The mayor's handling of the casino issue shows he no longer holds sway over some of his allies.
If there’s a safe place for a mayoralty in our post–City of Toronto Act era, it’s the executive committee. This is essentially a handpicked committee whose job is to help mould and massage a mayor’s agenda into fighting shape. Differences are ironed out, a unified front formed.
There should be no unpleasant surprises sprung on a mayor at executive committee meetings. Whipping a vote is unheard of. Unanimity on items isn’t an absolute necessity, but split decisions are a red flag. To paraphrase ol’ blue eyes, if a mayor can’t make it there, a mayor’s not going to make it anywhere (“anywhere,” in this case, being city council).
So, no. It should’ve come as no surprise that the executive committee pushed forward a “yes to casinos” motion on Tuesday. The surprise would have been if it hadn’t. It might be hyperbolic to suggest that Mayor Ford’s political future depended on a yes vote, but currently in Toronto we’re living in the age of hyperbole. Even Councillor David Shiner’s (Ward 24, Willowdale) motion to defer the casino item might be considered to have been a serious setback for the mayor.
A mayor doesn’t lose control of a key item at Executive Committee. Once that happens, all that’s left is the pomp and circumstance that comes with the chain of office. He’s no longer actually running anything around City Hall.
Which is why Mayor Ford’s staff was so in evidence in the committee room on Tuesday. It was a show of force, a display of firepower. The casino vote had to break in the mayor’s favour. Any sort of rebellion by the crew needed to be nipped in the bud.
The real surprise at Tuesday’s meeting wasn’t that Mayor Ford won the vote, meaning the casino debate will move on to city council next month; it was that he had to struggle at all to ensure that he won. This wasn’t just some regular monthly executive committee meeting where there were disagreements between members over a parks-and-environment item. It was a special meeting called by the mayor to deal with one item and one item only. Casinos.
That only nine of the 13 members voted in the affirmative almost guarantees the item’s defeat at council. The mayor doesn’t even have the support of one of his staunchest allies, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East), who delivered perhaps the most heartfelt, genuine speech I’ve ever seen him give—one that, frankly, I didn’t think he was capable of.
“I don’t think casinos represent the values of the City of Toronto,” the councillor said. “I don’t believe gambling and all the things associated with it represent the values that I have, and I don’t think it represents the values of the constituents in my ward.”
Councillor Jaye Robinson (Ward 25, Don Valley West) spoke out against a downtown casino as forcefully as she did about Councillor Doug Ford’s ferris-wheel plans for the Port Lands. And, furthering his recent drift away from the Ford administration, Councillor Paul Ainslie (Ward 43, Scarborough East) said he didn’t like the numbers he was seeing—neither the hosting fees nor the job figures. The chair of the planning and growth management committee, Peter Milczyn (Ward 5, Etobicoke-Lakeshore), was the fourth vote against the mayor’s casino plans.
One of the main advantages of being the mayor and having an executive committee is that on important items there are 13 votes pretty much locked up going into a city council meeting. That means only ten more will be needed to push that item through. That’s 10 of the remaining 31 councillors, or less than one-third.
On the casino, Mayor Ford hasn’t given himself that head start. Even granting him the nine votes from the Executive Committee—and some of those are very, very, very conditional—plus brother Doug (Ward 2, Etobicoke North), Speaker Frances Nunziata (Ward 11, York South-Weston), and Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West), he’s still looking for 10 votes. Throw in Councillor Mike Del Grande (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt) because he sees only dollar signs and, let’s say, Councillor Michelle Berardinetti (Ward 35, Scarborough Southwest), who might go along to get along with the mayor. Plus Councillor Mark Grimes (Ward 6, Etobicoke-Lakeshore), well, just because.
This leaves seven votes to pull in, and we scraped the bottom of the Team-Ford-loyalty barrel to arrive at that number. If the mayor doesn’t pull something out of a hat to entice councillors over to his side, if he can’t build momentum in favour of a casino, his votes will evaporate. No councillor will want to be on the losing side of such a divisive issue.
Every way you look at this, the council casino vote seems DOA. To most politicians, near-certain defeat on a cherished item would be cause for concern. But as we all know by now, Mayor Ford is not most politicians.
None of this is about good governance or even rational political maneuvering. Losing council votes is a viable strategy if you’re looking to embrace a certain us-versus-them martyrdom. The mayor simply needs a wedge issue to take into next year’s campaign. He’s currently trotting some out to see how they fit. Transit. Island airport jet expansion. They have nice left-right, downtown-suburban dynamics.
The problem with casinos is that the votes won’t fall that way. There’s no ideological or geographic split on the issue. Tuesday’s vote at Executive Committee showed that. The outcome suggests this will just be another millstone for Mayor Ford to wear, further proof that he is unwilling or unable to lead this city.