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Does John Tory Still Matter?

Everyone's waiting to find out if he'll run for mayor. But would it make a difference if he did?

John Tory moderating a by election debate in November, 2013  Photo by Joseph Morris from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

John Tory moderating a by-election debate in November, 2013. Photo by Joseph Morris from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Given the many difficult dilemmas he has faced in his so-far notoriously unsuccessful political career, especially the current troubling question—Should he run for mayor?—it’s hard not to sympathize with John Tory. But let’s make the effort anyway. The guy is getting stale.

Yes, that’s terribly unfair. Tory is the epitome of a decent guy, Upper Canadian–style, whose candidacy would elevate the tone of the campaign and warm the hearts of enthusiastic supporters across the city. But there’s a good chance that by the time he finally decides whether or not to run—sometime in February, he has promised—the answer won’t much matter, one way or the other. Familiar vultures are circling his career while rivals scamper ahead.

Yes, it’s unfair to criticize Tory’s indecision without knocking Olivia Chow for the same coyness about her own intentions. The difference is that everybody knows Chow, bar disaster, is going to run. By contrast, Tory gives every indication of being legitimately undecided.

Look up “John Tory Mayor”: you needn’t even open any articles to see phrases like “non-decision decision” and “chronic indecision is his Achilles Heel” in the search results.

The reason Tory can’t decide this time around is obvious: no matter how hard you crunch his invariably positive approval ratings, they never add up to victory next fall. Rob Ford is a rock, Chow’s a hard place, David Soknacki a fresh new alternative, and Karen Stintz a mocking chorus.

“The reality is, (Tory) doesn’t win elections,” Stintz said last fall, a month after announcing her own intention to run. “He lost to David Miller. He lost to Dalton McGuinty. He lost to Kathleen Wynne. He lost to Rick Johnson.”

How well we remember Rick Johnson, erstwhile king of Coboconk, who won precisely two years on the back benches of the Ontario legislature due to his inestimable good fortune to have been facing Progressive Conservative Party leader Tory in a 2009 by-election up there.

Citing “close confidants”—perhaps the same ones who insisted Tory was going to run for mayor in 2010, the last time we all watched this fan dance—the Star writes that he has already decided to run this year. More recently, one of his friends told me Tory has definitely decided not to run. The most reasonable speculation is that Tory won’t know the answer himself before he is finally forced to give one, and it may well be determined by some minor event that is yet to happen but will finally topple his massive pile of mental pros and cons in one direction or the other.

The worst case scenario for Tory, which is not at all unlikely, is that he finishes third, behind Ford. That would be an unbearable humiliation for him. It’s no wonder he hesitates.

The phrase that pushes itself forward at the stage of the game is “yesterday’s man.” From his apprenticeship under Bill Davis to his very name and the former colour of his hair—red—Tory is the consummate personification of a vanished political tradition, one that has been forcefully suppressed by its own party. The Red Tories that Mike Harris failed to finish off, Stephen Harper took care of. And although obscure Rick Johnson may have gotten the credit for ending Tory’s career as leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, hard-right elements in his own party helped at every step of the way, up to the point of distributing anonymous anti-Tory leaflets in the campaign.

Now those “elements” are open and ascendant in Toronto, where right-wing politics under Ford has become markedly anti-establishment. The very thing that might once have won votes for an establishment figure like Tory is again threatening to undo him.

Throughout his intermittent career in municipal politics, Tory has worked hard to show himself to be a caring person willing to reach out to less fortunate Torontonians, hear their grievances, and do what he can to help. The reach is long, but the effort is genuine. Meanwhile, Rob Ford smokes up with them. No reach is necessary, and all the advantage is his.

Ford is a sinner: the ultimate credential for a true man of the people. Tory is spotless—and therefore, according to the same logic, he must be fake.

Yes, it’s unfair. Left-wing complaints that Ford was “born rich” have done nothing to prevent the hoi polloi from identifying with him. And all that outreach has done nothing to alter Tory’s image as the smooth-talking tribune of a distant establishment.

The people aren’t stupid. Tory’s attitude of noblesse oblige is deeply instilled, unshakeable, and a potentially fatal flaw in Toronto in 2014.

I remember Tory telling me at the end of an interview some years ago about how his friends could never understand why he bothered with local politics, but were nonetheless grateful to him. Their attitude, Tory said, is that “somebody’s got to do it,” adding that he is happy to be that man: the spokesman, in other words, for interests too lofty to bother with the trivial concerns of the unwashed masses.

