different tribes. Hanging on the wall above her, the Sun profile of Levy says it all: “Sue-Ann wanted to be an actress, spendthrift politicians wish she had.”

Levy came to journalism from public relations at age 32. As the Sun’s education reporter, she was adept at spotting the bulge in the balance sheet, so when Wanagas lost his column, editor in chief Peter O’Sullivan suggested Levy as a replacement. Before offering the job to Levy, however, O’Sullivan ran the idea by Godfrey, who pointed out that Jeffery Lyons, a well-known lobbyist, fundraiser and Lastman adviser, was her uncle. Levy assured them it wouldn’t colour her opinions, and won the job. NOW questioned her objectivity in an article, as did Barber in the Globe. In retrospect the columnist admits, “I was a bit na?ve when I came over here about the backlash I would get.” Despite the whispers of nepotism, Levy is perhaps the most disparaging of all the city hall columnists. In her regular diatribes, Toronto is a bleak place overrun with garbage and “the smell of urine,” from “the epidemic of panhandlers,” while bureaucrats luxuriate in a free-for-all of spending on “trendy outreach programs” and trips around the world.

Her job, she says, is to find out how the city spends taxpayers’ money. And with most of the municipal media reflecting a leftish downtown perspective, conservative homeowners in North York, Etobicoke and Scarborough lap it up. “People in the suburbs respect Levy because they share her philosophy,” says Scarborough councillor David Soknacki. Still, last year, Soknacki asked councillors to grade Toronto’s 18 city hall journalists on accuracy, fairness and knowledge: in all categories, Levy ranked last (Wanagas placed second, James fourth and Barber fifteenth). But being liked and being heard are two different things. Levy is, he says, “the drip that carves the stone.” She is unlikely to influence policy in a major way, but she’s felt in councillors’ stomachs when they approve office cleaning, snow removal and other contracts.

Still, John Tory’s promises to reduce councillors’ office budgets and cut the $92,000 it costs to water the plants seemed to be straight out of Levy’s columns. And while her ideas may appeal to him, his calls for fiscal reform and business-like leadership (not to mention his name), appeal to the columnist. “He’s done his homework,” she enthuses about Tory’s positions on homelessness and garbage. His is “a well-thought-out plan to stop Toronto’s fiscal free-fall” she later declares. While Levy types out her glory-be-Tory columns, one office over the Globe’s municipal columnist is working a drip of his own – although it’s often hard to believe he and Levy live in the same city.

* * *

Twenty days before the election, Barber sits at a table of lawyers, architects, and other assorted members of the chattering classes in the well-appointed dining room of the 123-year-old Toronto Lawn Tennis Club. As roughly 100 members of the Rosedale institution sip coffee and dip into their cr?me br?l?es, the guest speaker warms up the head table with his opinion of Hall. “If she gets elected, I’ll quit my job,” the Globe writer says with typical dry humour. “She’s just so dull.”

Barber in person is the same as Barber in print: witty, cynical, academic, and like a member of Dorothy Parker’s round table, a curmudgeon before his time. In a speech that touches on New York City’s graft-ridden Tammany Hall, eighth-grade civics class and the limitations of libel laws, the columnist contends that over the last six years Toronto has been run by back-scratching dealmakers. But despite a chorus of “Who are they?” Barber won’t name names. Instead, he makes a pitch for a publicly funded independent organization to keep tabs on city hall, and endorses Miller – now seven points behind Hall and six points ahead of Tory – as the only candidate truly capable of an anti-corruption crusade. In the brief question and answer session that follows, not everyone agrees with him. “I’m proud of this city,” says an urban planner at table eight to almost unanimous applause. “I think it’s honest and I think the bodies that you’re looking for aren’t there.” Barber opens his mouth to rebut but the social coordinator seizes the mic, “John, I’m going to release you on this, but I have to say I share the last opinion.” The columnist sits down with a bemused smirk on his face. Later, as three municipal lawyers harangue Barber, an elderly woman wearing a powder blue sweater and a pearl necklace defends him in the washroom. “Good for that young man,” she says. “They didn’t like what he was saying, but he said it anyway.”

