Unsolicited note to the “un-politician”

Dear Olivia (c/o John Laschinger and Warren Kinsella):

Maybe I’m holding you to an unfair standard, but I’m disappointed in you, and the campaign’s only a month old.  After tantalizing us with your candidacy for the past year, my expectations were high. Since your campaign launch, they’ve been lowered.

As a humble consultant, often working in and around City Hall, I long for a time when sensible decision-making occurs because of, not in spite of, what’s going on in the Mayor’s office.  By “sensible,” I mean that the connection between the objectives and decisions of Council will become evident to the average person.  On the major issues of the day, including transit, waterfront development, and housing, the current Mayor’s team has confounded every good intention Council started with.

This state of dysfunction has made everything more strenuous and politically fraught.  It’s also been personally frustrating and embarrassing.  American comedians aren’t wrong to seize on Toronto politics as a ready source of laughs.  Lots of dedicated public servants and, yes, humble consultants, have been hanging on for a leadership change.  Whether or not I’d vote for you, your candidacy gave people like me a reason to be more hopeful about this election than the last one.

You entered this race as the “un-politician.” By virtue of your gender, your ethnicity, and your experience, gained through time and tragedy over many years in public service, you were bringing a fresh perspective to the stale, male, confrontational politics that makes Toronto City Council so ineffective.

You were bringing subtlety of judgement to bear on binary options. Toronto City Council has staggered side to side like a dancing bear; left, then right, then left again, spinning, weaving, clumsily lurching… Hall, Lastman, Miller, Ford… urban, suburban, urban, suburban… for 15 years!

You didn’t gain fame in Ottawa, though you deserve some credit for beating Tony Ianno to get there. You’re not a great speaker, you don’t pretend to be a genius, and you’re not a commanding physical presence. Despite your NDP pedigree, you’re not notorious for your partisanship nor leadership, and that’s good. Based on your balanced and conciliatory language, you just might be capable of the calm, pragmatism seen too seldom around City Hall.

You are therefore the perfect foil to all the men in the race, and Karen Stintz too. You’re not belligerent like Ford, or glib like Tory, or pedantic like Soknacki. You’re not imitating the big boys the way Stintz does, with her expedient policy reversals. You’re just centred, smart, and modest enough to detoxify this campaign and maybe the next City Council as well.

Or so I thought.

Then on your first day of real campaigning, I heard you answering a question about your hopes for a Chow mayoralty. You said that the City’s economy would be a priority for you. Asked what a mayor could do to improve the economy, you replied only that you would cut red tape and increase youth unemployment.

Your response was too practiced. There was no pause for thought and no context provided. Just, “cut red tape” and “youth unemployment?” Really?

You told us what you wanted to do, but not why, when, or how. You simply stopped and waited for the next question, venturing nothing, content to be safe. It wasn’t a safe answer, however. It was weak.

Google, “red tape + Toronto + mayor,” and you’ll discover, to no one’s surprise except possibly yours, that all the candidates are against red tape. Cutting red tape was an explicit promise of Ford’s in 2010. He also launched a red tape awareness week in January 2013. Tory is going to cut red tape for a favourite initiative of his, as is Soknacki for his, and Stintz for hers.

In fact, none of the candidates is campaigning for more red tape or fewer employment opportunities for youth. If you’d meant to distinguish yourself from your opponents, you failed. By answering in such a trite manner, you sounded just like them.

This was just one example. Every time you repeated that it was time to stop the circus at city hall, you sounded like Ford calling to stop the gravy train.  We all took a lesson from the fact that there was no gravy train. Did you miss it?

There’s no circus either. No elephants, no clowns, no sawdust on the floor, no roasted peanuts or candy-apples. It’s just a metaphor. If you repeat it too often, it becomes a slogan, and thoughtlessly repeated slogans epitomize the brand of politics you need to avoid.

The first time you distinguished between Rob Ford’s personal demons and his policy failures, you distinguished yourself from the Mayor’s other critics. Their chorus of disapproval has gone on so long that no one feels outrage anymore. Unfortunately, every time that distinction between personality and policy is repeated, without substantiation of the policy failures, you slip back into sloganeering.

A few days ago, I was waiting for service at a store counter, and on the monitor above the cashier I saw each of the candidates take a turn in front of the cameras at a Greek independence parade on Danforth Avenue. For lazy-minded, old school politicians, it should have been easy – say something nice about Greeks, complain mildly about the cold, give thanks for the sunshine, and urge others to attend the event.

But John Tory was stumped by an unexpected question about his favourite Greek food. No one briefed him about tzatziki or spanakopita. This accomplished public speaker and radio host totally gapped out, unable to name a single Greek dish while surrounded by Greek restaurants, pretending to celebrate Greek culture and cuisine. In the end, he made something up, describing an unnameable orange paste that he thought was used as a dip. The moment reeked of inauthenticity, certainly for any Greek viewers. It was an insult.

The same question was then asked of you, and just like Tory, you blanked, taking way too long to compose an air-headed platitude about liking Greek food so much that you couldn’t name a single dish. Given a chance to be candidly gracious and funny about something unexpected or unfamiliar, you instead fell into the same trap as Tory, giving offense by trying not to.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you like Greek food or can remember the names of the dishes you enjoy. What matters is that you respond more intelligently and genuinely than your rivals.

The same goes for your attempts at sloganeering. That might work for Ford, who starts with such low expectations that slogans can improve perceptions of him. But you’re expected to be more thoughtful and articulate than he is. When you rely on slogans, you descend to his level.

Every time you parrot your opponents, you squander the hopes you raised over the past year. Given no choice but to elect a glib, belligerent, or pedantic mayor, people will vote for Tory, Ford, or Soknacki because they’re better at politicking than you are.

I mean that as a compliment. Good people often make bad politicians, and vice versa. The qualities that make a great leader in government are in some ways opposite to the qualities that make someone a great political campaigner.

The profound differences between you and your rivals has been obscured too quickly.  If this campaign comes down to antiseptic issue avoidance and sloganeering, you’ll have lost the advantage you started with.

I wish this wasn’t true, and maybe there is an authentic, compelling, yet-to-be-revealed Olivia Chow about to emerge. But if so, she’d better come out soon, because it’s hard to change first impressions.

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