David Miller thinks more, calculates less

One week before election day, David Miller is lecturing on the topic of “Beauty and the aesthetic city” to a packed Gladstone Hotel crowd as part of the Trampoline Hall lecture series. He’s part of a panel that includes urban-planning guru Jane Jacobs, novelist Nino Ricci and playwright Daniel MacIvor.

The rules of the night laid down by host Misha Glouberman preclude normal campaign discussion — topics such as the MFP scandal and the island airport are off-limits — so Miller is talking more big picture: about the frustrations caused by viewing a city that is “becoming” as a thing just to consume, about why it’s important that the city’s residents be thought of as citizens rather than as taxpayers, about the importance of the kind of thinking about the city that inspired the builders of the Beaches water-
filtration plant to construct one of the most beautiful buildings in the city.

There are a few things remarkable about the event. There’s the capacity crowd (several hundred people who waited an hour in the rain were turned away because of space restrictions) and its makeup (the serious-glasses-and-purposely-unkempt-hair gallery crowd that isn’t normally involved in electoral politics). There’s a rare lecture by Jane Jacobs on whether Toronto is a city in decline. And there’s the sight of a politician able to speak without notes about the city as a place where people live rather than a place where things are built and wealth is created and spent.

Most remarkable of all is that, when Miller gets around to talking about the stirrings of “a movement,” when he says that his goal in three years is for citizens to look back and say “‘Holy shit! We’d forgotten what we could do together as citizens,'” when he talks about a new sense of hope stirring in the city, when he articulates his view of the job by saying “I think being mayor is not about what I can do for you, but about what we can create together,” cheers swell up that drown out follow-up questions. Millermania has taken over this normally aloof crowd.

After six years as the self-proclaimed “leader of the opposition” during Mel Lastman’s regime, Miller’s looking to replace him.

His resume is impressive: Harvard economics, U of T law, a few years of practice with a big law firm (Aird & Berlis) and then an impressive nine years at Metro and City Halls. His career as a councillor, which once prompted antagonist-in-chief Mel Lastman to stand up in the council chamber and shout “You’ll never be mayor of this city… because you say dumb and stupid things,” has a few important highlights.

He was largely responsible for killing the proposal to bury Toronto’s garbage in the Adams Mine. After the deal had been approved by council, Miller uncovered a legal loophole that would have cost the city millions of dollars and used the liability argument to stop the risky dump in its tracks.

He and right-wing councillor Bas Balkissoon stumbled across the MFP computer-leasing deal, and well before the word “integrity” was common currency among Toronto politicians, Miller pushed relentlessly for the inquiry that has made public the extent of the backroom dealing at City Hall.

As TTC commissioner, he oversaw the development of the ridership program that has been adopted as a platform plank by all the other major candidates.

When Miller sat down with eye back in August, when he still looked like a longshot for the mayor’s job, we talked about more concrete issues than he’d discuss at the Gladstone.

Miller says his plan to cancel the island airport deal is tied to his impression that we’ve got a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to develop the waterfront, and by extension, it shows his dedication to neighbourhoods. By now his island airport and waterfront plans are well known. But equally important in his mind is an issue he owns due to his involvement in exposing the MFP scandal: cleaning up the culture of city politics.

“I think we’ve all seen that City Hall over the last few years has become a place where if you’re an insider or a crony, you get your needs met; if you’re a citizen, a resident of a neighbourhood, you don’t,” Miller says. He wants an ethics commissioner, audits of city processes and a lobbyist registry. But he also thinks leadership style is essential. “Right now, the culture basically is, ‘What the hell does the mayor want? We’re going to go run around and say that that’s our opinion, even if it isn’t.’ That’s an issue of leadership.” He wants citizens and city staff alike to be more involved in advising and operating the government.

In harnessing council, he thinks wielding a mandate and an intimate knowledge of council are equally important. “Mel’s style was intimidation and threats. Those are useful tools,” he says, revealing an impressive equanimity. “But I think if you have a clear mandate, that’s the best way to get people onside … one of the advantages I have is that a lot of [the current] council will be re-elected. I know the people, I have a strong working relationship with them, I know what I can get their vote on, what I can’t. And I know how to do it.”

He supports expanding the subway system, wants to lower metropass rates and further co-operate with GO Transit. He’d expand bike trails to form a safe network throughout the city and has an interesting but, he admits, far-off proposal to have dedicated transit and bike lanes separate from automobile traffic.

He’d focus on reducing the amount of garbage we produce, is against incineration and admits we may have to landfill small amounts of residual waste somewhere in Ontario.

Addressing the multi-faceted problem of homelessness, he thinks we need to build more supportive housing for those in need of medical or psychiatric help, light a fire under the Let’s Build program to get more affordable and special-needs housing built and bring back some form of rent control.

He’s against restrictions on utility-pole postering, but says graffiti is vandalism. While he supports sex workers who work from home through classified ads, he’s in favour of policing street prostitution. However, he says the police are a little too focused on sex and not enough on guns.

All in all, quite sensible and reasonable (though perhaps not as gung-ho pro-sex as we’d like). He’s an intelligent man with a brilliant record as a city councillor who talked to eye eloquently (often answering hypothetical questions, usually a big politico no-no) without pitching us slogans or trying to be our pal or steering the conversation towards his stump speech.

The key to Millermania, though, seems to be that he addresses possibilities rather than problems, talks about city-building rather than budget management. Miller’s Toronto seems like it might be an exciting place to live.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on November 6, 2003.