At 49 years of age, Barber rarely has a problem speaking his mind. He first discovered the potential for shit-disturbing in city politics around the time he left Upper Canada College “by mutual agreement,” in Grade 11. The sight of a long-haired rebel screaming at the suits on city council captured the imagination of the feckless teen watching TV one afternoon. A few years later, Barber pounded lawn signs for the unconventional politician and was amazed when the candidate, John Sewell, now a city columnist himself, actually won. Barber rediscovered that excitement in 1997. Strongly opposed to the amalgamation of Toronto and its suburbs, he used his real estate in the Globe to encourage readers to turn it down. And in a municipal plebiscite 77 per cent of voters said they wanted their cities to remain independent; the Ontario government ignored the results.

Now, six years later, another grassroots issue begs for media backing and the columnist who loves nothing more than rallying with the underdogs complies. Toronto’s small island airport is losing money and Robert Deluce, a businessman with ties to developers, wants to change that by launching a new airline. But first, Deluce needs a bridge to connect the mainland to the terminal. Island residents, sensing the first stage of a land grab, and others, sensing a threat to the city’s $1.5 billion waterfront revitalization plan, are vehemently opposed. Although council voted for the bridge in 2002, Deluce is still waiting for final approvals. As Barber constantly reminds the Globe’s 910,300 Toronto readers between August and November, the airport remains “a weapon of massive waterfront destruction,” that “lingers and festers like an open wound, sapping resources and sullenly forestalling any other change,” while the bridge is “a classic example of everything that’s wrong with city hall today.”

Long opposed to the bridge, Miller and his campaign manager, John Laschinger, promote it as a central part of his platform. His competitors brush it off as a downtown issue, but the latest poll suggests 53 per cent of Torontonians agree with Miller. A symbol of municipal corruption, the bridge is the wedge that helps decide the election.

* * *

Two days before the vote, Royson James reflects on the city’s mood, writing: “There is a sense that the electorate is finally being polarized between the downtown dreamers and sophisticates who use rhetoric such as ‘Let’s take back our city’ and a more pragmatic suburbs with their eyes on their wallets and concerns about crime.” A new poll puts Miller in the lead with 44 per cent, but Tory, at 37 per cent, is close behind. Months ago, James, himself a Jamaican immigrant, was optimistic about Hall’s attempts to capture the ethnic vote. But, foreshadowing her embarrassing 11 per cent support in the most recent poll, the ever-polite writer had already admitted Hall was “poised to blow it like baseball’s Chicago Cubs.” Instead, the best choice for mayor was almost a coin toss.

Last week the Globe’s editorial board endorsed the former cable czar, yesterday the Post followed suit, and tomorrow the Sun will continue the trend. The Star, meanwhile, has yet to make its choice public. Despite three years as a Star editorial writer, Toronto’s most widely read municipal columnist isn’t concerned with the proclamations of his paper’s tall foreheads.

Whether the enduring effect of his 13 years covering the pre-amalgamated councils as a reporter or the result of his strong Christian values, James is nothing if not fair. “If you’re outraged, people stop taking you seriously,” he explains. The 51-year-old believes his job isn’t so much to advise his readers as to explain the issues. As a result, his columns sometimes read like City Hall for Dummies, complete with bulleted lists. Over the past week, however, his reports have been more like alternating field guides to Tory and Miller. Tory’s “tough-on-crime and tough-on-spending message” appeals to James’ head. Miller’s “message of hope, a new city free of backroom deals and cronyism” appeals to his heart.

