Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

He’s out of the race, but David Soknacki made real contributions to Toronto politics

By: Matt Elliott Metro, Metro Canada Published on Wed Sep 10 2014

David Soknacki dropped out of the race for mayor last night. It wasn’t unexpected, but it still kind of stings.

From day one, Soknacki ran a a wonky, policy-heavy campaign. I liked it a whole lot. The way he talked about issues made most of his opponents look more than a little ridiculous. He’d be out there presenting detailed, thoughtful policy papers while his rivals tossed out empty slogans.

I wanted it to work, but it didn’t. And it was time for him to acknowledge that. Soknacki needed to be at least sniffing double-digits in the polls by Labour Day. He wasn’t, so dropping out was the right move.

But despite the end of his candidacy, it’s still worth reflecting on Soknacki’s legacy. Because, even as an also-ran who never polled too well, I think he’ll end up having one. Just consider a few of the things he contributed to the political conversation.

1. He helped push Toronto politicians to openly consider addressing the growing police budget

Over the last few years, I’ve privately heard Toronto politicians express frustration with the size of Toronto’s police budget. The budget keeps going up, even as crime goes down. But those politicians tend to argue there’s not a lot that can realistically be done about it because there are too many political barriers.

You can’t win an election opposing the cops, the argument goes.

Soknacki broke from that view. Before he even officially registered to run, he started talking about the need to seriously review city expenditures on policing. It was a gutsy move, and if nothing else seems to have raised some public awareness of the issue. It's even led to other candidates talking about the police budget as a place to find budget savings.

2. He acknowledged Toronto’s revenue problem, from a conservative perspective

With his core of mostly-young, mostly-left-leaning supporters, it’s easy to forget that Soknacki’s political history places him as a right-wing politician. During his recent appearance on Jesse Brown’s podcast, he described himself as a proud conservative.

But the twist was that he was a conservative who wasn’t afraid to acknowledge that if Toronto wants programs, services and infrastructure, its residents need to pay for those programs, services and infrastructure.

And that means taxes.

That shouldn’t be a radical or rare notion, but in this city it is. Especially amongst self-styled conservatives, who still lean way too hard on the popular idea that governments are awash in gravy and subways can be had for free. As someone from more right-leaning circles willing to call that thinking out as fantasy, Soknacki gives some hope to the idea that maybe — some day — Toronto can get past this kind of magical thinking.

3. He was a Scarborough politician who didn’t want a Scarborough subway

The debate around the Scarborough Subway at city hall over the past term was actually kind of insulting to Scarborough. Supporters of the subway portrayed Scarborough residents as rabid, single-minded people who wanted a subway regardless of anything and would never listen to any arguments in favour of LRT.

Enter Soknacki, who joined Coun. Paul Ainslie as one of the few high-profile Scarborough politicians to stand opposed to the subway — and its associated Ford-backed property tax revenue increase.

It’s hard to know exactly how Soknacki’s early support for the LRT shaped the race, but it’s worth noting that I wrote an article early last year expressing concern that Olivia Chow would support the Scarbborough subway. But when she decided to jump into the race for real, she revealed herself as an LRT supporter.

4. He showed that there might be room for a policy wonk Toronto mayor — just not right now

Soknacki may never have polled very well, but let’s not understate his appeal. Setting aside the occasional diehard Ford Nationer, I found Soknacki supporters to be generally more enthusiastic about their candidate than those in the Chow and Tory camps. In other words, those who liked him liked him a lot.

In other election years — normal ones—I think that could have been channelled into greater success.

But 2014 is not a normal election year. The question in many voters’ minds as we approach October 27 isn’t really which candidate or which set of ideas will best move Toronto forward, but rather who can beat Mayor Rob Ford. When I talk to people who don’t follow local politics closely, the first question they ask is almost always something like “Will Ford win again?” For a lot of people, getting a new mayor is more important than enacting any individual platform.

A lot of people just want to know who to vote for to get Ford out.

There was nothing Soknacki could really do to change that. A huge part of this election was always going to be a referendum on Ford. But I hope he and his supporters don’t take this discouraging outcome as indication that Toronto will always reject thoughtful policy in favour of celebrity, or that what voters really want is Mike Tyson photo-ops. I don’t believe that’s true.

Soknacki’s “politics in full paragraphs” approach didn’t work this time, but that doesn’t mean it won’t ever work. It doesn’t mean that Toronto won’t ever have its own Naheed Nenshi or Bill di Blasio. It’ll probably be a different candidate, with a different set of policy papers, at a time when Ford is more a weird memory than an ongoing concern, but let’s not give up on the idea of a thoughtful, nerdy, wonky, idea-generating, math-loving mayor.

In my most idealistic moments, I still think that’s what Toronto really needs. But it’s not what we’re going to get this time.

This post was originally published at on 2014-09-10T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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