The one option left in Don Bosco’s playbook

When things go wrong, those with the least power usually suffer the most. Football players at the bottom of a pileup have the most weight pressing down on them, and can’t get up unless others do so first.

This holds true with the numerous scandals involving football coach and occasional mayor Rob Ford’s inability to keep his professional and volunteer responsibilities separate. Most recently, Ford and police together requested that a special TTC bus be sent to pick up the mayor’s football team after a game ended early. The fallout has affected the many parties involved to varying degrees.

The players, high school students with the least power of anyone involved, have taken a lot of heat. When one player bragged on Twitter that the team had benefited from their own private TTC bus because “our coach is the mayor,” a Vigilante Rapid Response Team sent him some nasty messages. That’s nothing, however, compared to what they’ve had to endure from their coach. Ford has taken numerous opportunities to disparage the players and their families, saying that they don’t have supportive parents or families (of course they do), that they are difficult to control (and that only he can control them), that the state of leadership within the black community is so pathetically lacking that no one has done more for black youth than this white part-time coach.

It’s hard to see what the school, Don Bosco, is accused of having done wrong either. Yet the school board has received so many angry phone calls that they’re considering reimbursing the TTC for the cost of the bus they never asked for in the first place. The board has more power than its students, but less than those who actually ordered the bus.

The TTC is also taking all sorts of abuse and doing everything it can to set the record straight. TTC CEO Andy Byford, already faced with the challenge of trying to mend his organization’s damaged reputation, has gone so far as to publicly scold the mayor by saying that he shouldn’t have called him for what Byford considers to be a personal matter and that he should not do so again. (His frustration is understandable; all the TTC did was respond to an urgent police request. They have no choice but to take such requests seriously.)

Those who instigated this whole mess and continue to hold the most power are saying very little. The police will not explain with any clarity what justified making the “urgent” request that resulted in two buses being diverted during rush hour, leaving riders stranded in the rain. The mayor will not explain why he treated Byford like a glorified taxi dispatcher. Neither will explain why their versions of events contradict those of the school board, which maintains there was no apparent need for special treatment. After all, who’s going to do anything about it? The school doesn’t have authority over the mayor of Toronto, nor can they easily accuse the police of lying about how things went down.

But even those with less power are not powerless. (After all, at the bottom of a pileup, one of Schrödinger’s players is holding the football.) There is an obvious source of these never ending headaches, and a solution. One man, a volunteer, has done a lot of good work, but is now causing more trouble than he’s worth. Every organization that depends on volunteers knows that as difficult as it is, sometimes you just have to say goodbye. It’s time to call that play.

Don Bosco can’t fire the mayor. But they can fire the coach.

New boundaries could turn a safe Liberal seat into one apiece for the NDP and Conservatives

Toronto Centre’s poll-by-poll results from the 41st General Election. The current riding leans right in the north, left in the south, and is surrounded by strong NDP ridings to the east and west.

The voters of Toronto Centre have always felt divided. The federal riding includes some of the richest (Rosedale, Yorkville ) and poorest (St. James Town, Regent Park) neighbourhoods in the country. At an all candidates meeting in St. James Town during a recent election one audience member accusingly asked if any candidates lived “south of Bloor,” in other words, if they could identify with and represent him. Likewise, some Rosedale residents have lamented that they can never get the representative they really want because they’re out-voted by their less affluent and more left-leaning neighbours to the south.

As a result, centrist Liberals have comfortably held the riding since 1993. (Before that it was held by the most Progressive of Conservatives, namely David MacDonald, who later joined the NDP, and David Crombie. Before them, more Liberals.) The north half of the riding has always been a Liberal-Conservative contest and the south half a Liberal-NDP one. As the only party with significant support throughout the riding, Liberals take it every time.

Now, that could change. The Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission has proposed new boundaries that would split the riding in two. If adopted after a period of consultation, the south half of the riding will absorb some of Trinity-Spadina to the west and become the new Toronto Centre. The north half of the riding is to acquire the north-east portion of the current St. Pauls to become the new riding of Mount Pleasant. And the Liberals are in serious danger of losing both.

The new Toronto Centre

In fact, I think they might as well kiss the new southern riding of Toronto Centre goodbye. In 2011, that half of the riding favoured the NDP candidate over the Liberal by 3%. Add in the votes from the section of Trinity-Spadina that’s to move over and the NDP margin increases to 5%, or 1,700 votes.

That may not sound like an orange nail in the red coffin, but keep in mind the NDP earned that much support in the current Toronto Centre without any reasonable prospect of winning. With these improved odds will come a more high-profile candidate, more motivated voters and volunteers, and increased money. Liberals, on the other hand, will have moved their money, volunteers and best candidate north to the new riding of Mount Pleasant.

Mount Pleasant

Here Liberal prospects aren’t quite as bleak, but I still think the party has reason for concern. Looking at votes from the north half of Toronto Centre and the new area from St. Pauls, Liberals had a 10% lead over the Conservatives in 2011. So far so good; that’s not as comfortable as the 18% lead they had over the Conservatives in all of Toronto Centre, but not anything to panic about either.

But let’s take a closer look at the nature of that Conservative support. Right-leaning voters in the current Toronto Centre and St. Pauls ridings are extremely demoralized. In the face of Liberal giants Bob Rae and Carolyn Bennett, they’ve known their votes won’t make a difference and many have opted to stay home. Organizationally, the Toronto Centre Conservatives have burned through six different candidates in the past four elections (two of them never even made it to the ballot) and have a very thin volunteer base. Further, their 2011 candidate was not ideally suited to appeal to the north half of the riding, in part because he lived and was almost exclusively active in the south half.

