Battle lines drawn as Chow enters mayor’s race

Lone progressive candidate lines up against a slate of right-wing contenders


The standard-bearer for Toronto’s left has finally entered the mayoral race, and she’s already facing fierce criticism from her conservative opponents.

After months of speculation, NDP Member of Parliament Olivia Chow resigned her seat in the House of Commons on Wednesday morning. An operative for her campaign quietly registered her for the municipal election in the afternoon at City Hall, and she will officially launch her candidacy Thursday morning at a church in the St. Jamestown neighbourhood where she grew up.

Chow’s entry follows the registration of prominent conservative candidates John Tory, Karen Stintz, and David Soknacki, all of whom hope to oust incumbent Mayor Rob Ford.

The former Trinity-Spadina MP is the only prominent left-wing contender and the final high-profile candidate expected to run in the marathon campaign that will end October 27.

Ford, who is hoping residents will overlook his series of drug- and gang-related scandals when they go to the polls, welcomed Chow to the contest Wednesday.

“This is the best news I’ve heard all day,” he said.

Chow is expected to challenge Ford for votes among lower-income and immigrant communities in the inner suburbs, but the mayor says he isn’t worried.

“My Ford Nation people – we’re not budging, we’re doing great,” he said.

As expected, Chow’s rivals moved quickly to paint the NDPer, who served on city council from 1991 to 2005, as a fiscally irresponsible “tax-and-spend” politician.

“How high is she gonna’ raise the taxes? How much money is she going to spend?” asked Councillor Doug Ford, the mayor’s brother and campaign manager.

“She’s never met a public dollar she couldn’t spend,” said Tory campaign spokesperson Amanda Galbraith in a written statement. “We welcome the contrast with John who is committed to keeping taxes low and building a more liveable, affordable, functional city.”

The Tory camp has already set up an attack website targeting Chow. It criticizes her for sending out self-promotional, taxpayer-funded mailers to constituents in her federal riding shortly before resigning to run for mayor. As an MP, she can send out four flyers a year to her constituents at no personal cost. The flyer dealt with local issues that were important to the mayor’s race but did not explicitly mention her candidacy.

Stintz also went on the attack Wednesday. “Toronto needs someone reasonable and accountable in the mayor’s chair, not someone who is going to perpetuate old-style ‘tax-and-spend’ attitudes,” she said in a statement.

“[Chow] has a history of being a double-dipper. First, when it came to housing and taxpayer salaries, and now, when it comes to securing her full Ottawa pension after just six years of MP service and then seeking the mayor’s salary.”

Stintz’s mention of “housing and taxpayer salaries” appears to be a reference to decades-old accusations that Chow and her husband, the late federal NDP leader Jack Layton, lived in subsidized housing in the 1980s despite making lucrative public incomes.

The communication director for Chow’s campaign calls Stintz’s statement “a 100 per cent lie.”

“Olivia and Jack lived in a co-op,” wrote Jamey Heath in an email. “They paid market rent and did not receive one penny in subsidy. Karen Stintz’s knowledge of housing, one of the city’s most important issues, is embarrassing.”

Meanwhile, reaction to Chow’s candidacy from sitting councillors was mixed.

Paula Fletcher, a left-wing council member, called Chow’s bid “good news for people who love this city” and hailed her as the much-needed antidote to four years of Ford’s chaotic conservative rule.

“It’s a bit of a game changer I think for the people who are very concerned about the current situation at City Hall,” said Fletcher. The Danforth councillor says that Chow’s experience as a federal MP and her record of working across party lines while she was a councillor will serve her well.

Councillor Ana Bailão declined to endorse any of the current candidates, but stated it was important to have someone in the race that reflects Toronto’s diversity. Chow is only the second mainstream female candidate and the only prominent non-white challenger for the mayor’s chair.

“Absolutely, I think that it’s significant,” Bailão said, noting that more than half the city’s population was born outside of Canada. “I think it’s important to bring that perspective, that voice, to the race. I’m really happy to see that happen.”

Councillor John Parker, a conservative, predicted that with the exception of the far-right Ford, all the major candidates are likely to vie for the same bloc of centrist voters. He expects Chow will have to shed her progressive values in order to win.

“I’m thinking that before this week is out Olivia Chow will be unable to recognize the colour orange and she will not remember that she was ever a member of the NDP,” Parker said, in a reference to the New Democrats’ party colours.

But Councillor Pam McConnell is confident Chow will be an uncompromising champion for the left.

“Olivia’s a progressive leader and we’re proud of that,” she said. “I think the mistake that is sometimes made is that people try to change themselves. Olivia is Olivia, and as such she’s a strong candidate for mayor and I expect that she’s the mayor that Torontonians will seek.”

bens@nowtoronto.com | @BenSpurr

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