Go back to China.

She has the best grasp of the inner workings of City Hall among the top contenders for mayor. She has.

She has the best grasp of the inner workings of City Hall among the top contenders for mayor. She has the most political experience and the resume to prove it. In the spring she was the overwhelmingly popular option to save the city from Rob Ford.

But for most Torontonians, Olivia Chow just doesn’t fit the bill, according to public opinion polls. Too stiff. Too scripted. Maybe too Chinese. I know you didn’t want me to go there, Toronto. But the racist attacks have been a little too overt to ignore, haven’t they?

The question of race has certainly dominated the campaign discourse of late.

Chow is reluctant to comment on what effect the fact that she is a visible minority is having on her electoral chances. As she told NOW’s editorial board Monday, October 6, she’ll leave that to the pundits. She always says that when she doesn’t want to answer a question directly.

But much like the anti-gay undercurrent that helped kill George Smitherman’s chances against Ford in 2010, disdain for Chow’s foreigner status may carry more weight than we’d like to admit.

It’s an uncomfortable reality to contemplate for a city whose motto is “diversity our strength.” Maybe we’re not so world-class. Just how did a guy like Rob Ford with a track record of racist and homophobic remarks get elected in the first place anyway?

In 2010, voters knew about his Air Canada Centre tirade. They knew about his AIDS comments. His bigotry was no secret. They knew exactly what they were getting.

We’re seeing it again with brother Doug, now running in Rob’s stead. Or maybe it was a coincidence that his approval ratings shot up after that shit show about his Jewish doctor, lawyer and accountant at the CIJA-UJA debate Sunday, October 5? I can’t be prejudiced, Doug protested, stumbling to explain his brother’s “kike” comments. Some of my best friends are Jewish, including his wife according to the latest permutations of that narrative.

We’ve witnessed racist attacks against Chow at recent all-candidates debates of the kind not seen since the days when the white supremacist Heritage Front used to hold rallies at City Hall. Speaking of the Heritage Front, guess who was calling out Doug last week on the Jewish question? Why, none other than neo-Nazi Nationalist Party of Canada head case Don Andrews. But back to the Ford supporters calling Chow names….

First there was the Ford supporter who told Chow at the York Memorial debate two weeks ago to go back to China. Then at a debate at the Joseph J. Piccininni Community Centre on October 1, another Ford supporter cracked about Chow’s immigrant status and allegedly living off the taxpayers’ dime in “free council housing” when she served on Toronto council. (In fact, Chow lived in co-op housing.)

Should we be surprised when the mayor can get away with disparaging whole communities as “niggers,” “kikes” and “wops”? Members of the media expressed horror, but some among them had looked the other way in the early days of the Ford administration when he and his supporters routinely labelled critics communists, faggots or pedophiles.

Much has been written about how the Fords have given voice to the alienation and anger felt by those living in the burbs. Regular folk heroes they are. But clearly the Fords have also given licence to the bigots.

The ugly state of affairs has caused the Urban Alliance on Race Relations (UARR) to take the unprecedented step of urging the mayoral candidates to exercise restraint. When’s the last time that happened?

A statement issued September 26 says, “Racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic comments have no place in an election process,” as if that needed saying. Apparently it does in Toronto in 2014.

The statement also called on candidates “to campaign in a manner that is respectful, inclusive and welcoming of all Toronto residents.”

Truth is, the Chow attacks didn’t come out of nowhere. They’ve just become more visible and intense. Chow has been a target on Facebook, Twitter and the comment sections of mainstream newspapers since entering the race in March. A certain columnist at the Sun, for example, resorted to dog jokes when Chow announced she was running. “Every time I have a bit more profile, I see these,” Chow told NOW on Monday.

Yes, a vote for Chow is a vote for creeping jihad, or so says the sign of one Ford supporter who has followed her around at debates.

Chow let her anger show at the Piccininni debate, but she has otherwise been reluctant to call out her attackers. For her it’s a tricky proposition. “I don’t try to downplay it, but I don’t want to be seen as a victim.”

More subtle forms of racism have also been directed at Chow. For example, some people can’t seem to get over her English, which is perfectly intelligible, even though the palsy that’s paralyzed half her face sometimes messes with her pronunciation.

Politics is hard enough for women at the best of times.

For those who wonder why Chow has seemed uncharacteristically restrained, maybe a little standoffish during this campaign, political image-makers tell us women need to appear inoffensive if they want to win. If they get too assertive, they can be perceived as shrill. Turn the volume off and check out the body language next time you watch Chow on TV. It’s a fine line she’s walking.

Indeed, some of the most demeaning behaviour directed at Chow has come from her main opponents. It’s not what they’ve said so much as the dismissive quality of their words during even the most seemingly innocuous exchanges.

It’s been noted that neither Tory or Ford came to Chow’s defence when she was attacked at the York Memorial and Piccininni debates. Tory said something about the racist comments being unacceptable. Ford muttered about not condoning that kind of behaviour from his supporters.

But just a few days ago, Doug reprised his brother’s famous “Asians work like dogs” remark at a flag-raising at City Hall to honour China’s National Day. “They’re extremely hard-working people,” Doug said of the Chinese community. Implicit in that remark, of course, is that other immigrants aren’t.

On Saturday, October 4, Doug was at it again at a mosque in Rexdale, telling congregants that his father, the late PC MPP Doug Sr., once sponsored a child from Morocco, so “he understands my Muslim brothers and sisters.”

Little more than a week ago, some newspaper columnists suggested that Doug as mayor wouldn’t be such a bad thing. He’s more authentic than Tory, they said. He’s harmless – with just one vote on council, he would be marginalized like his brother. The devil you know and all that. They were just being contrarian, right? Sure, why not?

Olivia Chow says Doug Ford can’t win. So why are we scared shitless that he might?

enzom@nowtoronto.com | @enzodimatteo

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