Given all that, the fact that Conservatives would still have only been 10% from victory against such a strong Liberal campaign is impressive. Next time around, like the NDP to the south, Conservative donors, voters and volunteers will be reenergized, and, with the prospect of a victory, the party will be able to recruit a higher-profile candidate capable of taking on a Liberal heavyweight.

Anything could still happen

Some caveats apply, of course. These proposed changes wouldn’t come into force for three years, which is an eternity. And in reality, what happens to party support at the federal level will be the most significant factor in how these ridings get decided. Still, with opportunities for the NDP to pick up another downtown Toronto seat and for the Conservatives to establish a beachhead in central Toronto, these new riding boundaries could really shake up the electoral map.

Data for this post came from Elections Canada’s poll-by-poll results of the 41st General Election held in 2011. Individual polls from current ridings were then assigned to new ones using the maps on Pundits’ Guide. You can download the Excel file I used for my calculations here. The map at the top of this post is from Rabble user KragoAlso note, I was the federal candidate in Toronto Centre for the Green party in the 39th General Election in 2006 and again in a by-election in March 2011 2008.

Michael Bryant’s failure to relate to the public

The morning after Darcy Allan Sheppard died, Michael Bryant emerged from police custody wearing a clean change of clothes and headed straight for the waiting microphones. In the hours since the altercation that resulted in Sheppard’s death Bryant had not only secured a legal team but had also, it’s been reported, retained a PR firm that immediately got to work. From the first moment, Bryant was concerned about his public image.

This apparent attempt to ‘spin’ the tragic events of August 31st, 2009 was met with anger by those who had already judged Bryant guilty. As far as they were concerned Bryant was trying to use his wealth and connections to get away with murder. That perception was reinforced when the prosecution decided not to pursue charges, allowing Bryant to walk away free.

Even while the charges against him did not go to trial, vocal members of the court of public opinion had already convicted him. Their anger boiled over again this week when Bryant, promoting a book, was back in the spotlight. He was clear about his intent: if he is ever to be in public life again, he needs to tell his side of the story and clear his name.

At the heart of the outrage directed at Bryant is the fear that he will get away with undeservedly rehabilitating his reputation. That fear is driven by a distrust in media, police and justice systems that have a history of privileging guys like Bryant (white, affluent powerful men). The fear is that Bryant—damned by the facts—will be saved by his money, connections and media savvy.

After reading the prosecution’s summary report, however, I began to wonder if the reverse were true. The Michael Bryant in that report—in the version of events he did not directly author or control—is a far more sympathetic character than the carefully constructed version of Michael Bryant we’ve seen on the cover of magazines and heard on the radio. In the prosecutor’s account, Sheppard was a violent instigator, and Bryant, fearing for his and his wife’s safety, was just trying to get away. Reading that document makes it far easier to imagine Bryant as a victim of circumstance.

Politicians in general can’t get away from the temptation to construct mythologies around themselves. In his recent media appearances, Bryant comes across as someone who wants very badly to be perceived as a tragic, humbled figure, fallen from great heights to have lost everything, guilty only of common human frailty. But that doesn’t ring true for someone celebrating the release of a book while coiffed and staring directly into the camera.

Instead, the public version of Bryant comes across as someone who fell from being Extremely Privileged to Still Pretty Damn Privileged and is actively asking us to feel sorry for him. Regardless of how responsible you hold him for Sheppard’s death (and again, legally he’s not been found to have done anything wrong), that’s not a very compelling proposition.

I’ve come to suspect that the primary reason many remain skeptical about Bryant’s exoneration is the forced nature of his comeback and the artifice of his public image. In trying to realize his preferred mythology, Bryant failed to understand the difference between humility and Humility Inc. Maybe if he hadn’t hired a professional public relations team, if he hadn’t donned a freshly pressed suit for his first press conference straight out of police custody, if he hadn’t launched a media campaign around a book and put his own face on the cover, if he hadn’t seemed so eager to be redeemed, his public image would be significantly improved.

Maybe it’s easier to feel sorry for someone who doesn’t come across as feeling so sorry for themselves.

The Big Idea that The Grid DOESN’T WANT YOU TO SEE

I’m honoured to have been included in The Grid’s 34 Big Ideas To Make Toronto Better issue. However, the big idea I originally submitted to them was just TOO CONTROVERSIAL for noted censor David Topping and his consensus media crony Katie Underwood. Either that or it was TOO SCATTERED and UNFOCUSED to fit into the feature they were putting together, so they reasonably helped me adapt it. I can’t be sure either way, though, so I choose to assume they were motivated by corporate censorship, likely dictated by their Torstar overlords.

Anyhoo, here’s what I originally submitted:

The Idea: Go Rogue

Many of the important things Toronto needs to do require provincial approval even though they should, by any reasonable analysis, fall within the domain of the city. We could implement congestion fees in the successful model of London, England in order to get traffic moving and fund much-needed transit expansion. We could introduce Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing, a tried-and-tested way of paying for home energy retrofits through investment bonds. We could require inclusionary zoning for new developments in order to alleviate our massive deficit of affordable housing.

We could do all of that and more with provincial approval that’s currently expected to arrive sometime between too-late and never. It’s time to take a page from the Richard Daley school of municipal governance and do it anyway. Mayor Daley famously bulldozed Chicago’s downtown airport in the dark of night without notifying the state or the FCC as he was legally required to do. (The city was forced to pay a fine, but in the long run is better off.) Nothing I’m proposing for Toronto is nearly as reckless as that action, which stranded planes and disregarded fire department helicopters that used the airport. Either way, Toronto, the sixth largest government in Canada, can no longer wait for the official sanction of a disinterested provincial government to get aggressive on congestion, renovate our inefficient building stock and rapidly build affordable housing.