Still, two days earlier he’d made up his mind: although Tory “would make a very good mayor,” and a vote for Miller would be “to put one’s hands on one’s wallet and hope a fiscally conservative city council will dampen his penchant for spending,” James is willing to take a chance on the latter. As he told the Star’s 2,130,000 readers, “David Miller? has captured the people’s imagination. And mine.” The next day, his editorial board agrees.

* * *

“You’ll never be mayor of this town,” Lastman spat at Miller in 2002, “because you say stupid and dumb things.” But on November 10, the crusading councillor proves him wrong, succeeding the former furniture salesman as Toronto’s 70th chief magistrate. Tory, meanwhile, finishes six percentage points behind, while Hall receives just nine per cent. Most telling is the location of each candidate’s support. Miller, the preferred candidate of Barber and Wanagas, both writing for primarily urban audiences, sweeps the downtown wards. Tory, the recommendation of suburban-focused Levy and close second of James, takes the suburbs. The clincher is that almost 36,000 more citizens vote in the city center than in the outskirts.

Of course, the election might have been just as dramatic without the columnists. Certainly polls can influence undecided voters, as can a well-run campaign. In August, frustrated by most media’s refusal to acknowledge the airport as an issue, Laschinger, Miller’s chief strategist, released an internal survey showing the majority of Torontonians opposed the airport expansion. Miller’s support took off after an October 8 photo op with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at the beleaguered terminal. Additionally, numerous televised debates helped people make up their minds. Truthfully, most people get their news from television. As Laschinger wrote in his 1992 book Leaders & Lesser Mortals: Backroom Politics in Canada, “The newspaper has become virtually irrelevant in political campaigns, of interest to news junkies and of curiosity to others who want to know what a paper’s critics thought about a politician’s performance on television the night before.”

On the other hand, with the exception of Citytv’s Adam Vaughan, few broadcast journalists spend enough time at city hall to develop an in-depth understanding of the characters and the issues. Today, even Laschinger admits television takes its cue from what’s written in the newspapers. TV assignment editors read the columnists to stay informed, and their reporters read them for background. In 1997, University of Toronto political scientist Neil Nevitte found the amount and tone of media coverage candidates get during an election has a discernible impact on undecided voters. As Laschinger says, “Good media over time is a predictor of voter support.”

Mind you, when only 39 per cent of voters turn out, civic commentary can seem almost pointless. It’s not. City hall columnists matter because they make local politics interesting. When Wanagas connects the players behind the computer leasing scandal, Barber digs up the dirt on the airport or Levy reveals bizarre spending decisions, they make civics sexy.

Of course, Lastman’s reign provided no shortage of entertaining fodder – he suggested Africans were cannibals while promoting Toronto’s Olympics bid, called in the army after a snowstorm and tried to attract tourists with fiberglass moose. But while Barber and Wanagas, both standing over six feet tall, had no problem looking down on the diminutive Lastman, what will they do now that they see eye to eye with his six-foot-three replacement?

* * *

One month after the election, Barber is in his office. “Honestly, I’m a bit bereft,” he says. “I’m not an enthusiast by nature.” On the side of his bookcase, he has posted the results of the new council’s first vote: 28 to 16 in favour of stopping construction of the bridge to the island airport. Although pleased, the columnist finds the weakness of the minority right-wing contingent worrisome. Effective democracy requires a strong opposition.

Next door, Levy, feeling a bit like the opposition herself, is penning another column about the looming $344 million deficit, while two offices down, James deconstructs provincial-municipal relations. His obsession, mentioned in one-third of his columns over the past four months, is the lack of funding from Ottawa and Queen’s Park. Despite the new mayor’s efforts, the situation hasn’t changed. In the Globe office and D. Wanagas Communications across the hall, however, the columnists are feeling slightly uneasy. It may be that the pundits who put the most effort into exposing the previous government’s skeletons and promoting the “cleanest” candidate will face the toughest battle ahead – finding something to write about. Fortunately, few politicians can avoid scandals and screw-ups for long.

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