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Will Desmond Cole run for mayor of Toronto? He’s thinking about it: Keenan

While he may seem like a longshot to win, the city could use the injection of energy, charisma, honesty and ideas that Cole could bring to an otherwise underwhelming race, says Edward Keenan.

Activist and journalist Desmond Cole speaks at a panel discussion on the rise of hate and racism in a new Trump era. Cole says he’s not interested in running simply to make a point or to be the flag bearer for a lost cause. He wouldn’t run, he says, 'unless I thought I could win.'

BERNARD WEIL / TORONTO STAR

Activist and journalist Desmond Cole speaks at a panel discussion on the rise of hate and racism in a new Trump era. Cole says he’s not interested in running simply to make a point or to be the flag bearer for a lost cause. He wouldn’t run, he says, 'unless I thought I could win.'

Is Desmond Cole going to run for mayor?

The question arises after his name popped up in a poll released Wednesday, which shows him with a level of support that would rank him near — or ahead of, depending how you look at the results — Doug Ford in his potential appeal to voters across the city.

A little over a year out from election day, with the race so-far shaping up to be a rematch of the right between Ford and Mayor John Tory, activist, journalist and broadcaster Cole says he’s seriously thinking about it.

“People approach me a lot and ask me,” says Cole. “There are a whole lot of people who are deeply unsatisfied in this city…at this point I’m still talking to people close to me and asking, ‘What do you think?’ I’m not at the stage yet where I can say I’ve decided.”

It’s a big decision, obviously. And at this point, he certainly looks like a longshot to win. But the city could use the injection of energy, charisma, honesty and ideas Cole could bring to what could otherwise be an underwhelming race.

Because so far it has looked like a bit of a snooze. The same poll that solicited opinions on Cole’s appeal, conducted by veteran pollster John Wright at his new firm Dart Insight and Communications for Newstalk 1010, shows 65 per cent of those asked believe John Tory deserves to be re-elected, including more than 60 per cent in every part of the city. (The poll surveyed 814 adults in Toronto through an online panel and claims to be considered accurate within 3.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.)

Torontonians seem far from fed up with their mayor. In this atmosphere of general contentment with the staus quo, only Doug Ford has announced a decision to take Tory on, mounting a challenge from the taxaphobic, government-bashing right.

On the left, there seems to be a current of vocal dissatisfaction with Tory, in both his priorities (such as his obsession with keeping property taxes low and road construction) and the slow pace of movement on social files such as public housing. Yet there has appeared to be no candidate emerging to champion that view.

A series of possible candidates, some of whom considered it, some floated by the press and pollsters — former chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, councilors Kristyn Wong-Tam, Joe Cressy, and Mike Layton, federal MP Adam Vaughan, even retired Maple Leafs and Raptors boss Richard Peddie — have decided not to run. There’s a sense among those who consider themselves progressive that 2018 will not be their year.

Better, they think, to focus on winning city council races for like-minded allies and to wait Tory out and try again in 2022.

There’s a certain logic to it, but in the meantime, how does a months-long, agenda-setting debate about the city’s priorities and future shape up when the only major participants are Tory and Ford? It seems we can expect a contest between right-of-centre and righter-of-centre. Tory’s strategy in such a contest would seem to obviously involve positioning himself just slightly left of Doug Ford, to pick up as many conservative voters as possible while still appearing to be the lesser of two evils to the left.

I’d expect a lot of one-upmanship about who can best control spending, keep taxes low and make the city better for driving a car. I’d expect little-to-no serious discussion of how to best build the city and make it a better, more compassionate place to live.

Toronto Mayor John Tory addresses the crowd after being called to the microphone by activist and writer Desmond Cole (right) at an anti-racism meeting in Toronto on Thursday July 14, 2016.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Toronto Mayor John Tory addresses the crowd after being called to the microphone by activist and writer Desmond Cole (right) at an anti-racism meeting in Toronto on Thursday July 14, 2016.

Certainly Tory would likely have nods to these things somewhere in the platform, to mop up the votes Ford isn’t bothering to compete for, but in the big battleground debates for votes that would determine what the city expects in the coming four years — that deliver the mandate a mayor would try to implement — I fear much of what I care about would be overlooked.

The poll I mentioned above is not on a horserace “who would you vote for” question, but rather on who voters would consider voting for. It shows 30 per cent of Toronto voters say they would give Cole “a great deal” or “some” consideration. That’s significantly less than the 75 per cent who say they’d give that consideration to Tory, but pretty close (especially factoring in the margin of error) to the 36 per cent who would give that level of consideration to Doug Ford.

And the reverse question shows Cole has perhaps a larger possible voting universe than Ford: 53 per cent of voters say they would give the former Etobicoke councillor no consideration at all, while only 30 per cent said they’d absolutely rule Cole out in the same way.

Those aren’t juggernaut numbers, obviously. But for a man with a relatively lower political profile than Tory or Ford, and without even having announced he was thinking about running, it looks like he’d at least be up for consideration by plenty of voters. And in a campaign, things change. If there’s only one candidate on that end of the political spectrum, there’s a lot of experienced organizational and fundraising expertise that may be available to put to work.

Cole says he’s not interested in running simply to make a point or to be the flag bearer for a lost cause. He wouldn’t run, he says, “unless I thought I could win.” But the lack of a candidate talking about the things that are important to him is a factor in his thinking. “Whether I run or not, it won’t be a good thing for our city if the only two candidates are John Tory and Rob Ford.”

“There’s so much to be said on a number of issues,” he says. Issues he’s become prominent advocating about, such as policing and racial equity, he says, but also so much more. Transit and transit accessibility, libraries, housing.

“John Tory brands himself as a good manager of the status quo,” Cole says, something he acknowledges might have been what a lot of city voters wanted after the tumultuous term of Rob Ford. But with that, he says, “That level of aspiration is just missing…we’ve stopped dreaming in this city… we just need to imagine something better for the city.”

As he speaks in more detail about his approach, it sure sounds like he’d like to run. And Cole figures those reasons are not just what fires him up, they define the possible path to victory. “If we offer people a bolder politics, a lot of people will respond to it,” Cole says. They are hungry for it, he tells me.

Some people will shake their head and say that’s a daydream. That there’s a good reason so many successful politicians adopt moderated middle-of-the-road policies and speak in careful, bland blah-blah-blahisms. But I’d sure like to see where Cole’s daydream goes.

Perhaps he’ll decide to run. Perhaps not.

But it sure would be nice if someone put that bolder politics to Toronto voters and at least see how they respond.

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