Eyes wide shut: Toronto Mayor David Miller’s exit interview

Saturday, October 9, 2010 – Globe and Mail

Seven years after he swept into office on a broom, Mayor David Miller still knows the value of a good prop.

He flips through a mini photo album with images of himself opening the city’s public pay toilet earlier this year (after 2,000 visits it has become, he notes with a degree of pride, a tourist attraction).

He pulls open the book of policy promises he ran on in 2006 – “I’ve done everything that’s in it.”

A book of elementary-school drawings of things students love about Toronto sits on the coffee table in his office, which overlooks a construction-ridden Nathan Phillips Square. Neighbourhoods, knights and “the ocean” figure prominently.

It’s kinder feedback than the outgoing mayor has gotten in a while. After months of an election in which candidates railed against a non-existent incumbent and a dysfunctional municipal government, all eyes are on an Etobicoke councillor leading the pack on promises he’ll clean up City Hall by doing the polar opposite of his left-leaning predecessor. And the electorate, if you believe every poll since June, loves the idea.

But barely 90 minutes before he formally endorses Joe Pantalone, the faithful deputy mayor polling in a distant third place – and on the same day the Canadian Club canned a speaking engagement featuring the departing mayor that had managed to lure only 19 attendees – David Miller insists we’ve got it all wrong.

Torontonians love the city, he says, and they love what he’s done with it. He wouldn’t change a thing. And although he refuses to summarize his legacy, he’s convinced that everyone – the premier he has slagged, the unions whose garbage strike cost him his popularity, the voters and his replacement – will figure out he was right all along.

A little over a year ago, you said you didn’t want to run again because you’d accomplished everything you wanted to accomplish, and if you ran again, the campaign would be all about you. But a lot of this campaign has been about you. That must feel weird.

Well I think [the candidates are] missing what Torontonians want to talk about. … Torontonians, regardless of what they think about a particular issue at City Hall, they love the city. They’re proud of it. They recognize the city needs investment in public transit, they need to make sure we don’t become a city of haves and have-nots, so we need to invest in priority neighbourhoods. They want to invest in arts and culture. They understand we need to keep the city prosperous. And, you know, it’s my view any mayor worth their salt should be talking about those kinds of issues. They may have their different approach, and fair enough. It’s politics and politics is about different positions. But that’s what I think Torontonians want to hear discussion about.

Do you ever wish you were running?


Are there things you’ll miss?

Oh, for sure. My self-image is that I’m this boy from a small village in England. … And to have the privilege of being mayor of not just the greatest city in Canada but the most livable city in the world, a really special place, is really incredible.

Do you think Torontonians are angry?


Then how do you explain the fact that the person leading in the polls is someone who’s able to play off a sense of discontent?

I think there’s a dissonance between these Family Compact chattering classes and people’s everyday lives. You read in the business section the economy is all good. It isn’t. People are uncertain. … I’m not going to get into explaining polls. The other thing that poll said was if I was running I’d be winning. So how do you explain that by this “Torontonians are angry?” It doesn’t fit. It’s a lot more complicated than that.

If City Hall isn’t broken, why do people think it is?

I don’t accept your premise or agree with it at all. … I’ll tell you what I’m hearing from people. First of all, they’re saying quite complimentary things, like, “Please run again.” But they’re also shaking their heads at what they’re hearing from the mayoral candidates. It’s not the city they see. … Are there occasional frustrations with City Hall? Sure. That’s fair enough…. But I disagree fundamentally with the premise that Torontonians are angry. It’s just not true. And there wouldn’t be a poll that said I would win if I ran if that were true…. So I think, with due respect to the media, that the story’s a lot deeper than that. And people need to knock on doors in neighbourhoods like we do as elected officials and get in touch with people.

If you had to change one thing, what would it be?

If I had to change one thing? I really don’t look back that way. Because I did my level best to be true to who I told Torontonians I was, to who I am. Would I wish some things had gone differently? Sure. But every decision I approached based on the principles I believed in, my commitments to the people of Toronto.

What do you wish had gone differently?

Well, the – I’m not really… I mean… there are things that happen that you wish didn’t. But I’ve done everything I possibly can to make things go the way they should. And frankly I’m quite pleased with what we’ve been able to accomplish. I sort of forced the institution to sprint, and that’s hard, for big government to sprint all the time.

Do you think you’ll be remembered for the garbage strike?

That’s part of what I’ll be remembered about, sure. … It’s unfortunate the unions chose to go on strike. It was extremely unwise of them, at a time when people were feeling they were lucky to hang on to their jobs. We were being fair and reasonable and they eventually came around to our position.

A lot of people point to that as a time people turned against you as mayor.

From my perspective it wasn’t a garbage strike, it was a strike against children and daycare and all the other city services. I thought the unions made a very significant error, and they eventually conceded to our position. And as a result, we saved $194-million. It’s unfortunate the unions chose that strategy, but that’s their choice.

How would you like to be remembered?

Sorry to duck, but I really don’t think that way. I’m comfortable with who I am and I’m very proud of what we accomplished.

If a more right-wing mayor is elected, do you think that’s a reaction to your more aggressive policies?

I think whoever gets elected, gets elected based on what people think of them and what they stand for. I’ll leave that to political scientists 35 years from now. But everybody, for example, is promising people transit. … Is that a reaction to my mayoralty? Yes. Everyone’s promising to do what I was doing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.



November, 2003

Forty-four-year-old High Park councillor and former card-carrying NDP member David Miller announces mayoral victory, beating long-time political strategist John Tory and former mayor Barbara Hall, who had been a frontrunner for much of the race.

“Tonight,” he said, wielding a broom he used to symbolize his desire to clean up City Hall, “the people of Toronto have voted to take back their city.”

July, 2004

David Mullan becomes the first integrity commissioner of any Canadian municipality. Mr. Miller calls it a “sea change” for a council he vowed to clean up.

November, 2006

Incumbent Mr. Miller eclipses his main challenger, Jane Pitfield, by a two-to-one margin. In a victory speech, he promises to lobby senior levels of government for tax-revenue cash. A one-per-cent slice of sales tax, perhaps?

February, 2007

Mr. Miller launches the “One Cent Now” campaign in earnest, lobbying for a penny-sized slice of the GST. Despite flashy, protracted, populist campaign, no such federal pennies materialize.

October, 2007

Council narrowly passes a controversial new tax plan, including a land transfer and vehicle registration tax.

April, 2009

Premier Dalton McGuinty announces billions of provincial dollars for multi-decade transit infrastructure funding for Toronto.

June, 2009

Strike! Locals 79 and 416 walk off the job as contract talks break down.

July, 2009

Strike ends after 39 days. That wasn’t so bad, was it? Well, at least the city got the concessions it wanted on banked sick days, right? Not really? Oh. Um.

September, 2009

Mr. Miller announces he doesn’t plan to run in the next year’s election. Although the announcement comes shortly after the strike caused Mr. Miller’s popularity to diminish, he says he made the decision years ago.

March, 2010

As Queen’s Park struggles to budget its way out of a recessionary deficit, Premier McGuinty says $4-billion of the funds going toward Transit City will be postponed, pushing back several of the transit network’s projects. Mr. Miller slams the province’s decision, and launches a “Save Transit City” campaign the following month.

Anna Mehler Paperny

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