Doorstep Postings: Ontario municipal election talk begins with the boring and bulletproof

John Tory blowing a shofar during his first Rosh Hashanah as mayor in 2015. (@johntory/Twitter)

This is the first in a series of opinion columns on Ontario’s 2022 municipal elections, written by Josh Lieblein for The CJN.

In the past 12 months, over the course of federal and provincial Seinfeld-ian elections about nothing, I, Josh Lieblein, have nonetheless persisted—and occasionally succeeded—in my mission to make political coverage relevant and interesting to readers of The Canadian Jewish News.

Cutting through talking points, pulling back curtains and showing inner campaign workings, finding Jewish angles in the unlikeliest of places, ruffling a few feathers. It’s what you’ve come to expect by now.

Still, this upcoming municipal campaign may prove to be my greatest challenge yet.

Not only are city and regional politics the level of government where I have the least experience, they are by design about files that are too small for the provinces or the feds. In some parts of our province, you can get elected to office by placing fourth in a field of candidates, so the pressure to go all out campaigning and generate an interesting horse race narrative is significantly lessened. And good luck finding anything specifically Jewish about zoning, subways, or the number of floors you’re allowed to have in the condo you’re trying to build. 

But we’re giving it a shot, anyhow, with upcoming input from Steve Adler from National Public Relations and other Jewish experts who’ll make the issues intelligible.

We’ll be bringing dispatches in from all over the province, profiling Jews on the campaign trail and platforming Jewish voices you’ve never heard from before. And we’ll leave no stone unturned when it comes to troubling reports of antisemitism in public schools, at trustee meetings, and in any curriculum-related kerfuffles.  

The logical place to start, however, would be with a quick state of affairs with respect to the mayoral race. Not only is it the most relevant subject for the most Jews, but it also sets the tone for municipal affairs province-wide. 

Mayor John Tory has come a long way from the hapless figure who got pummelled into dust for taking mildly controversial positions on faith-based education or building a bridge to the Toronto Island Airport. Occasionally, he’s even allowed to indulge his public persona as an aggressively uncool grandpa who does his best to engage with the city’s younger and/or racially-diverse and/or gender-diverse folx. 

The rest of the time he’s expected to keep property taxes low, refrain from bombastic, Mel Lastman-esque statements that could embarrass the city on the world stage, and frustrate the lefties in the downtown. Increasingly these same left councillors are packing it in after realizing that, say, stopping the development of some big-box store constitutes a high-watermark for this line of work—which is just fine with Tory.   

Tory’s main challenger is one Gil Penalosa, a widely respected member of the mostly anonymous group of Toronto urban planner/activists. Mr. Penalosa’s main challenges will include getting people to pronounce his last name correctly and avoiding criticism of how he fits into a T-shirt. 

Most of all, he’ll need to avoid coming out of left field with some pet idea of the countless anti-Tory grievance groups who’ll alternate between trying to attach themselves to his plucky upstart campaign and attacking it. 

Some locals, however, aren’t satisfied with this exercise in democracy and won’t be placated by Mayor Tory citing of Toronto’s presence on throwaway lists of well-run cities. You’ve got people who are annoyed with drinking fountains not being open, with cops ticketing people on bicycles, or Tory himself voting on a decision where he appears to have a direct conflict-of-interest.

But most voters have little time for these annoyances and minor lapses. As far as they’re concerned, it’s a stark binary between status quo and populist chaos, and re-electing Tory gives them a chance to stick it to the likes of Donald Trump, Vladmir Putin, and Pierre Poilievre. And they will not let some alternative take that away from them, for love or for money.  

Josh Lieblein can be reached at [email protected] for your response to Doorstep Postings.