Inside David Soknacki's Last Day on the Campaign
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Inside David Soknacki’s Last Day on the Campaign

As David Soknacki waited to learn the results of a new poll that would determine whether he'd stay in the race for mayor, Torontoist spent six hours with him and his team, speaking candidly about the campaign, the state of Toronto politics, and what it feels like to be perpetually in limbo.

David Soknacki on the day he registered to run for mayor.

Sitting on a downtown patio with campaign manager Brian Kelcey and spokesperson Supriya Dwivedi, the David Soknacki camp is much more relaxed than usual on a sunny Monday. All their work—a year of preparation, campaigning, and personal sacrifices—is now out of their hands. Staff and volunteers alike have the day off: an unusual move for a campaign that should be kicking into high gear. Soknacki himself attends a mayoral forum in the morning to discuss seniors’ issues, and then spends the rest of the day at his spice business offices just outside the city.

This is not a typical day in the campaign.

It’s September 8, and Soknacki has until Friday the 12th to decide whether to withdraw his name from the ballot. He is leaning towards doing so, and the final decision hangs on the outcome of a new Forum poll. Soknacki and his advisors aren’t campaigning because they are spending the day waiting: depending on the results of that poll he’ll either carry on, or announce on Tuesday night that he’ll bow out. He’s got a campaign event already planned—a rallying-of-the-troops to celebrate his volunteers, at the St. Lawrence Market Jack Astor’s. It’s also to mark his birthday: Soknacki turns 60 on Tuesday.

The results of that poll come in a day later: it shows him at 6 per cent support, with 78 per cent name recognition. And with that, Soknacki decides to end his bid for mayor.

He could, in theory, keep going, see if the numbers change, make a public announcement later on. Back in 2010 Rocco Rossi publicly shut down his campaign after the withdrawal deadline, eventually deciding the odds were against him. Because he waited until after nominations closed, however, his name stayed on the ballot. Kelcey says Soknacki has no interest in that scenario.

Soknacki was always taken seriously as a candidate: as a former Scarborough city councillor and a budget chief under Mayor David Miller, his resume was hefty enough to earn him an invitation to all the major debates, and considerable access to journalists. But Soknacki has been, since the beginning of the race, struggling in his efforts to gain public traction. He began with low name recognition, and though that number improved over the past few months his polling numbers were pretty much always stuck in the 4 per cent range.

One of the main selling points of the Soknacki campaign has been that they could do the math. They could do the math on the big issues, like housing, transit, and the police budget, and they were honest about what the harsh realities of those numbers meant. But Monday was a time to be honest with themselves, and to take a hard look at whether a different set of numbers—that poll they were waiting for—would demonstrate enough momentum to carry on, and whether the campaign could realistically fundraise enough to capitalize on any momentum there might be. Though the results weren’t in yet, they knew it wasn’t looking good.

Limbo is typically a place of reflection and frustration, but fish and chips and wine make it go down more easily. This is what Kelcey and Dwivedi both order for their six-hour lunch, a relaxing luxury in a 10-month-long, frenetic campaign. Though some candidates would hit the streets, campaigning until the last possible moment, Soknacki’s team decided that it wouldn’t be fair to send volunteers out, given that things are up in the air. Arguably, that attitude is part of Soknacki’s limitations as a candidate: good governance requires cool rationality; effective campaigning demands certain leaps of faith.

From his office at his spice company, though, Soknacki is still working on the campaign, going over the details of his platform. Kelcey periodically checks in during lunch, approving some sections and emailing about others that need work. No matter whether the campaign continues, they plan to launch the platform Tuesday morning, the date they picked for it months ago. The next morning, they do [PDF].

“This is a campaign of ideas,” says Soknacki by phone.

Asked if he should be out sharing those ideas with voters he hopes to win over, instead of in his office, he says that maybe he should have filled up his night schedule, but the daytime weekday schedule is less valuable.

“We are aggressively canvassing,” he says. The campaign may have the day off, but their volunteer recruiting has picked up in recent weeks, and morale inside the campaign bubble is high despite the low polling numbers. Soknacki supporters on social media and in person are earnest and dedicated; Kelcey and Dwivedi say they’ve been picking up steam since mid-August with lots of people who like their positive, policy-first approach. It’s one of the conflicting signs that makes the decision to stay in the race so difficult: the polls and money counts say one thing, but there are reasons to be encouraged, too. “My response to voters,” Soknacki says when asked about the dilemma, “is to keep an open mind until mid-October.”

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Including Soknacki’s own money, the campaign has raised around the mid-six figures: far short of the approximately $2 million it takes to run the most robust possible campaign. (The official campaign limit for mayoral candidates is roughly $1.5 million, but they are allowed to raise additional money to cover fundraising expenses.) Soknacki says he visited the proverbial “corner offices” in order to fundraise, but was told to return after Labour Day. It is now after Labour Day, and he has revisited those offices; that he is leaning towards pulling out of the race perhaps gives some sign of how those follow-up meetings went.

“Cheques are coming in,” he says brightly, citing a decent amount of support from the tech and startup scene. But the math is tough. To catch up to that two-million maximum, he’ll need to raise about $30,000 a day. For someone who lacks the old boys’ network of John Tory or the NDP machinery at Olivia Chow’s disposal, it is a tall task.

“Our pool of volunteers and donors is growing,” says Kelcey. “The question in David’s mind is: Is it growing quickly enough to make a difference?”

