Bold vs. Bland: Toronto’s Mayoral Election and the Challenge of City-building

This post is part of the Urban Affairs Forum Local Elections Scholars Series.  If you are interested in writing about local elections in the places you live or study, contact Mirya Holman at mholman@tulane.edu.

By Sara Hughes

Toronto has been called “the most fascinating totally boring city in the world.” Despite its low crime rate, the over-half internationally born residents, and the fact that it is one of the fastest growing cities in North America, many residents appear comfortable with incremental change or, perhaps even better, no change at all.

This preference was on full display in the city’s recent mayoral election. The two major candidates, Rob Ford and Jennifer Keesmaat, are almost caricatures of the competing Torontos: safe but boring, or bold but risky.

Toronto’s election was held October 22, 2018 against two important backdrops. First, the city is facing a looming financial crisis. With rapid growth, aging infrastructure, and decreased spending from provincial and federal governments, the city faces rising costs and new spending demands. The city has simultaneously been steadfast over the last decade in its refusal to raise revenue. This disconnect between revenue and the city’s needs prompted outgoing City Manager Peter Wallace to identify in March of this year a $1.42 billion budget gap by 2023 without major policy change.

Second, six weeks prior to the municipal election, newly-seated Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a plan to reduce city council from 47 to 25 members. This was a single-handed and totally unexpected redistricting of a city of three million people. Up in court, the move sent councillors scrambling to register and update their campaigns. The Premier’s actions also prompted Keesmaat to enter the mayoral race, where Tory had previously been running largely unopposed.

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John Tory was first elected mayor in 2014, on the heels of Rob Ford’s scandalous tenure. The city was justifiably eager for a steady hand, and Tory offered this in full measure. A businessman and previous leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party, he ran in 2014 on a transit plan that promised relief for downtown commuters and investment in commuter rail. He won with 40% of the vote, relying heavily on downtowners, defeating Doug Ford (now Ontario Premier) and left-leaning candidate Olivia Chow.

Tory has been a generally popular mayor and entered the 2018 election with an approval rating above 50%. Committed to compromise and middle-of-the-road solutions, his previous campaign focused on small ways to make the city better with a “Leadership That Works” slogan.

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Toronto mayor John Tory

His 2018 campaign promised more of the same, including:

  • No property tax rate increases
  • Continuing modest programs to increase affordable housing
  • Continuing to pursue new transit projects, including a hybrid option for the Gardiner and a controversial one-stop subway extension to Scarborough
  • Investment in gun safety

Tory’s overall approach and his 2018 campaign focused on effectiveness, but also nearly guaranteed that the city would do very little to address its revenue problems.

Prior to her career in city government, Jennifer Keesmaat was a professional planner and a partner at a progressive urban design firm based in Toronto. In 2012 John Tory appointed her as the city’s Chief Planner, a move that shook up the city’s weakened planning department. As chief planner, she was an outspoken champion of progressive programs such as community-led redevelopment, complete streets, and bike lanes. She publicly opposed several of Tory’s own positions, particularly related to transportation planning. The two famously faced off on the question of what to do with the city’s Gardiner Expressway, an aging artefact that cuts through downtown near the waterfront. Keesmaat advocated for tearing down the eastern portion to build a boulevard, while Tory supported a hybrid-approach that would leave the expressway intact.

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Jennifer Keesmaat

Doug Ford’s announcement in July of this year to shrink the Toronto city council elicited what some saw as a weak protest from Tory and prompted Keesmaat to enter the mayoral race. She registered as a candidate with minutes to spare and scrambled to quickly put together a team and platform. Her campaign ultimately picked up many of her ideas as Chief Planner, including:

  • New taxes on high-value residential property
  • Tearing down the eastern portion of the Gardiner to build a waterfront boulevard
  • Building affordable housing on city-owned golf courses, parking lots, and subway stations
  • Gender-responsive budgeting and gender parity at City Hall

In the end, Tory won the election handily, receiving 63% of the vote to Keesmaat’s 24%.

What does it mean that the city enthusiastically re-elected a candidate referred to as “bland” by every major news outlet, from the Globe and Mail to the Toronto Sun to the National Post? The city’s reputation as the world’s most boring city has political foundations. Tory was largely seen as the more practical choice, the one more likely to achieve admittedly modest goals. Pieces of Keesmaat’s platform may have resonated with voters, but she struggled to convince them she could deliver. Given the sharp right turn the provincial government has taken, some though Tory to be more likely to forge a workable partnership.

The election underscores the reticence of many Torontonians to embrace a bold vision for the city, and to elect leaders with big ideas. As the city faces down its financial future, it will need to make tough decisions, and without creative ideas the solution may well generate greater affordability problems and gaps in public services. Only time will reveal which is the riskier strategy: bland or bold.

Photo by Dan Newman on Unsplash

Sara Hughes is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, with a cross-appointment at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. Her research and teaching focus on urban politics and policy with an emphasis on water and climate change. More of her work can be found here: https://saramhughes.com/

 

 

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