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Ned Flanders for Mayor

David Soknacki plans to run for mayor. He has excellent skills, and terrible chances.

Photo courtesy of the Toronto Region Board of Trade.

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.


  • Rishi Maharaj

    If the rest of Toronto is as arrogantly dismissive as the author of this piece, perhaps Rob Ford is the mayor it deserves.

    • OgtheDim

      Hmm….well there is the theory that “elitist” arrogance, however that is defined, is what got us Ford.

      • OpportKnocks

        The theory that David Miller’s legacy was Rob Ford has a believer here. Which is one reason I like Socknaki, he is neither extreme.

        • nevilleross

          Bullshit, complete and utter bullshit!

          Miller wasn’t anything extreme, he was a great man with transformative ideas for the city that actually worked and made it better (not for nothing was he featured in an issue of Vanity Fair as part of a group of people that are transforming the world.) The problem is, just like Obama, he’s had to deal with people who didn’t understand him and wanted to bring him down., you being one of them obviously. His Transit City idea is the same system being built all over North America and the rest of the planet, as are the environmental things that he accomplished. What the frack does Mr. Soknacki have in mind for the city that’s better?

          • OgtheDim

            Wow…somebody took a swipe at your hero there?

            Anyhoo…when it comes to Miller, you need to get out of the bubble of the Scoobies (like I love the work ya’ll do but..)and city hall public discussions and listen to Torontonians in the inner suburbs. Miller’s mayoralty had SERIOUS issues with listening to people – a lot of implementation – not a lot of listening.

            Transit City was sold poorly, by the wrong guy (Giambrone was an awful choice as TTC chair). Hey, I like LRT; makes fiscal and system sense. But, it should have been explained, rather then sold as what’s right for Torontonians. Again…implementation before listenng.

            And, I notice you don’t talk about the whole “I am not going to be the mayor who cuts spending” thing that Miller did when the city bureaucracy came to him wanting to discuss exactly what the city should do. (And no, I don’t think Rob’s truncated KPMG report was anything close to a real discussion on that account). Like it or not, people want value for taxes. And, like it or not, bunny suits (however small the amount was) and a retirement lunch (Kyle Rae was the poster boy of the entitled left) do not help sell the message of doing what is right for the city.

            Again…implementation before listening.

            Now, Rob, he’s the king of implementing without listening. But, to say that Miller didn’t have issues….and compare him to Obama…..

            We’ll see what Soknacki provides. Right now, for a good chunk of the city, including the 25% of the downtown core that voted for Ford, he’s an option.

          • OgtheDim

            Oh, and before you ask, I actually believe that if Miller had had that discussion about what we should have done, we’d probably be spending more, just in a better focused way…and he’d still be mayor.

            But that’s all woulda shoulda coulda.

            Moving forward, some of us on the right are hoping to see that discussion happen.

            Cause, not everybody on the right wants to stop spending money and cut taxes – that’s a construct the media likes but its not true; some of us just want to focus spending better.

          • OpportKnocks

            Seriously Neville, it was an observation not a condemnation of Miller. I voted for Miller as my Ward Councillor when I lived in High Park, and also as Mayor. I met with him personally on local issues.

            Miller, for all his pluses and minuses. had a tendency to come across as a condescending, father-knows-best, know it all. After Fantino was dumped as police chief and we had “the year of the gun”, Miller allowed a huge bump in the police budget under his new buddy Bill Blair. They didn’t need any more staff, just to deploy the one’s they had differently.

            My point is that Miller’s image and track record set the stage for a faux populist, intellectual lightweight, common man to hijack the mayor’s office.

  • Paul Kishimoto

    If John Barber’s third column (first: ) is also a strike, can Torontoist please fire him?

    • dsmithhfx

      This might have worked, without the last paragraph.

  • David Toronto

    I’m surprised that Mr. Barber would liken
    David Soknacki to Ned Flanders.
    He should have examined Soknacki’s
    track record from his terms at City Hall.

    He’s a businessman, sure, but unlike the Fords
    he made his own success whereas the Ford
    brothers inherited their wealth.

    An apology to the readers and to Soknacki
    is in order.

    • dsmithhfx

      A lot of shooting the messenger going on here. Barber certainly over-egged it — egregiously so in the last paragraph, and a sharp editor would have caught that, too bad he lacked the perspicacity himself. On the whole though, I’m afraid the premise is entirely sound. Too bad for us. Too. damned. bad.

  • bobloblawbloblawblah

    While Soknacki is the dark horse candidate, I think Barber is being a bit harsh. After almost four years of the witless Rob Ford’s Circus of Endless Clownery, Toronto could use someone who has a bit of vision that is more than slogans with words like “gravy”, “subways” and “customer service”.

  • OgtheDim

    Just a quick question:

    what did Barber say about Ford’s running 4 years ago?

    • dsmithhfx


      • OgtheDim

        Darned if I know, but not many people at all called Ford a viable candidate.

        This piece reminds me of that time.

  • OpportKnocks

    I knew David Socknaki when he started in politics as a Scarborough Councillor in the 1990′s. He is intelligent, thoughtful, respectful and well spoken. He reminds me a lot of Art Eggleton, who was the last good Mayor of Toronto. I agree with John Barber, he lacks a flair for hyperbole and the headline grabbing skills that Lastman and the Fords had.

    I may volunteer to work on the campaign, he will need all the help he can get here in the west end.

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    The more candidates to split the right wing vote, the better!

    • Lee Zamparo

      The more candidates to peel off votes that went to Ford last election, the better.