Joe Pantalone does not know how to ride a bicycle. He does, however, know how to ride a mule.
“It’s another poor immigrant story,” Mr. Pantalone, the deputy mayor of Toronto, said yesterday, sitting for latte at Il Gatto Nero, one of his favourite haunts, at Crawford and College streets near his Beatrice Street home.
Mr. Pantalone, 58, is second-eldest of a family of four sons and three daughters, born to share-croppers in the 1,000-year-old town of Racalmuto, Sicily. The family would live six months on a farm they did not own, growing wheat and fava beans, and gathering fruit and nuts from trees: almonds pistachios, olives and apricots. Half their production went as rent for the land.
“Poverty always looks idyllic to the tourist,” he says. In fall, school started before the family had completed the harvest, so young Joe would walk to school, or ride a mule.
In winter the family kept its chickens, a goat, rabbits and mules on the ground floor of the home in town; the family lived upstairs.
“At age 13, somehow my family got a hold of a bicycle,” Mr. Pantalone says. “I almost learned,” he says, imitating a kid wobbling around on a bike, “and then we moved to Toronto. Here we didn’t have two pennies to buy a bicycle.”
Rocco Rossi, the other Italian-Canadian candidate for mayor (two others, Adam Giambrone and Giorgio Mammoliti, have dropped out of the race) brought up Mr. Pantalone the other day. I asked about Mr. Rossi’s opposition to bicycle lanes on main roads. “I’m the biggest cyclist in the race,” Mr. Rossi replied. “Joe Pantalone can’t even ride a bicycle.”
The comment did not sit well with Mr. Pantalone.
“He was born here,” Mr. Pantalone spluttered. “He went to Upper Canada College. This is a man of privilege picking on a first-generation kid for not riding a bike. The arrogance of the man.”
The bike story serves as a parable for Mr. Pantalone’s world view. He is an immigrant. His family had to struggle to make ends meet. He says government has a moral duty to help Torontonians — particularly immigrants — to survive.
Mr. Pantalone’s loyalty to unions also comes from his upbringing. His father, who immigrated at age 50, got work out of a hiring hall, which would send to construction jobs all the qualified union members. Among his jobs: building the Bloor-Danforth subway line.
“Thank God for the union, which allowed him to have a job,” Mr. Pantalone says. “If it weren’t for the union, they would have said, ‘Old man, go home.’ Yes there has to be a balance, but that is what collective agreement is all about: a balance between those who have labour and those who want to use it.”
Mr. Pantalone (whom some call “Joey Pants”) enters the race for the mayor’s chain of office with fundamental challenges. First of all, he’s short; not much taller than a mailbox. The father of two teens, aged 16 and 18, is divorced and speaks English with an Italian accent; he would be our first mayor whose mother tongue is not English.
On the plus side, Mr. Pantalone is by far the most experienced candidate. He has been a Metro and City Councillor for 30 years, and has served as David Miller’s deputy mayor since 2003. Experience matters. At a mayoral debate this week, host Seamus O’Regan recalled that Barack Obama picked Hillary Clinton, his rival, as secretary of state, and asked the candidates, “Who’s your Hillary?” George Smitherman chose Mr. Pantalone, noting, “You cannot pass by the benefit of institutional memory, having inside knowledge.”
At the debate, Mr. Pantalone dismissed his opponents as “all these mini Mike Harrises.” Mr. Rossi shot back, “Well, he’s Miller Lite. If you loved the last seven years, then it’s going to taste great.”
Is the close affiliation to Mr. Miller a hindrance? At Il Gatto Nero, a patron walks up to Mr. Pantalone clutching a Toronto Sun story about a new homeless shelter on Peter Street, 100% over budget and still not open.
“Mr. Pantalone, if you can justify this shelter, I will vote for you,” the man says. “Have you ever made a mistake?” the candidate asks. “Yes,” the man replies. “I voted for you.”
Incumbency has its drawbacks. Still, one Pantalone insider notes that Mr. Miller’s approval rating has soared in the past seven months, “because the press hasn’t laid a glove on him.” So the mayor’s formal endorsement of Mr. Pantalone (expected any day now) could help.
One thing is clear: Mr. Smitherman’s abrupt swerve to the right has handed Mr. Pantalone much of the political spectrum.
“If I ran I’d be likely to win,” Mr. Miller told me this week. “Two thirds of the people in this city vote for progressive candidates. All of the MPs and MPPs in Toronto are Liberal or NDP. From the medium far right to the left is all open to Joe. There’s no question at all that he can win.”
Can Mr. Pantalone, who has apparently raised $900,000 already (a figure he will not confirm) harness these winning conditions? Another columnist this week called his campaign, “stalled, verging on pathetic.” He is far down in the polls, and the election, Oct. 25, is approaching fast. Still, as 2003 shows us, a lot can change in a month.
