Two key leaders of Toronto city hall’s left-wing caucus are about to fly away, raising fears about the future of progressive politics in a chamber long dominated by suburban centrists and conservatives.
“I think that there has to be a solid commitment from both … labour (and)progressive urbanists to really build a platform around equity and justice, and I think we need to be strategic on how we organize around the (city) council races.”
She continued: “The race and the fight for the soul of Toronto is going to be in the councillors’ races.”
The Star spoke to a dozen present and past council members, as well as progressive organizers, about the state of the city’s left as popular right-leaning Mayor John Tory prepares to seek a third term with no known challenger.
What many agreed on is that the future of council will play out during the October election in ward races — either a reinvigorated left flank pushing the mayor towards progressive policies, or Tory reverting to the conservatism of his first term, to the relief of his traditional council allies.
Several progressives expressed pride in helping push Tory, during the pandemic, to the political centre or even left on issues including bike lane expansion, supportive housing and initiatives to combat climate change.
But they also expressed fears about whether that will continue after council’s pandemic “pull together” spirit fades and Cressy, who as public health chair developed a close working relationship with Tory, is out of city hall.
More immediate are questions of whether a mayoral campaign that used resources and volunteers to help get a Tory-friendly council elected in 2018 will intensify efforts this election to defeat “lefties,” as Tory campaign strategist Nick Kouvalis likes to call them.
Joe Mihevc, a veteran councillor who lost to centrist Josh Matlow in Toronto-St. Paul’s despite receiving a rare Tory endorsement for an unabashed progressive, says “the mayor wants a council that supports him — Tory has that in spades.
“Will he double down on that, or (will he) appreciate the diversity of views on council? Heaven help us all if we only have people in the room who think just like us.”
In a hint of what could be coming this fall, after the 2018 vote Kouvalis told an Empire Club of Canada forum the Tory endorsement was meant to convince progressives that Mihevc had a chance, in hopes they would divert resources to that race from closer council contests.
There are officially no political parties at city hall but there are known factions. Tory leads a right flank large enough to get a majority, if everyone falls in line, on the 26-member council. A smaller centrist group often holds the balance of power.
On the left is a caucus of seven, many involved with the NDP or Liberals provincially or federally, who meet weekly. Remotely now but previously in a city hall meeting room, they meet to hash out issues and strategy — Cressy, Wong-Tam, Coun. Mike Layton (University-Rosedale), Paula Fletcher (Toronto-Danforth), John Filion (Willowdale), Shelley Carroll (Don Valley North) and Gord Perks (Parkdale-High Park).
In the last four-year term, there have been two major roadblocks to advancing initiatives at city hall, both outside of everyone’s control — Premier Doug Ford’s cut to the size of council and the pandemic.
Ford announced during the 2018 civic campaign he would slash the number of wards from 47 to 25, sending candidates and their volunteers into organizing chaos and leaving those elected with massive ground to cover in their councillor duties.
Representing a ward now means having some 100,000 constituents across dozens of neighbourhoods, each with unique issues and demands on a councillor’s time — everything from community meetings for new development, demands for speed-reducing measures, local events, snow-clearing problems and more.
It leaves little time to strategize on major, city-wide initiatives like affordable housing or transit.
“Shrinking council has been devastating to councillors’ ability to build progressive politics in their wards,” said Perks, who has often been the de facto leader of council’s left wing.
Progressives told the Star that Tory often asks for evidence of community support before endorsing their policies. Huge wards make that even harder, Perks says.
The council cut also reduced the number of progressives elected.
“If you’ve got a group of 45 people, thinking about how to get 23 votes, you’ve got 15 different paths to get there. With this council we’ve got maybe two paths and the mayor knows just as well as us what those paths are, so it’s been really difficult,” Perks said.
A smaller council, he added, means fewer voices and fewer communities directly represented, as well as less debate and fewer surprises for the administration.
“It was a deliberate move by a Conservative premier to weaken the ability of Toronto city council to be a political force in the province.”
Layer on top of that a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that has sapped city resources and energy.
“It’s been a very strange term because of the pandemic,” said Layton, son of the late federal NDP leader Jack Layton.
For that reason, he said, it’s difficult to compare policy advancements previously to the last 24 months.
“There was a time all of our focus was on one or two things, like trying to figure out how to engage communities around vaccines,” he said.
“I think a lot of it has been in triage mode.”
He said it also saw council banding together during what Tory has likened to “war time,” adding: “Everyone recognized this is a moment in time people wanted to see unity and leadership.”
The left caucus, when in line with more centrist voices, has shown they can be a formidable opposition, galvanizing under Rob Ford’s 2010-2014 mayoralty to kill proposals such as a waterfront casino and library closures.
Tory also battled progressives in his first term, on major issues including the fate of the east Gardiner Expressway. Left-wing voices, led by then chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, wanted to replace the elevated stretch with a ground-level boulevard to create liveable urban space connecting downtown and the waterfront.
Car-focused Tory and his allies insisted on rebuilding the crumbling section aloft, focusing on commuter convenience and rejecting advice from the city’s own transportation experts.
After a pitched battle for public opinion, the Tory forces won a narrow 24-21 council vote. But the mayor, heeding warnings of downtown discontent from progressive councillors, backed a compromise that has pulled down one Gardiner section and is relocating the elevated curve to free up land.
In his second term, focused on pandemic recovery rather than mega-projects, Tory has appeared to be more careful to find consensus before any council eruptions.
Perks says progressives led by Cressy convinced Tory of the need for a equity-focused pandemic response. “If anyone’s lost traction this term it’s conservatives on council,” he said.
That can come at a cost. Last fall, Tory sided with progressives who said rooming houses should be legalized and regulated citywide. The mayor’s primarily suburban allies revolted, and Tory endorsed sending the proposal back to staff for more work rather than see it rejected outright.
Some councillors acknowledged friction within a group that, unlike Tory’s allies, has no defined leader.
Wong-Tam, sources say, had heated conversations with Cressy and Perks after she made misleading COVID-19 vaccination claims — later retracted — in a Toronto Sun guest column.
The sources insisted some level of infighting is nothing new. But any disagreements are now within a smaller squad with a tougher job winning votes.
Some Toronto progressives hope fresh faces elected this fall will re-energize a council left that some see as too centrist and cozy with Tory, too quiet on issues such as the forceful clearing of homeless encampments in city parks.
Carroll, who was left-leaning mayor David Miller’s budget chief, says Tory has changed this term. His office is easier to work with than in the first term when, she says, Tory’s political staff were “paranoid.”
“The team that’s there now is trustworthy,” she said. “It’s an office that I’m comfortable reaching out to.”
Myer Siemiatycki, professor emeritus in Ryerson’s department of politics and public administration, says that, despite their reduced numbers, the progressives on council have had an outsized influence this term.
A lot of that, he said, is in the context of needing to protect Torontonians from COVID-19, triggering a dramatic increase in shelter spaces and the fast-tracking of modular and other supportive housing. But the left’s reach is limited.
“The challenge for the left is to break out of the old city of Toronto,” he said of the upcoming election — to elect progressives in wards in Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke, where others have been elected provincially and federally.
He said Toronto’s left has an opportunity to portray themselves as best able to tackle problems exacerbated by the pandemic, including precarious employment and escalating housing costs.
“The challenge for urbanists and progressive Torontonians is to figure out what are the policies and networks and candidates that can best bring that to fruition, to win seats in outerlying parts of the city.”
David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering city hall and municipal politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider
Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags