By Maria Saporta
TORONTO – One probably could not find two mayors more different that Toronto’s former mayor – Rob Ford – and its current mayor – John Tory.
Ford gained international notoriety for his drug and alcohol problems along with skirmishes and outlandish, yet strangely comical behavior as mayor.
So when citizens of Toronto – the largest city in Canada – went to the polls last October, they elected a leader who was the opposite of Ford.
Tory was a businessman who had been a long-time civic leader working on some of Toronto’s toughest issues – transportation, affordable housing, regional economic development and a unified community that embraced the city’s diverse population.
Did Tory decide to run for mayor because he was embarrassed by Ford’s behavior?
“Yes it was one of the most powerful motivations for me,” Tory told the delegation of 110 leaders from the Atlanta region Thursday morning during the annual LINK trip. “At least I would offer people a choice. The expectations people have of politicians are actually quite limited.”
Tory commended the leaders on the LINK trip saying they reflected the different kind of people who need to be at a community table to move issues forward.
In Toronto, Tory was a founding board member and the past chairman of Civic Action – an organization that has brought together executives, labor leaders, nonprofits, academia and other stakeholders to work on the most pressing issues facing both the City of Toronto with its 2.6 million residents and the Greater Toronto Area with a population of more than 6 million.
When Civic Action started a dozen years ago, Tory said the leaders recognized that governments alone could not solve the problems facing Toronto.
“The purpose of Civic Action was to convene people who would not normally come together,” Tory said. “They felt they were at a genuine round-table discussion.”
Then Tory turned the tables on the LINK group.
“You have here the leaders of the Atlanta community,” Tory told them. “How can you make a difference? It’s not a platitude. It’s about the efficacy of social change. I’ve seen it happen. A large part of it was the fact that we were not the government. We had no agenda. It is nonpartisan. It’s not another advocacy group.”
Among Civic Action’s successes has been in tackling issues by getting the facts, building consensus and making the arguments for sound public policy. One example was getting the various cities in the region to work as one.
“It took five years of relentless nonpartisan, positive lobbying to get the various mayors in the region to work together,” said Tory, adding that they were competing against other regions – Miami, Chicago, London, and Montreal. “Those cities actually work like a region. They go and sell themselves as a region.”
Transit, affordable housing, youth unemployment are other issues that Civic Action has worked on. And now Tory is doing his best to bring his civic perspective to the office of mayor.
But he continued to state the importance of having a multi-pronged nonpartisan entity that could move the region forward.
He went on to say that Civic Action only adopted issues that were actionable and measurable, such as transit and affordability. That way, it builds credibility that change is possible.
“If your LINK group existed for only taking the trips, change that,” Tory said.
Tory was quite candid about all the challenges that Toronto faces – from economic disparities, transportation, affordability and quality of life.
“The opportunities are here,” Tory said. “The Economist Magazine named Toronto as the most livable city in the world. We embrace people here…. The problem with being No. 1 on those lists is you have only one way to go and that’s down. And I’m determined to not let that happen on my watch.”
After his talk, several comments could be heard around the room. “Now that’s a mayor,” said one business leader.
Developer David Allman half-jokingly went up to Ceasar Mitchell, the president of the Atlanta City Council and thought to be a candidate for mayor in the next city election, and said: “Were you listening?”