Learning to Like Olivia Chow

My most recent blog post about the Toronto mayoral by-election concluded with a pessimistic assessment of Olivia Chow’s chances. But she is now the clear front-runner in the polls, with a lead of 10 or 15 percent over her closest rival, former Chief of Police Mark Saunders. As part of a rethink, I watched the top candidates’ debate, sponsored by the Daily Bread Food Bank, on Toronto television station CP24. Six candidates were invited: Ana Bailao, Brad Bradford, Olivia Chow, Mitzie Hunter, Josh Matlow, and Mark Saunders.

Saunders didn’t participate. He’s a johnny one-note candidate, and a debate about food insecurity and affordability wasn’t his note. In contrast to political courage, which I discussed in my post about the late Marc Lalonde, this is political cowardice.

Privileges and Perils of Being Frontrunner

I was impressed by Olivia Chow for several reasons. She has a compelling personal story of her family’s resilience in the face of challenges of poverty and mental illness and told that story in her opening statement. She was more eloquent and energetic in her presentation than I expected. She has now developed positions on a variety of issues, which she expounded in the debate, and which are now posted on her website. The website shows she has received the endorsement of urbanist Gil Penalosa, who ran second to John Tory in last year’s election. This should swing some progressive votes to her.

By virtue of being frontrunner, all the other candidates chose her in the segment of the debate that allowed each candidate to confront another candidate of their choice. The overall criticism was that her numbers didn’t add up. Taking that farther, Brad Bradford said of Chow, “we don’t need NDP activists to jack taxes and deliver no results” and claimed that, with her as mayor, property taxes would go up 20 percent. I expect that, if Chow holds the lead, we will hear this line of attack more frequently. She’ll be called a tax-and-spend Dipper.

The Attack Dog

Brad Bradford eloquently delivered the themes present on his website and in his advertising: his career as a public servant turned politician out of frustration with delay, his promise to be a man of action not words, and a set of policies that emphasize public safety, for example providing safety doors on the track at many subways stations. Bradford also revealed himself to be the debate’s attack dog, with the aforementioned attack on Chow and accusations that Josh Matlow’s numbers don’t add up and that Matlow himself is a mid-town Nimby.

By launching broadsides against the progressive candidates, Bradford is doing Saunders a huge service. Bradford is far behind Saunders in the polls, and I think Bradford’s attacks are more likely to benefit Saunders than himself. If Saunders wins, he will be deeply indebted to the ambitious Bradford, who will want to be appointed deputy mayor, budget chief, or perhaps both positions.

More Severe Than Sincere

A decade ago, I recall Mitt Romney describing himself as “severely conservative.” The adjective came to mind when I watched Ana Bailao’s performance. Her overall message was that her political experience would enable her to negotiate more successfully with the provincial and federal governments and that she was better prepared for the job than the other candidates. Her personal narrative was simply that she was optimistic about Toronto when she came her as a fifteen-year-old immigrant, and she had reason to be more optimistic than current immigrants.

Her delivery struck me as severe, combative, and humourless, all exacerbated by her heavy dark-framed glasses. I was surprised that in a scrum after the debate and in an interview on CP24 the next day, she was much more relaxed, and even smiled. I’ve seen this many times before: a politician who seems like a decent person one-on-one, puffs him or herself up when on stage. Truly effective political communicators can maintain that sense of intimacy with large audiences; she can’t.

Idea Man

Josh Matlow came across as articulate and put forth lots of policy ideas including keeping libraries open on Sundays, tearing down the eastern end of the Gardiner Expressway, and taxing parking. In his closing statement, he expressed a willingness to work with the Premier when he had good ideas, but also his determination to stand up for Toronto on issues like the Greenbelt and the integrity of the waterfront (especially Ontario Place). What his presentation lacked was a strong personal narrative that connected his experience with his vision for the city.

Home Girl

Mitzi Hunter mentioned both her immigrant background and her substantial political experience, including several portfolios in Kathleen Wynne’s cabinet. Her proposals are similar to those of progressives like Chow and Matlow. Representing a Scarborough constituency in the Ontario Legislature, her proposals, such as a $7 billion extension to the subway in Scarborough, had a focus on that part of the city. Her slogan “Fix the Six,” which she repeated several times, seems like an attempt to appeal to young and minority voters. My guess is that her support is concentrated in Scarborough, which would be a valuable bargaining chip in a two-round election (which, of course, Toronto doesn’t have).

Learning to Like Olivia

I finished watching the debate having somewhat warmed up to Olivia Chow. I believe Toronto needs a progressive mayor, and I’m heartened that public opinion seems to be swinging in that direction as well. And I think Olivia Chow would be an acceptable candidate.

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