There once was a time when said masses might well have been happy to be so led. But as John Tory’s political career has demonstrated again and again—almost as if it exists to do so—that time has passed.


  • Sean_Marshall

    Ah, what’s a John Barber column without a reference to Coboconk, the funniest place name in the City of Kawartha Lakes?

    If anything, Barber’s columns are fun to read.

    • OgtheDim

      Yeah, but what Barber forgot to mention is that his opponents in the Ontario Tory party actually worked against him in that byelection.

      Larry Hillier has a lot to answer for.

      • Sean_Marshall

        Indeed. Though you must be thinking of Randy Hiller – who apparently isn’t that thrilled with Hudak either.

  • Lee Zamparo

    I’d like to see Tory stay out of the race while backing Soknacki. Stintz has already trashed him, and he’s not going to support Ford. If Tory wants to make an impact on the election, without that impact being a Ford second term, he should declare early (i.e now) that he’s out, and fiscal conservatives will be best off with Soknacki as mayor.

  • Jacob

    John Tory may be a decent guy, but he couldn’t win a basketball game against toddlers.

    • HotDang

      Are we talking one John Tory against five toddlers, or what?

  • shoogle

    ‘Tory has worked hard to show himself to be a caring person willing to reach out to less fortunate Torontonians’

    Which is why he will never fit in to the current Conservative movement. I may not be a John Tory supporter, but he is far too decent and intelligent to be associated with the likes of them.

  • OpportKnocks

    Win or lose (and it is most likely the latter) he has to make a difference in the race in:
    that both votes and fundraising will be split in the centre and right,

    From his point of view, I can’t imagine he has the stomach for another drawn out election campaign

    From my point of view, he lacks any meaningful municipal political experience and I doubt that he will be able to manage the steep learning curve.

    • dsmithhfx

      “meaningful municipal political experience ”

      Repeat after me: subways, subways, subways. gravy train.

      • OpportKnocks

        As much as I dislike RoFo, at least he knew enough to spend 10 years in the trenches as a ward councillor before running for the Mayor’s job. He also mastered the art of “retail politics”. Seems that Tory wanted the top job without much knowledge and experience of how the system works.

        • bobloblawbloblawblah

          I have to agree. Ford may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer and is most certainly a self-aggrandizing pathological liar, he did earn his stripes sort of speak. He made his name as the guy who would answer your calls when city hall ignored you. That matters to a lot of people. Of course, a Mayor can’t answer everyone’s call but he spoke to a group of people who felt no one was listening at city hall. I’m not sure that group would gravitate to a John Tory candidacy.

          • joerentax

            I once called the Mayors office and left a message for Rob Ford to call me. Nevever received a call back from any one in the Mayor office.

            One time send an email re; Plastic Bags and the 5 cents that Swiss Chalet charged me. Got an aoutoreply that had nothing to do with Plastic bags.

            Rob Ford does not answer all his calls.

        • dsmithhfx

          Rob has only mastered the arts of bluster and entitlement. His ignorance of “how the system works”, after 13+ years at city hall, is absolutely breathtaking. By his own admission, his egregious ‘mistakes’ since becoming mayor have cost him half a million in legal fees — and the taxpayers many, many times that. Please do not hold him up as an example of anything other than epic failure. Thank you!

          • OpportKnocks

            Agree – epic failure in every category except electoral success, which is the only one that matters to him.

  • b_newman

    The sum of this article for me is that, even with a nice face and reasonable tone, the conservative agenda still isn’t appealing and still doesn’t make sense.

  • Angie Mac

    Of any potential candidates for the next election, Tory is the only one I trust. Stintz has flip flopped too many times for me to consider her. Chow has a taxpayer scandal in her history. Ford… do I really need to go into it? He’s just a mess.

    Tory, he is fiscally and socially responsible. Unfortunately, not the best at campaigning. Having done some work with Tory in the past, I was deeply impressed by his ability to get the job done.

    • dsmithhfx

      What “taxpayer scandal”?

      • Angie Mac

        2009. Olivia Chow claimed $530,000 in expenses.

        • dsmithhfx

          Apparently not out of line for federal MPs. How was it a “scandal”?

        • LTJ

          So no scandal whatsoever then – (as all claims were legitimate) – just typical neocon slander and smear.

          You’ve learned the dark side well, young Jedi Mac.

          • Angie Mac


          • dsmithhfx


            “Recently released House of Commons records show that 304 MPs received $142,606,961.87 in 2009-10 for various expenses related to living and working in Ottawa.”