Toronto’s Mayor: Fear Unites, Hope Divides

Toronto’s on my mind. First, I’m joining the debate about the Ontario Science Centre and Ontario Place with an op-ed to appear in The Globe and Mail. When it does, I’ll link it to this blog.

I’m also watching the mayoral by-election. The Mainstreet Research poll conducted in mid-April gave Councillor Josh Matlow 18 percent of decided voters, former Councillor Ana Bailao 17 percent, former Councillor and NDP MP Olivia Chow 16 percent, and former Chief of Police Mark Saunders 13 percent. However, it didn’t say what percentage of those polled were undecided. A Liaison Strategies poll done a week later showed that a full 43 percent were undecided, and that the top three candidates are Olivia Chow (13 percent), Josh Matlow (12 percent), and Mark Saunders (11 percent).

The Candidate of Fear

In my most recent post about the campaign, I concluded that Ford Nation would likely unite behind one candidate, but it seems I had the wrong candidate. Brad Bradford was first out of the gate with a website and platform, but the Ford Nation candidate getting the attention and support now is Mark Saunders. Emphasizing his background, Saunders is running on a public safety platform. His slogan: Protect Toronto’s Future. His claim is that, at least on the TTC, “crime is out of control.” His solutions include more special constables and more technology.

To understand his campaign, you should watch his ninety-second campaign video on YouTube. The message is in the anxious, scary music punctuated by sirens and “American carnage” images. Saunders’ words – “gun violence, lawlessness, it’s out of control,” “we need more mental health supports, but we need to start with the rule of law,” and “enough is enough” – reinforce the soundtrack. Saunders also takes a swipe at bike lanes, a Ford Nation dog-whistle.

Saunders has started off running a fear campaign. Whether his policy focus broadens remains to be seen. At this point, it appears unlikely, as he is criticizing other candidates for even raising issues, like the Ontario Science Centre (OSC), other than safety. It seems that his campaign strategists believe playing on fear and positioning him as The Man will be sufficient to win.

Plenty of Policy

Ana Bailao and Josh Matlow, the two current frontrunners with Liberal party affiliations, have much broader and more optimistic platforms than Saunders. The three legs of Bailao’s platform are services, housing, and affordability. She stands out from the other candidates – but not in a good way – by supporting the Ford Government’s initiative to build housing on the OSC site and move the OSC to Ontario Place. She also proposes enhanced food security and home health care for seniors programs, a public safety program focusing on the TTC, and demanding, though without any leverage, that the province relieve the city of the maintenance costs of the Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway.

Josh Matlow’s policies include $200 million in funding to support Toronto’s climate goals, a $115 community health and safety fund to address the root causes of violent crime, a $300 million affordable housing initiative, restoring TTC service to pre-pandemic levels, and determined opposition to moving the OSC to, and building the Therme Spa, at Ontario Place. At this stage in the campaign when platforms are being unveiled, Matlow’s is most ambitious and expensive.

Yesterday’s Woman?

Olivia Chow, the other frontrunner, has high recognition from her career as a city councillor from 1992 to 2005, an NDP MP from 2006 to 2014, and spouse of the late federal NDP leader Jack Layton. She started the 2014 mayoral campaign in the lead but finished third, deserted by many progressives who voted for John Tory to prevent Doug Ford from succeeding his brother. Her loss in the 2015 federal election was a similar story, as progressive voters swung to the Liberals to defeat Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

Chow’s website is light on policy so far, with a profile that describes her goal as “mak[ing] the city more caring, affordable and safer for everyone” and nothing that would spell out how this would be achieved. Chow is 66, a generation older than Matlow, 48, and Bailao, 47. The profile on her website states that “since 2016, Olivia has focused on training the next generation of progressive leaders to make change in their communities” by founding and serving as executive director of the Institute for Change Leaders at Toronto Metropolitan University. Chow is thus leaving her new role as mentor and elder to take one last shot at political leadership.

Some Fearless Predictions

A week is a long time in politics, and there are still eight weeks to go before the election. With that caveat, here are some predictions.

Ford Nation support is coalescing around Mark Saunders, foretelling a rise in his poll numbers. High-visibility incidents of violence, particularly on the TTC, or the murder of a police officer would give his campaign enormous oxygen.

Ana Bailao’s support for the Ford Government on moving the OSC to Ontario Place has lost her support among progressives without gaining any support among Ford Nation. I think her campaign is already in trouble.

Olivia Chow hopes that her public profile, along with strong support from NDP-affiliated voters, will put her ahead of both Mark Saunders and the several Liberal-affiliated candidates. If Saunders’s support increases, there will be increasing pressure among progressives, which includes both Liberals and NDPers, to vote strategically. Olivia Chow would like to present herself as Toronto’s Hillary Clinton, a familiar face and trusted pair of hands. But age and overexposure may work against her, and she could lose a third campaign to strategic voting. I would bet against her.

One response to “Toronto’s Mayor: Fear Unites, Hope Divides”


    Why would you characterize Bailao as progressive? She was a fully subscribed member of John Tory’s governing bloc. Like Tory she has the ability to use progressive sounding language, while actually being quite regressive. A recent article highlighted the support she is receiving from developers, a red flag if anything.

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