a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Toronto's race for mayor likely watched countrywide

As the low turnout usually attests, municipal elections around the country don't spark much interest beyond their jurisdictions.

But the race to succeed departing Toronto Mayor David Miller is already sparking considerable interest even though the formal campaign is still a year away. The communications strategies and spin doctoring will likely rival those of federal campaigns.

As we learned this month, George Smitherman, Ontario's deputy premier and minister of just about everything, has quit the provincial cabinet to campaign for the Toronto mayor's job.

He also has a widespread reputation as a bully. True or not, perception as they say in politics is reality. Smitherman is stuck with the bully tag.

There is wide expectation that Smitherman's chief rival for the job will be John Tory, former Ontario Conservative leader, and everybody's idea of a nice guy. Tory is also the guy who stood steadfast in support of faith funding of the school system. That's got to count for something among Toronto's ethnic voters.

Tory is currently working as an open-line host at CFRB. He hasn't announced his intentions as yet. But hey, a Toronto blueblood like Tory has to be looking beyond being an open-line host for the rest of his life.

So we likely have a classic battle shaping up between distinct personality types -- the Bully versus Mr. Nice Guy. The communications strategy and branding work for these two candidates-- providing Tory doesn't disappoint us by not running -- will be fascinating.

Normally a reputation as a bully would be a liability in politics at any level. This explains why Smitherman invited Linda Diebel, who writes insightful profiles for the Toronto Star, into his home to show off his softer side as just another married gay guy.

Toronto, with its chronic financial problems and labour disputes, may well be in a mood to elect a tough-guy major, with a human side of course.

Canada's largest city also has a habit when it elects mayors of alternating between colourful individuals like Mel Lastman and plain-vanilla personalities like David Miller.

Tory's handlers will be well aware of this and will have their guy doing some tough talk about civic unions and a better bang for the taxpayer's buck. Tory will be packaged as a nice guy who can be tough when the situation warrants.

It will be the battle of competing brands -- the bull with the softer side versus the nice guy who can be tough enough to get the job done. Of course if Tory doesn't run, Smitherman will be up against several lesser knowns who will split the vote against him.

Regardless of who runs against him, the race is already Smitherman's to lose. It will also be a great case study of how a high-profile candidate can be rebranded for another level of politics.

As always, I welcome your comments.

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