Too good to be Trinity
Two great candidates, but what’s up with Adam Vaughan’s random ramblings?
By GLENN WHEELER
Voters in Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina, sure are lucky – they have a choice between two innovative grassroots candidates, each running campaigns strong enough to make calling a winner difficult.
They’re both leftish, of course. As one of them, former Citytv reporter Adam Vaughan says, “This is downtown Toronto. You can’t win down here unless you’re progressive."
Thus the similarity of their programs. Both Vaughan and his competitor, Helen Kennedy, want to end market value assessment of property taxes, expand green spaces, encourage car-free zones, invest in the TTC and increase mixed housing.
For all that, there are differences. And it’s what constitutents make of these that will determine their votes. Kennedy was the right-hand woman to Olivia Chow, who represented the ward (which runs from Bathurst and Christie to University and from the Dupont railway tracks to the lake) and is now an MP.
Kennedy likes to trace her political lineage to the “proud progressive tradition" that includes former MP Dan Heap, revered late activist Dan Leckie and MP Jack Layton. But Vaughan is trying to whip up dissonance here, claiming voters shouldn’t send another rep to the NDP caucus at City Hall, to the “political machine" he identifies as the reason imagination can’t get through the door.
However, despite his famous face, political parentage and journalistic respect, Vaughan appears in need of some of that same NDPish discipline he’s been bad-mouthing. How else to explain some of his dubious rumunations?
Sure, there’s an attractive enthusiasm in Vaughan despite some of his more oddball ideas, and for those who think the problem at the Hall is political parties and not the city’s financial constraints, his independence has a strong appeal. His willingness to propose outside-the-box ideas is an elixir to a voting public weary of can’t-do responses to new ideas.
But there are risks to reaching outside the box. Take his musings about “gated alleys," a Republican-sounding idea to keep druggies and hookers out of laneways. “We need to secure the alleyways and make them semi-public spaces for the people who use them, not for the people that abuse them," he says on his website.
He has become similarly unhinged on the subject of graffiti, opining in a campaign video that minors should not be allowed to purchase spray paint unless they bring a parent with them to the hardware store to attest that it will used to paint a bicycle and not to tag some garage door or brick wall.
Unusual suggestions from a self-styled progressive politician, and ones that have drawn a rebuke from Dave Meslin, public space advocate and promiscuous endorser not only of Vaughan but of Kennedy and Desmond Cole, an articulate Ward 20 candidate who won the Meslin-inspired City Idol competition.
“It was a bad video, with bad ideas," says Meslin. “But our current council is full of politicians, both progressive and conservative, who are guided by caution. They never say anything new. I’d rather have councillors who speak their mind, especially if they are willing to take ownership of their own mistakes and respond to criticism."
When I meet Vaughan last Sunday afternoon for a stroll down to Kensington Market, I’m anxious to learn more about his off-kilter ideas. He takes me around half a dozen nooks and crannies in the Market, one where the residents have built an intimate wild garden between two buildings on Baldwin, welcoming weary shoppers.
“This is what we should be encouraging," Vaughan says excitedly, before we head to a derelict corner where drug users shoot up and hookers entertain clients in the bright light of day.
But they’re mere passageways between buildings, not the laneways we love for garage art tours or otherworldly tranquility amid the urban bustle. “Yeah, I shouldn’t have referred to them as ‘alleyways,'" he says. “It was a poor choice of words."
He also shrugs off the graffiti idea that Meslin says is one of the worst things he’s heard in the campaign. “Is it practical?" Vaughan asks of his plan to ban paint sales to minors. “Maybe not. But asking small business to pay to have it cleaned up is not the answer either."
And so we go, down through Kensington, across Alexandra Park and back north for espresso. Though we’re used to seeing him on TV as the confident reporter, Vaughan the politician is awkward and hesitant. Where a practised pol will reach out a hand to anyone who’ll shake it, Vaughan prefers to wave from a distance. And his campaign manager will not be happy to learn that in the two hours and 40 minutes of prime Sunday canvassing I spend with him, he only gives out one piece of campaign lit.
He’s more interested in talking – about the wild west of urban planning that allows every ugly high-rise condo to be built and about how Olivia Chow and her would-be successor let it happen for the price of a park or a daycare, apologizing to us all the while that that’s the best they can do.
“If we don’t dream big, nothing will change," he says.
For her part, Kennedy claims Vaughan is poorly prepared for the work of a city councillor. “You don’t get a crossing guard by yelling," she says at an all-candidates meeting at Bathurst and Queens Quay.
Though Kennedy is a coat-tail candidate who plays up her work with the popular Chow over the past half-a-dozen years, she has a notable tenacity that I observe on her way up Robert Street, friendly territory if the sea of signs is any indication. This is the third time she’s canvassed this block, and she says the gruelling schedule is not so different from being assistant to Chow. “I’ve been in the garden for years and [Vaughan] has been looking over the fence," she says.
Ane Christensen, a Harbourfront condo dweller, sums up the choice after seeing the two at a meeting. She says either would make a good councillor, but she’s rooting for Kennedy. “Adam is a showman. Helen is a workhorse. She has a passion, and I’m not sure how willing he is to let the demands of the job impinge on his life."
Alas, for Kennedy, the wounds of the bitter fight to get the NDP nomination still linger. Many supporters of Tam Goossen, a Chinese-Canadian activist who fought Kennedy for the NDP nod, have kept their distance. Notable figures in the community such as Dr. Joseph Wong, a former Goossen supporter, are backing Vaughan – a significant development, says Simon Li of the Chinese-language radio show Power Politics, because few older Chinese Canadians know Vaughan.
“They don’t watch Citytv. They watch what the community leaders do. That kind of endorsement can be quite crucial."
Meanwhile, the Labour Council of Toronto and York Region, which had backed Goossen in the NDP nomination, elected to back neither Kennedy nor Vaughan – one of the few wards where the council hasn’t made a pick. (Council president John Cartwright says there are unionists working for both, so it was hard to take a stand.)
“Was the nomination process the right thing to do?" Kennedy asks without prompting, or should both she and Goossen have just run on their own. “I think it was," she says in a tentative tone, as if she’s trying to convince herself.
She’ll find out for sure on election day. Then we’ll all see whether the NDP political machine that Vaughan rails against can bring it home for one of its own.