With less than a week to go before Torontonians head to the polls to pick their next mayor, ex-NDP member of Parliament Olivia Chow is far and away the dominant contender. She is currently favoured to win the June 26 by-election by a large margin, with the support of between 30 and 38 per cent of decided voters.
Her nearest competitor, former police chief Mark Saunders, is in a distant second place, garnering less than half of Chow’s support in the polls. There have apparently been some fruitless backroom negotiations about candidates stepping out of the way and throwing their support behind a single opponent to fight Chow down to the wire, but in a telling display of her opponents’ self-described leadership skills, none have yet chosen to do so.
The poll numbers suggest that Torontonians are displeased with the direction that their city has taken, first under the reign of Rob Ford and then John Tory. The city is facing considerable problems, and many are in one way or another related to the housing crisis.
Here is a look at the leading candidates, and where they stand on the key issues.
Chow is the candidate who arguably has the most public-service credentials under her belt, with a career representing the people of Toronto (at the municipal and federal levels) that has spanned 29 years across four decades. Chow began working as a Toronto Board of Education trustee, then served 13 years as a Toronto councillor before making the jump into federal politics, where she represented the city’s Trinity-Spadina riding for just over eight years.
Chow’s mayoral platform addresses Toronto’s principle problem, the housing crisis, head on. She has promised to build 25,000 new rental homes on city-owned land, prevent renovictions by having the city purchase affordable housing and transferring them to non-profits, and provide additional support to renters. She has also committed to taxing luxury home owners and speculators.
Chow has also managed to effectively dodge attacks by her opponents on the issue of raising taxes to pay for increased and improved services. She has criticized her predecessors — both Ford and Tory — for tying property tax increases to the rate of inflation. Chow argues that Toronto’s $1.5 billion deficit is a direct consequence of this approach.
That Chow has managed to stay ahead of her conservative challengers despite the prospect of increased taxes is a strong indication that years of service cuts have done the city no favours.
In a seeming indication that Chow is ready for a fight with the Doug Ford government at Queen’s Park, she has stated her opposition to Ford’s plan to convert a large portion of Ontario Place into a private day spa, as well as his related project to move the Ontario Science Centre.
Mark Saunders, Toronto’s former police chief and a failed Progressive Conservative Party candidate, is Doug Ford’s pick, with the premier putting a Saunders campaign sign on his front lawn. Saunders has summarized his campaign in simple terms —“Stop Olivia Chow”— but the effectiveness of this approach seems doubtful given his poll numbers.
Saunders has promised to freeze taxes, increase funding for the police and rip up bike lanes. Whether Chow has any specific plans to defund the police is difficult to tell, but Saunders continues to insist that she does. Saunders spent 37 years with the Toronto Police Service (TPS), including five years as chief.
During his time as police chief, Saunders was criticized for his efforts to debunk fears of a serial killer targeting men in Toronto’s Gay Village in 2017 — fears that turned out to be legitimate — and appeared to put blame on members of the gay community for not coming forward with evidence. He was also subject to a police union vote of no confidence in 2018 over his decision to “modernize” the TPS, in a plan that apparently reduced the number of frontline officers.
It is difficult to get a clear sense of what Saunders wants to do for Toronto besides taking a “tough-on-crime” approach. His campaign slogan — "Protect Toronto’s Future" — emphasizes this, as does his nearly constant invocation of crime, public safety and security in his messaging. At times it seems as though Saunders is less interested in being mayor as he is in being police chief again.
If there is any race to speak of, it seems to be a question of who will shake out as the second, third and fourth place finishers. With more than 100 candidates in the race, most of those trailing Chow and Saunders will be looking at very small portions of the vote.
One of those candidates is Ana Bailão, a longtime city councillor who’s running on a platform of building more housing, fixing city services and affordability. Bailão has been criticized primarily for her track record as a city councillor and as deputy mayor to John Tory (who is expected to endorse her), as well as her connections to Conservative Party operators such as Nick Kouvalis, who also advised Rob Ford and served as his chief of staff.
Toronto Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie, who has been serving as interim mayor since Tory’s departure amid scandal in February, threw her support behind Bailão on June 16 in an apparent break from previous commitments to neutrality. Bailão was happy to take the endorsement.
Candidate Mitzie Hunter — a former provincial cabinet minister, short-term deputy premier and MPP with a career in community-focused non-profits — has proposed six per cent property tax increases over the next two years for those making more than $80,000 per year, and half of that for those making less.
She has also promised to form a coalition of Ontario mayors to lobby the provincial government to secure one per cent of the province's HST revenue as a municipal transfer, something she estimates would provide Toronto with $800 million in new funding.
Josh Matlow, a city councillor who was also active in the non-profit sector, has also advocated for property tax increases, and has further promised a three-year freeze on TPS’ budget in order to free up funds for social programs. He has argued against municipal financing programs that rely on provincial funding increases.
As the race heads into its final stretch, Anthony Furey appears to be jockeying for third place with the support of about 13 per cent of decided voters. Furey, a right-wing newspaper columnist, is chipping away at Saunders’ support.
Furey has proposed diverting funds away from the city’s climate action program to hire more police officers. He has also proposed abolishing safe injection sites, eliminating bike lanes on major city streets and is also proposing no new taxes despite promising to shore up the city’s finances.
Taylor C. Noakes is an independent journalist and public historian from Montreal.