Time, today, is not Brian Kelcey’s friend, and he wants some scotch. Soknacki’s campaign manager is firmly against Scottish independence, and will refuse to drink the beverage if Scots vote “yes” in their upcoming referendum, so wants to get his fill now. “This might be the last glass I drink,” he says.

Kelcey was largely the architect behind the Soknacki campaign. It began about a year ago, with supporters gathering at Soknacki’s home to discuss what the campaign would look like, if there was one. Almost everyone agreed that the proposed Scarborough subway was foolhardy (save for Gordon Chong, who was adamant it was the way to go). The campaign knew that with fewer resources than their rivals, they would have to be smart about growing their campaign, and modelled themselves after the first mayoral victories of David Miller, Naheed Nenshi, and Bill De Blasio. Each of those mayors began their respective campaigns as single-digit long-shots, but won over the electorate with principled, ideas-based campaigns.

The plan was to establish policy credibility in the first few months, work to reach so-called influencers on the likes of Twitter and Reddit, and try to leverage that enthusiastic base to broaden their outreach in the last two months of the campaign.

Everything went according to plan—except for translating that enthusiasm into potential votes.

The campaign was banking on the idea that one of the two leading non-Ford candidates would falter in a gruelling 10-month campaign, positioning Soknacki to pick up support from the vacuum created in the race. “We expected that Tory would be the more likely stumbler than Chow, but we left room in our positioning for it to be Chow,” Kelcey says.

What the campaign did not expect was that those Chow votes would rapidly move to Tory when she turned out to be the stumbler. “That says that the ballot question is still, ‘Who beats Ford no matter what?'” he goes on. “The real issue was going to be: Was there a bridge that voters would cross where they say, ‘Well, we don’t just hate Ford, we hate the Ford era, and we want to talk about what happens after, and not just beating him’?”

During the summer, the campaign hoped voters might cross that bridge, as they saw the electorate become disappointed with Chow’s campaign and ask for more detailed policy. But the outcome “has not been what we expected,” Kelcey says, adding that voters chose Tory as “the slightly better candidate with slightly more detailed policy who is best positioned to beat Ford, rather than the candidate with the best vision to beat Ford.”

His read of the situation is that this is as much a byproduct of a disengaged electorate than any particular campaign.

“Ultimately, the reason Ford got elected is that voters were very superficial,” says Kelcey, noting his awareness that these comments may come back to haunt him. “I believe that the reason voters were willing to vote for Ford in 2010 in such numbers was because they were being superficial about municipal issues. That they wanted change, but they bought into the idea that the solutions could were simple and could be expressed in meaningless slogans without a plan to back them up… The challenge is that we’re still facing superficial voters, and the voters who are being anti-Ford may be being as superficial as the voters who were being pro-Ford in 2010, by not demanding more of the other candidates.”

Brian Kelcey takes a drink.

Asked whether they think Soknacki should bow out, Kelcey and Dwivedi pause. “If he’s not having fun,” she says. “Then I wouldn’t want him to continue.” Kelcey says he should only continue if Soknacki is willing to be more aggressive, and put in the necessary 16-hour days.

When we ask Soknacki what he hopes people take away from his campaign, he answers quickly. “I hope they steal my ideas.”

Dwivedi argues that the media plays a large role in shaping what can be a superficial political discourse. In her late 20s, Dwivedi is new to Toronto from Montreal, and quickly found the media environment here to be very different from what she was used to. She was surprised at how long it took the media to pick apart John Tory’s SmartTrack proposal, or how Rob Ford scandals that would sink any other politician get left behind in the day-to-day coverage provided by the press gallery.

“There’s a disconnect [in the press gallery] that is reflected in the general temperament of the electorate,” she says of how the media represents City Hall issues.

The feeling in Soknacki’s campaign is that, regardless of thorough and thoughtful policy proposals, the media, magpie-like, often overlooked the candidate in favour of shinier news stories. There was that time Doug Ford mused about his provincial aspirations on the day Soknacki registered, and reporters left Soknacki to cover the Mayor’s brother. Or the time Doug Ford promised the media that magician David Blaine would appear outside the Mayor’s office at the same time Soknacki staged a policy presser. Just three journalists showed up at Soknacki’s announcement; Blaine never materialized.

According to data the campaign has gathered from email service MailChimp, some press gallery journalists hardly looked at press releases from the Soknacki campaign: reporters only opened 30–35 per cent of their emails. While they don’t know how that compares to the open rates for other candidates, one statistic did jump out at them: emails that included “Rob Ford” in the subject were opened much more frequently.

While some supporters urged the Soknacki team to step up their attacks on the mayor to get more media exposure and score political points, the campaign resisted. For one, it wasn’t in Soknacki’s mild-mannered nature to turn into an attack dog. Secondly, naive or not, it wasn’t the kind of campaign they wanted to run.

“It’s a system that Supriya and I, separately in notes two days ago, called it the ‘Rob Ford industrial complex,'” says Kelcey.

Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.: Kelcey gets in touch with us. The result of the poll is in. Six per cent support, after months being stuck at 4 per cent. It’s the tiniest of improvements—within the margin of error of most polls. Soknacki is heading to Jack Astor’s to thank his volunteers for all their many days of hard work. They don’t realize until he begins speaking that those days are now behind them.

CORRECTION: September 10, 2014, 9:31 AM This post originally stated that a poll was commissioned by the campaign, when in fact it is a Forum poll. We regret the error.