what's toronto's history of non-majority mayors?

Background: besides writing Past Pieces of Toronto for OpenFile, I tackled several other assignments for the site. One was this piece, originally published on March 6, 2012, written at a time when Rob Ford was in the doghouse with most of City Council over public transit and people were discussing his hold on Toronto's agenda as if he was leading a minority. 

Town Crier and Mayor Rob Ford Announce Commemorations for the Bicentennial of the War of 1812
One of the few pictures I've taken within a close proximity of Mayor Rob Ford, snapped during a press conference announcing the city's War of 1812 celebration plans, December 8, 2011.

During the past month, consequent of the battle between City Council and Mayor Rob Ford over the transit file, there have been declarations that Toronto’s chief executive is being placed in the same position as a premier or prime minister charged with a minority government, despite there being no formalized political parties at City Hall.

While previous City Councils in the pre- and post-amalgamation City of Toronto have rejected mayoral policies, there hasn’t been sustained and consistent opposition on the scale hinted at by recent votes. Councillors who maintained their opposition to particular mayors—the group that resigned to protest John George Bowes’s involvement in a financial scandal in 1853, the reformers who fought the development policies of William Dennison’s administration during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the bloc of David Miller’s right-leaning opponents who coalesced around Denzil Minnan-Wong—have generally not brought the majority of their colleagues ’round to see their way.

Part of why Toronto has, thus far, been spared wars between City Council and the mayor was outlined by veteran City Hall journalist Ron Haggart in a 1968 Maclean’s article on city politics:
The idiosyncrasies of Toronto politicians have always seemed to me, however embarrassing, to be harmless enough, frequently providing better television on the local news than the same old retread situation comedies, and hardly a distraction at all from the indisputable fact that the city and suburbs loosely federated into Metropolitan Toronto are honestly, competently and progressively governed. Civic politics in Toronto lacks the ideological warfare of Winnipeg and the blatant self-interest occasionally uncovered.
While attempts have been made to introduce municipal political parties, notably during the 1969 election when candidates ran under the Civic Action, Liberal and NDP banners, the concept has never formally taken root in Toronto. Instead of partisan warfare along clearly organized lines, fractures within Toronto’s government often feel based on personal ideologies and philosophies, as we are witnessing with the Ford administration.

For much of Toronto’s history, harmony was aided by municipal leaders who came from similar backgrounds. “The good old boys were running the show,” notes Mark Maloney, who is writing a book chronicling all of Toronto’s mayors. “They were all white, Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking, middle-aged men.” All mayors were Protestants until the election of Nathan Phillips, who was Jewish, in 1954. Phillips’s victory also signalled the end of the overt influence of the Orange Order on Toronto politics—many councillors had been members and all but a handful of mayors over the previous century were card-carrying members.

Past election cycles, too, mitigated the effect of simmering resentments in the old City of Toronto. Until 1956, municipal elections were held on an annual basis, usually during the first week of January, which gave voters frequent opportunities to throw the bums out. While councillors were always elected by the public, the mayor wasn’t. From 1834 until 1858, and again from 1867 to 1873, the newly-chosen councillors met following the election and, after nominations were made from their ranks, voted amongst themselves for a mayor. Theoretically if the mayor and councillors failed to get along, council could bide its time and ensure the mayor wouldn’t survive a vote if he was re-nominated the following year.

During the second time period that councillors chose the mayor (1867-1873), the position of chief executive started to be granted to a long-standing member as a reward for their years of service. Mayoralty historian Victor Loring Russell felt that this practice demonstrated “not only the relative stability of the times but also the fact that most of the day-to-day work of the corporation was being done by the standing committees and the ever increasing civic service.” Once the public was allowed to directly vote for a mayor, the civic service kept the city running as most of the chief executives prior to Nathan Phillips averaged two to four one-year terms before being defeated or declining to run again.

Whether any disagreements between a mayor and his council during the 19th century turned into open warfare can be difficult to ascertain. “There may have been some real knock ‘em down, drag ‘em out fights,” notes Maloney, but such conflicts weren’t recorded in the city council minutes and newspaper accounts were coloured by the brand of extreme partisanship that could inflate any disagreements.

Ernest Macdonald.
Not that there weren’t mayors and councils with the potential for open warfare. Maloney cited Ernest Macdonald, a highly combative man who once went to jail for accusing a judge of corruption, as a Toronto mayor with great potential for turning council against him. During his inaugural address in January 1900, Macdonald was unable to give the traditional summing up of city affairs because the heads of city departments refused to provide him with updates. He admitted he had disagreed with many of his opponents (“I may have expressed my opinions in no unmeasured terms”) but asked all to work together. That proved difficult as Macdonald often opposed council opinions regarding legal battles with the Toronto Railway Company (the privately-run transit company which was the primary streetcar operator before the establishment of the TTC in 1921) and began exhibiting increasingly erratic behaviour provoked by the onset of late-stage syphilis. After one term, Macdonald was defeated.

If a one-year electoral cycle were still in place, how would the electorate treat Rob Ford? Given that most of the council opposition and drops in public opinion polls toward Ford’s policies have occurred since the first anniversary of his election in October, it’s conceivable that he could have been re-elected after a year of governing, perhaps alongside new councillors friendlier to his initiatives. It’s also possible, if an opponent ran a skillful campaign, Ford would have been tossed aside. Or a fresh vote would have produced a similar situation to that Ford currently finds himself mired in: an abrasive personality for chief executive who rubs his fellow elected officials the wrong way.

Additional material from Mayors of Toronto Volume 1 1834-1899 by Victor Loring Russell (Erin: Boston Mills Press, 1982), the January 9, 1900 edition of the Globe, and the November 1968 edition of Maclean’s. Ernest Macdonald image from Robertson's Landmarks of Toronto Volume 6 (Toronto: John Ross Robertson, 1914) via Wikimedia Commons.


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