Thursday, 8:20 a.m. Mr. Pantalone stands in front of the Bathurst subway station in the Annex. With him: three volunteers wearing green Pantalone for Mayor T-shirts, including Andrew Pulsifer, a musician in the indie rock band The Craft Economy with a mane like Peter Frampton. Mr. Pulsifer is an employee of the Pantalone campaign, having “been involved with the NDP for awhile.” He is handing out postcards which read, “Get Toronto Moving. Transit City Now.”
“Thank you for taking my card,” the candidate tells commuters as they dash past. Few stop. “I’m a fellow Starbucks drinker,” he says to one woman, reaching out to clink cups. She rushes on.
At 8:30 a.m. the rain starts, getting harder and harder until Mr. Pantalone pulls out a yellow and blue umbrella Ukranians donated to him at a celebration. Then a passerby tosses a lit cigarette in a trash can. Standing amid the acrid smoke in the rain, Joe does not look a winner.
Then Omar Latif, a union employee, stops to chat. “For us there is no doubt,” he tells Mr. Pantalone. “Even reasonable friends have skittered to Smitherman. I have a few quibbles with you, but you are my candidate.” Among quibbles: “I wish Joe had taken a stronger stance on the police violence that took place on the 26th of June. And he should be firmer that we really have to fight for all public services.”
Natalie Crowe, office manager at Parent-Child Mother Goose early childhood program, whose umbrella reads TSO, stops to support Joe, noting, “At this point I’m just listening to CBC, and he’s getting heard regularly.” Marty Holdenried, 43, a Toronto paramedic volunteering on the Pantalone campaign, adds, “He’s the only candidate who is not going to tear this city down.”
Councillor Adam Vaughan (Trinity-Spadina) says of Mr. Vaughan, “He’s one of the most effective problem-solvers. Once he decides that he’s going to build a soccer stadium, it happens. He’s equally pragmatic. That’s why he doesn’t make a public scene of things.”
Along with the electorate’s thirst for change, this quiet pragmatism may sink Mr. Pantalone. Yes, he has been the tree advocate for many years; yes, he has transformed Exhibition Place, but who has heard about it? By contrast, people have heard of Councillor Rob Ford (Etobicoke North).
“I know, but Jesus, everybody knows who Attila the Hun is too,” says Mr. Pantalone. “I don’t think it’s necessarily a compliment.”
After 10 years raising his children with their mother in a home the couple bought on Palmerston Avenue south of College, the pair broke up and Mr. Pantalone bought from his father’s 50% share of the family home, which his parents had bought in 1966, on Beatrice just north of College. Today he lives on one floor, and his father’s second wife, now 84, lives on the other. His children live with him part time. Of his siblings, one lives in Woodbridge and one in Mississauga; the four in Toronto “are all voting for me,” he says.
This race may turn into more of a class war before it’s done. Mr. Pantalone vows to fight for the unionized immigrant women who clean city buildings, jobs Mr. Ford wants to contract out.
“Why are they picking on the most vulnerable?” Mr. Pantalone asks. “Immigrant women. I’m there to provide moral leadership as well as economic leadership. Rob Ford being a multi-millionaire many times over, thanks to his father, not to him, I guess he doesn’t have to worry about it.”
10 questions for Joe Pantalone
Q What will you do about the land transfer tax and vehicle registration tax?
A I will use the revenue from the land transfer tax to invest in the public services which make our city so prosperous and attractive. However, the rift created between residents and city government by the vehicle registration tax is not worth its relatively small revenue. I will phase it out.
Q Do you support contracting-out garbage collection to the private sector?
A No. I will not put Toronto in a race to the bottom.
Q Will you raise residential and commercial property taxes?
A Property taxes should rise with inflation, no more. And I will continue to shift the property tax burden off of small businesses.
Q Which candidates for city council support your mayoral bid?
A Janet Davis, Gord Perks and Mike Layton. More are expected.
Q In 25 words or less, describe your environmental policy.
A Good green jobs, new renewable energy, more green roofs, more community gardens, more local food, and greener transportation with transit vehicles built regionally.
Q Where do you shop for clothes?
Q What kind of car do you drive?
A Most of the time, I walk or take the TTC. But lately, due to the demands of the campaign, I’ve been driving my Smart car.
Q Will you enhance Toronto’s streetcar fleet, or do you prefer subways?
A Transit systems need a healthy mix of modes. Streetcars make a great contribution to our vibrant downtown main streets. I support expansion of the subway to York University and beyond. And I am excited by the high speed trains — not streetcars — which will be a part of Transit City, which can go underground, and whose funding must be restored in full.
Q The City of Toronto is $3-billion in debt. Would you add to the debt or cut it?
A I will keep debt in the current range.
Q What political parties have you belonged to?
A The NDP.
The Contenders: Joe Pantalone — Class warrior | Posted Toronto | National PostIn Canada on September 18, 2010 at 19:25