The Toronto municipal election campaign formally kicks off this week on May 1 — meaning candidates are free to start registering, raising money and campaigning. It will be a shorter campaign than the past few (which began on Jan. 1 of their respective years), but still quite a long slog to election day on Oct. 22.
Beware anyone who says they already know what the results will be: whole gardens will bloom and die between now and election day, an entire provincial election will happen in the meantime, almost the entire Blue Jays baseball season — over 100 games — will be played. If a week can be a lifetime in politics (just ask Patrick Brown), then whole generations of change could happen over the next six months. Still, it may be helpful, starting at the beginning, to look at what to expect.
So far, this year’s mayoral race appears to be a bit of a snooze, with no obvious threats to John Tory’s re-election. Doug Ford had been promising to run against Tory from the right, but he changed track to try to become premier when the chance opened up. No other likely conservative challengers are apparent.
Maybe more surprisingly, the progressive establishment of Liberals, NDP and unaffiliated urbanists in Toronto, which has spent rather more time vocally criticizing Tory throughout his first term, also appears to be standing down. A list of high-profile councillors, politicians, business people and bureaucrats who have been expected (or urged) to consider running have all so-far decided to sit the race out, most assuming that, as history suggests, Tory is unbeatable.
Which isn’t to say he is unbeatable — as I said, a lot can happen in six months. The recent Montreal mayoral election, in which Denis Coderre was widely expected to walk into re-election before the relatively obscure Valerie Plante rose up to trounce him in a six-week campaign, offers an example for those considering a challenge.
It’s possible that someone with a political base — a sitting councillor, a former bureaucrat, a provincial or federal politician — could decide to run at the last minute. It’s possible events in the city (some high-profile issue or scandal coming to the fore) would make the race suddenly look inviting.
It’s also possible — not likely, but possible — that as in Plante’s case or that of Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, someone considered a long-shot can catch lightning in a bottle and become the little candidate that could, building a grassroots campaign into a movement that sweeps to victory.
The thing about those kind of unexpected campaign swings, though, is that they are unexpected — it’s almost impossible to predict the emergence and success of someone you don’t yet know about. So for the time being, it appears the mayor will run against a long list of unknown long-shot candidates (including Sarah Climenhaga who announced her intention to register the minute nominations open).
In most years, that might promise to make it a bit of a blah election. The mayor sets the agenda for city council, and the mayoral election generally determines the broad outlines of what will be on that agenda.
But after the election’s over, the city council actually controls the city, with or without the mayor’s leadership and co-operation (we’ve seen a council defy and then take over from a mayor, dramatically, in the recent example of Rob Ford’s administration). Ultimately, council is the supreme decision-maker in the city. And this year, the balance of power on city council appears to be up for grabs.
Partly this is because the power of incumbency — which usually sees almost all sitting councillors re-elected — is diminished somewhat in this particular campaign, in a few of ways.
First of all, council is growing by three seats (from 44 to 47). In addition, the new ward boundaries created in the same process mean two sitting councillors will face off against each other in the west end. The combined effect is that there are three seats downtown and one in North York where no incumbent councillor exists.
Secondly, an abnormally large number of sitting councillors will not be seeking re-election. Two seats have appointed fill-in councillors for incumbents who died this term, and both of those fill-ins vowed not to run when they took office. Another councillor is stepping down because of a self-imposed two-term limit. An additional three councillors are running for provincial office, which could leave their council seats open.
Then you have wards where the sitting councillor is embroiled in controversy or has had an undistinguished term after winning by a slight margin last time — less sure bets, but you have another few potentially close races depending on who is doing the prediction.
Add it up, and you have something like nine to 14 ward races that will very likely be open to new blood.
This on a city council where many of the most controversial votes — the ones that will shape the city for decades to come — were decided by margins of three to five votes.
So this year’s council races will be especially important to the city’s future. Canvassing progressive councillors about mayoral possibilities over the past year or two, I’ve heard a lot about a focus on the council races. A group called Progress Toronto has formed to advocate for progressive council candidates and to push certain issues citywide, in part to help define an election in which the mayoral race appears to be already sewn up.
At least it looks that way today. Like I said, a lot can happen during a long campaign. But with the nominations officially open, it can start happening now.
Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire