David Soknacki plans to run for mayor. He has excellent skills, and terrible chances.
Promising to run City Hall like a business is the oldest, most oft-repeated pledge in municipal politics—evergreen in no small part because it never happens and therefore always (in theory) should. And so the legendary gravy train trundles on, an indispensable prop in the infantile puppet show.
If voters really do want City Hall run like a business, David Soknacki will be the next mayor of Toronto. But because Soknacki is actually serious about the challenge of governing, approaching it with an open, non-ideological attitude and the keen analytical skills of a successful executive, he will be lucky to end up with much more than the five per cent share of the vote current polls grant him.
Do Torontonians really want a pragmatist “mayor of all the people,” rather than alternating mayors of suburbanites or downtowners, rightists or leftists? As a card-carrying Conservative who worked as NDP Mayor David Miller’s first budget chief 10 years ago, no other candidate has a greater claim to that mantle.
All that means in reality, of course, is that Soknacki has no organization behind him and no hope of building one as long as local Conservatives have less tainted alternatives to back.
Do we really want a successful businessman? Once again, Soknacki is the very model: a risk-taking entrepreneur who abandoned the white-collar world to take up what is truly the world’s second-oldest profession—trading spices—and is now sole proprietor of a Markham food-processing company that imports spices and exports flavour extracts to 30 countries. He is a self-made man who doesn’t need the job, always an attractive proposition.
But in reality, Soknacki’s business experience is even more politically risky than his proven pragmatism, as he demonstrated with the first policy position he took as a prospective mayoral candidate this fall. Rudimentary cost-benefit analysis proves the undeniable superiority of light rail over a new subway line in Scarborough, he opined, and it does. But instead of making the case vividly, he coolly dismissed the subway longings of voters on his own home turf, where his support should but now never will be strongest.
Then after shooting himself in the foot, Soknacki blew off his own kneecap with a debut speech that identified runaway police spending as the greatest threat to the fiscal health of the body politic. The argument is in equal parts unanswerable—that is, true—and lunatic. A conservative’s call to curtail the cops. You’ve got to love the guy.
And you do. At 59, Soknacki remains charmingly boyish, Boy Scoutish even: like Ned Flanders with an uncharacteristically agile mind, cheerily oblivious to the near-universal view that there is no hope for his campaign, and obsessed by what he sees as the clear logic of it all.
“You call me quixotic!” he exclaimed in a recent interview. “What do you call what council is doing in terms of the capital budget?”
Crunching those numbers down to size is Soknacki’s sole focus. The vision thing is proving to be more elusive. “I want to be mayor because I want to make the city better,” he said, when challenged to express it. So far, “better” is the best he can do by way of a flag-waving slogan.
“I think we can be better, much better. I think we are so selling ourselves short in so many areas, and I believe my track record is such that I can address those shortcomings.”
Soknacki’s current impasse echoes his experience as a young man with a fresh MBA working on basic research into “information architecture” for computer giant IBM.
“It was fabulous, absolutely fabulous,” he said. “I was going to set the world on its end working for IBM, and then I failed the aptitude test for being a sales rep.”
What that meant then was the end of hope for a career in management at IBM. “Their system was binary, bless them,” Soknacki said.
The evidence suggests that IBM was onto something. Mel Lastman in his huckster heyday sold “iceboxes to Eskimos.” Young Rob Ford hawked labels, and a friend of a friend who bought from him recalls that he was very good at it. It’s bullshit, not brains, that people often respond to.
It’s a perilous addiction but not fundamentally wrong. The vision thing is always 100 per cent bullshit—and yet, perhaps never more necessary than it is now, after three years of Ford. But as IBM discovered decades ago, the otherwise talented David Soknacki has no aptitude for it. That is what makes him both an attractive candidate, and one who is unlikely to win.