Friday, September 3, 2010

The Candidates: George Smitherman

Part five in a five part series looking at Toronto's mayoral candidates. Check out the previous entries: Rocco Rossi, Joe Pantalone, Sarah Thomson, Rob Ford.

George Smitherman

Who is this guy?
George Smitherman was the Liberal MPP for the Toronto Centre riding from 1999-2010. In 2003 Smitherman was appointed as the Minister of Health and Long-Term Care and Dalton McGuinty's Deputy Premier. In a 2008 Cabinet shuffle, Smitherman became the Minister of Energy and Infrastructure.

Which way does he swing?

What's his deal?
Smitherman has a plan for transit in this city that includes both the addition of LRT and the expansion of the subway. Like Sarah Thomson, his website actually features maps of proposed LRT and subway expansion and he has drawn out a two-phased plan for implementing his vision. Critics of his plan (most notably, and most vocally, Rocco Rossi) note that Smitherman's plan is way over budget - about $7 billion over the working TTC budget. Critics also claim that, unlike Rossi's plan to sell off Toronto Hydro and Thomson's plan for tolls on the Gardiner and the DVP, Smitherman has no clear plans for how to finance his transit plan. Smitherman has countered that he would raise funds "through public-private "design build" partnerships in which a consortium would pay for and build the infrastructure up front, and the city would cover the cost over time." He has also said he would reallocate federal and provincial tax dollars as well as dividends from Toronto Hydro and parking - money already in the budget that will be need to be pulled from somewhere else.

Unlike Rossi and Thomson though, Smitherman has clear plans for even the "nitty-gritty" (i.e. the shit you notice and rage about every day) of the TTC. Noting in his plans that "the small stuff matters," he has proposed free ridership for seniors during the day, the ability to "refill" transit passes by paying online and even a "riders’ charter that will set out clear standards and benchmarks for service, treatment of the public and notification of changes or interruptions to service in a way that keeps the TTC accountable."

On cycling, Georgie is possibly the most gung-ho candidate. While he's said that there will be a "time out" on constructing new bike lanes on arterial roads, he wants to build an infrastructure to promote cycling in the city and is the only candidate whose platform involves curbing off existing bike lanes so that they are separate from traffic and strictly reinforcing traffic laws to protect cyclists.

Smitherman's also got plans for the environment that include encouraging water preservation and recycling with rewards programs like RecyleBank and stepping up composting at apartment buildings and schools.

As for Toronto's current fiscal situation, Smitherman was actually the first candidate to open up the idea of privatizing city services to save the city money. Smitherman has said that, in addition to some subway routes, as mayor he would give careful consideration to privatizing garbage pickup, some bus routes and the running of ski hills.

He has however, spoken out against the sale of Toronto Hydro and has equated Rossi's decision to sell off this asset do so as "burning the furniture to heat the house."

Smitherman has also proposed a line-by-line review of the budget and is in favour of multi-year budgets in order to allow agencies the time to make longer-term plans.

Overall though, George's plans for "fiscal stability" are pretty light. It is by far the shortest section on the "Issues" page of his website, a page that otherwise details an extremely lengthy and detailed plan for Toronto.

The Real Johnson
Smitherman is making it pretty easy to like him if you're not concerned about city deficit (and you're liberal) and has made it very easy to continue disliking him and to continue to throw around the familiar "tax and spend liberal" refrain if you're not into the Liberal party. Right wingnuts have a hard time just saying the word Smitherman without following it up with something about eHealth and liberal overspending and he comes out with a transit plan that's $7 billion over budget? Really George?

However, I can't help but find myself liking this guy. Call it that slutty seduction of those tax-and-spend fuckers, but when I hear Gerogie say things like "You can't shrink your way to greatness [. . .] We are in the last gasp, living out a circumstance on an infrastructure built when I was a little bitty baby. It's time to take bold steps forward, to get the city moving again," I say fuck yeah. Toronto can and should be a word-leading city and maybe they're unrealistic, but I find myself swooning a little bit for the guy with the big plans.

And I know I sound like a dork when I talk cycling. It's probably not a priority for most people and I maybe haven't even earned the right to make an issue of it as this is my first summer biking in the city, but a city that is bike friendly is, simply put, fucking awesome. Critics maintain that there aren't that many people that bike in the city; and while that may be true now, the arrival of Bixi bikes next summer paired with a mayor that's pro-cycling could mean a lot more people on bikes soon. And I don't know if you've ever biked in Montreal, but curbed off lanes are infinitely better. A city with lots of bikers is cleaner, healthier and safer. And of course, let's not forget, hot hipster chicks on bikes.

I'm not too sure how I feel about privatizing city services. However, I'll have to figure it out soon because virtually every candidate (except Joey Pants) in this race is for it to some extent. I worry not only about the possibility of fees once corporations get involved in our city's services, but, when it comes to transit especially, there is a risk that less-traveled routes will suffer. That is, while Smitherman likes to tout England as the model for selling off routes for buses and subways, to some extent people that live in more isolated areas in London receive less transit service because service providers take only the "good" (i.e. profitable routes). On the other hand, privatized garbage means we won't go through another summer with a city that reeks like garbage because union workers think they deserve a massive raise for putting a bag of garbage into a truck.

And frankly, I think Smitherman's greatest asset is his worst liability. The guy clearly has big plans for the city and a great vision. But one wonders about the balance between that vision and reality. It's worrisome, for example that his website features over 1200 words just about parks and recreation, but less than half that about finances. He is certainly the anti-Rob Ford in that respect as Ford, in contrast, doesn't mention the environment once, nor does he mention arts and culture, but talks virtually exclusively about spending.

I really like Smitherman. His plans for the city (save perhaps his plans for financing his plans) are easily the most attractive of the bunch for me; though critics would of course argue that it's easy to make big plans without thinking about funding.

However, I feel like Smitherman's fate isn't really his own. He is clearly associated with the Ontario Liberal Party (and he's not exactly making efforts to distance himself from that) so I feel like regardless of how impressive Smitherman's campaign is, and regardless of his performances in debates, whatever the city's consensus on Dalton McGuinty's liberals is at the time we go to vote for mayor will ultimately determine if Georgie wins this thing or not. That's a lot of pressure, because ultimately that means the behaviour of an entire provincial party will reflect on Geroge for the next couple months.

So essentially, if the two of them remain front runners, this race hinges on Smitherman and Ford avoiding scandal for the next two months. For George to win, the entire Ontario Liberal Party needs to avoid major headlines and for Ford to win, he needs to avoid a colossal meltdown - another arrest story surfacing, punching someone in the face or uttering some sort of homophobic or racial slur he can't backpedal from. So, if you're a betting man, I'd put this thing at about even odds.

I'm by no means an expert on this candidate and I don't claim my research was completely exhaustive. Have you got some info on George Smitherman that I missed or an opinion you'd like to share? That's what the comments section is for...


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