Vilma Filici is running in Ward 12 to inspire others in her community. With 10 seats in play and several incumbents vulnerable the balance of power at city council may swing to the right.ANDREW WALLACE/TORONTO STAR
Nobody knows much about Gus Cusimano. It doesn’t matter. To stand a chance, he only needs the people in Ward 9 York Centre to know one thing: he’s a conservative newcomer running against a left-wing incumbent.
In today’s political climate, that might just be enough. After eight years of the left running the show, the balance of power at city hall is about to swing right.
The liberal councillors hold only a small majority on council. With Howard Moscoe announcing his retirement, 10 of those seats are open to newcomers. A handful of incumbents, most of whom vote left, are vulnerable. And judging by the most recent polls, Toronto’s next mayor will move to city hall with a conservative mandate.
Penny-pinching Rob Ford, who has vowed to stop the “gravy train” at city hall, holds a two-digit lead. Four of the five leading candidates are playing up their conservative side.
Door after door, Cusimano is hearing what poll after poll keeps showing.
“People are fed up with the spending out of city hall and they want change,” the 54-year-old insurance broker said. “We have to get our finances under control and I think the councillor that’s there, Maria Augimeri, she hasn’t done that.”
A little over a dozen of the current 44 city councillors are ideologically on the far left. About 10 are entrenched on the far right. The mushy middle is about split, with a tendency to vote left of centre.
Under Mayor David Miller, city council has moved in a distinctly liberal direction. From the green roof bylaw, to a ban on plastic bags, to millions being pumped into Toronto’s 13 priority neighbourhoods, causes typically associated with the left have ranked high on the agenda.
Taxes have also gone up. Unions have been strengthened. And left-minded councillors, such as budget chief Shelley Carroll, police board vice-chair Pam McConnell and TTC chair Adam Giambrone, hold the most influential postings.
Under the current regime, taxes have gone up, while city services and building projects have been neglected, said councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong.
Minnan-Wong is a member of the Responsible Government Group; a coalition of conservative councillors who act in opposition to mayor Miller and the “Millerites” — progressive councillors such as Paula Fletcher, Adrian Heaps, and Gord Perks.
“They let the (summer of 2009) strike fester and the sick bank issue is still not dealt with,” said Minnan-Wong. “We’ve gone on a spending spree. We’ve got to start living within our means.”
Toronto may be a Liberal stronghold for provincial and federal politics, but locally, right-wing North Yorker Mel Lastman proves Toronto can vote conservative when issues hit close to home, said Nelson Wiseman, a politics professor at the University of Toronto.
“At its core, municipal governments are driven by property concerns. Property values are where the money is. Roads. Services. Garbage collection. Things that impact value,” he said. “Property owners are more likely to be conservative and also more likely to vote in local elections.”
When it comes to other levels, the Conservatives have been perceived as less sympathetic to cities, so Toronto voters tend to align themselves with the Liberals or NDP.
And when you break it down even further, the further you get away from Toronto’s downtown, the more conservative voters tend to be, he said.
Etobicoke Councillor Peter Milczyn said several of the left-wing councillors in the suburbs might find themselves in trouble.
“Certainly the political discourse has shifted dramatically right,” said Milczyn. And as far as any new faces, “I’d imagine they’d be centre or centre right, with Michael Layton as the exception.” (Layton, son of NDP leader Jack Layton, is running in Joe Pantalone’s Trinity-Spadina ward.)
That’s exactly what Ford’s camp is hoping.
If elected, front-runner Ford has promised to abolish the $60 vehicle registration tax and a land transfer tax, which were championed by Miller and passed by council in October 2007, as well as trim the number of council seats and individual councillor budgets. But his political opponents point out that the mayor is only one vote and to move on any agenda, Ford will need to get others on side — something he has a lacklustre track record of doing.
A number of left-wing councillors are already threatening to form a rogue government with a defacto mayor.
But Ford’s campaign has a plan.
The Etobicoke councillor’s team has been quietly supporting like-minded candidates, such as Cusimano, particularly in suburban wards.
If a few of the left-wing councillors can be knocked out, most of the fresh blood can be brought on side, and that mushy middle jumps on board, Ford will have enough support to pass his policies.