TORONTO — Headlines and TV highlight clips are overrated, Mayor John Tory is saying at a Toronto diner shortly after he took his mother to vote in front of photographers ahead of Monday's municipal election.
At 64, Tory, who by most accounts is set to cruise to a re-election victory that will give him another four years in the city's highest office, is comfortable with his track record, and himself.
"The politics of excitement, the politics of polarization, the politics of show business are actually of not much interest to me," Tory says. "I'm not trying to be on the front page of every newspaper with some pronouncement every day with giant headlines. I just really want to get things done."
While his opponents criticize just how much the former corporate executive and longtime politician has accomplished since winning the mayoralty on his second attempt four years ago, it's harder to argue with the contention that he, and by extension Toronto, are no longer the butt of late-night TV jokes.
Tory's style — measured but clear is how he describes it — contrasts sharply with the approach of the late former mayor Rob Ford, known for his folksy commitment to constituents as well as his international attention-grabbing drug use and lewd comments.
"There is a kind of 'father knows best' aura or projection and style to John Tory," says Myer Siemiatycki, a professor of political science at Ryerson University. "It is a significant achievement that there's a more normal, orderly, predictable course of city governance going on (but) whether there are sufficient tangible accomplishments and achievements over his past four years in the mayor's chair is a whole other question."
Ford, ailing with cancer, dropped his re-election bid in 2014, allowing Tory and his promise of stability to beat out Ford's brother Doug, who earlier this year became Ontario's premier after taking his Progressive Conservative party — which Tory once helmed — to victory in June.
When Doug Ford abruptly announced in July that he would slash Toronto city council nearly in half, Tory came under fire for what his critics branded as a weak response. Tory bristles at the criticism — in his low-key way. On the evening before Ford announced his plan, Tory says he took on the premier.
"I was very clear in how profoundly I objected to the process that he followed there, which was no process at all," Tory says. "It was just a unilateral decision that was rammed down our throats in the middle of an election campaign."
Toronto voters, he says, want their mayor to stand up for the city. Even more importantly, he says, they want him to forge productive relationships with both the provincial and federal governments on which cities rely so heavily.
"You can talk a good game about having a war going with the provincial government every day of the week," Tory says. "I just don't think that works in reality, when the morning after you had a big dispute about one matter, you're phoning them up to get help on another."
By any measure, the Toronto mayoralty field is crowded. Almost three dozen candidates are vying for Tory's office, though almost none, polls suggest, poses a real threat. If surveys are accurate, his main opponent is Jennifer Keesmaat, the city's former chief planner who jumped into the fray mid-summer amid the fracas caused by Ford's council-cutting decision.
Keesmaat has attacked Tory as a dithering non-leader who has accomplished little on critical files such as public transit and affordable housing. In response, he cites a list of what he feels he has achieved. For example, he says, upper governments have now committed $9 billion toward transit-infrastructure and the city is moving forward with a desperately needed "relief line."
Tory also says he is in "furious" agreement with Keesmaat on the need for more affordable housing, but criticizes her target of 100,000 new units over the next decade as unrealistic. He is pledging 40,000 over 12 years on top of the 3,700 units he says have already been built under his watch.
He has pledged to combat gun and gang violence by hiring 400 new police officers over two years and pushing for a ban on handguns.
The married father of four also brags of successive years of surplus budgets in which property taxes increased by no more than the inflation rate despite what he calls record amounts spent in areas such as transit and housing. City taxes are among the biggest cheques residents write, he says, and holding the line on taxes — even if it means limiting city revenues — is part of his commitment to affordability.
If there is a genuine crisis facing the city, Tory says it is the issue of mental health and addictions that saw 303 overdose deaths in Toronto last year.
"I see the human carnage that takes," he says, acknowledging supportive housing and programs are in critically short supply.
As he speaks about his re-election bid, Tory also kibitzes comfortably with other restaurant patrons and staff. He is clearly comfortable in his skin, confident that more than enough voters like what they see and will trust him anew with the keys to the mayor's office.
"Nothing about the election keeps me awake at night; my conscience is clear with respect to the efforts I've made," he says. "The universe unfolds as it should. It's the way it is."
Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly said Tory had voted at an advance poll and misstated the year of the last municipal election.