How did Chow succeed where others had failed?
MARTIN REGG COHN
Not just a New Deal, but a big $9-billion deal for Toronto — one that no one else got done.
Not just a fiscal accord for the bottom line, but political concord at the highest levels — freeing up massive funding for housing, roadwork and transit.
How did Doug Ford and Olivia Chow, two longtime political and ideological rivals, do so unlikely a deal — sealed not just with a handshake but a hug?
Never underestimate how the personal and the political can change our world — or at least the city and the province. The premier and the mayor set aside past differences in ways that others neither fathomed nor foresaw — laughing all the way to the bankrolling of big projects.
More than moving mountains, Ford is uploading two superhighways — the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway — onto the province’s balance sheet where they belong. That’s a lot of heavy lifting from a premier who ruled out precisely such a proposal mere months ago.
It’s also a repudiation of how former Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris tended to download and off-load onerous expenditures in the late 1990s, burdening city taxpayers with unsustainable costs.
Now, Queen’s Park is also allocating billions of dollars to help the city cope with housing and homeless people, subway expansion and transit operations — proof, perhaps, that while Harris was rigidly parsimonious, Ford can be flexibly populist.
Toronto has traditionally received a raw deal from Tories in power (and never received its full due from Liberals or the NDP). This week, after two months of intensive negotiations, Ford talked up Toronto like a true municipal booster — “there’s nothing like it in the country” — and put his money where his mouth is.
So how did Chow achieve what eluded her predecessors? Former mayors John Tory, Rob Ford and David Miller all demanded a similar New Deal without coming close — even when dealing with previous Liberal premiers who might have seemed a softer touch (Kathleen Wynne and Dalton McGuinty).
“I have a soft spot for the mayor, I do,” Ford gushed.
“I want to thank the premier for partnering with Toronto,” Chow mused.
In fact, Ford and Chow were fierce opponents when they unsuccessfully sought the mayor’s job in 2014, and that rivalry resurfaced when she ran again this year. The rightwing premier with a mixed record dismissed her as a reckless “lefty” who’d be an “unmitigated disaster” as mayor.
Now she’s his partner in political deal-making — looking the other way when she doesn’t like the look of something. And pushing back when she’s not getting what she needs.
Any relationship between a premier and a mayor is asymmetrical, for the city is a creation of the province and remains dependent on its creator. Yet each has something the other covets.
Ford has a massive revenue base. Chow has a strong political base, rooted in her post-election honeymoon, that allows the mayor to offer the premier political cover when he needs it most.
With Ford still recovering from his Greenbelt imbroglio, the last thing he needs is roadblocks and resistance to his planned Ontario Place revamp with a relocated Ontario Science Centre (including a controversial parking lot and waterpark dressed up as a spa). That’s where Chow has belatedly agreed to disagree in an agreeable way.
In her recent mayoral campaign, she’d vowed to block the plan in every way. Now she says there’s no way to stop it, because the city lacks the legal authority.
Nor will she expend any political capital on it — not after receiving the equivalent of $7.6 billion in capital funding from Ford this week (not counting the operating dollars). Chow noted pointedly that Ontario Place “is called Ontario Place” — implying it’s ultimately the province’s place to decide its fate — borrowing the same phrasing that Ford has used in the past when he noted “it’s called Ontario Place, not Toronto Place.”
While that might seem like a routine recognition of legal reality by Chow, it’s a political concession that signals she won’t stand in the way of redevelopment — which won’t sit well with many of her supporters who remain diehard opponents of Ford’s plan. For his part, the premier conceded — under prodding from the mayor — that a controversial parking garage would be moved to the adjoining Exhibition Place to minimize its footprint.
Chow gave Ford a heads-up, when they huddled beforehand in the premier’s office, that she’d be using his previous phrasing (“it’s called Ontario Place”) in answer to media questions. It was another sign that these two erstwhile adversaries have cemented a new modus vivendi akin to the unlikely chemistry between the premier and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
They spoke frequently by phone over the weekend, sharing private laughs about bicycle lanes (she uses them, he abuses them), before appearing together in public Monday to exchange press lines. When Ford invoked one of his default phrases — struggling with “an 800-pound gorilla on your back” — to describe the city’s budgetary burden from his days as a Toronto councillor, an impish Chow motioned with her arms as if struggling with a phantom fiscal gorilla from behind her podium.
“Everyone’s half-happy — you know you have a good deal when both sides aren’t too happy,” Ford laughed, clearly happy they met each other halfway.
When they were done talking and partnering and shaking hands, Chow darted back to the lectern so she could “put this down (a sheaf of papers) and do this properly” — freeing herself up to give Ford a big hug. With both arms and hands.
From “lefty” to righty.
Toronto Star Newspapers Limited