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Photo by Steve Russell / Getty Images
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It's arrived: the post-Labour Day push, the moment of truth in mayoral race 2014.
Folks aren't supposed to begin paying attention to municipal elections until after Labour Day. Let's not kid ourselves: a lot of voters have already made up their minds.
In some ways it's beginning to look a lot like 2010 all over again, when some nobody named Rob Ford was in first place through the dog days of summer and pretty much stayed there. Only this time it's John Tory on the top rung. Olivia Chow, ahead in the spring, has unexpectedly dropped to third. Barring any weird scenes, like a huge miscue by Tory, this thing could already be over.
Have you read the latest from Forum Research? I'm not talking about the poll putting Ford in a solid second and (supposedly) on the comeback trail. (More on that later.) I'm talking about the one suggesting that Torontonians favour euthanizing raccoons. That was after the mayor cracked wise last week about the pesky critters terrorizing the masses. The raccoon problem seems to typify the state of our local politics. Maybe RoFo is right: all people really expect municipal government to do is to pick up their garbage without 'coons jacking it. World-class we are.
But back to the moment at hand and the mission critical Chow finds herself in. There's no denying she's the underdog now, just like she's been her whole career - or at least that's the narrative coming from her camp.
Now there's a real possibility of Chow being the odd person out in what was supposed to be a two-way race between her and Tory. What if the next poll shows her support declining further still?
Chow has been a fighter all her life. But the real danger for her is that downtown progressives and liberals, big L and small, freaked at the prospect of another Ford victory, could abandon her for Tory. On Tuesday, September 2, Tory was in Scarborough copping an endorsement from Liberal cabinet minister Brad Duguid, who professed "an incredible amount of enthusiasm" among his caucus colleagues for Tory. Who do you think Tory's old friend Premier Kathleen Wynne is rooting for?
At Chow campaign headquarters on Yonge south of St. Clair, meanwhile, the post-Labour Day campaign push emphasized winning those progressives back.
To that end, Chow announced a 1 per cent boost in the land transfer tax on homes and condos over $2 million to fund expanded school nutrition programs and study the downtown relief line, a project Chow had up until this point dismissed as too expensive.
Former United Way CEO and Metrolinx board member Frances Lankin was on hand to lend her support to the initiative and endorse Chow. Already bringing out the big guns? Fiona Nelson, the long-time former school board chair, dropped by unannounced, too, to add to the political theatre. It was under Nelson that Chow championed nutrition programs as trustee back in the 80s. Earlier in the day, a revamped web page was launched focusing not only on improving transit but also on kids' programs and youth unemployment.
However, the mood was decidedly off in the room among campaign volunteers trying to escape notice. Campaign director John Laschinger was on the phone, hunched in a doorway outside, during most of Chow's presser.
Later in the day a Nanos Research poll confirmed the stampede to Tory, showing him at 42 per cent, with a 14-point lead over Ford at 28, and Chow at 26.
Politicians say summer polls are more volatile and can't be trusted. But as Laschinger pointed out in a August 28 fundraising letter to supporters, the widening gap in favour of Tory is particularly worrisome and can't be ignored when it's higher than the margin of error.
How did it all go sideways for Chow? Some have blamed her flat-footed performance at debates. But there were signs earlier this summer that Chow's base was already deserting her when on June 30 the Libs handily took Chow's old seat in the Trinity-Spadina federal byelection that she gave up to run for mayor.
But it's also true she's finding it hard making inroads in those suburban pockets she needs to win. Transit has become the big ticket, and on that front Chow's plans for expanded bus service to deal with congestion now are modest compared to Tory's SmartTrack and Ford's "subways, subways, subways."
You'd think Chow's call for expanded nutrition programs for kids and youth employment would resonate outside the core where a recent report found stifling poverty at "epidemic" levels in some parts of the inner burbs. But there the economy and property taxes are bigger concerns. The tax-and-spend socialist label is sticking to Chow, however unfairly.
Chow is finding out that campaigning in a federal riding is a completely different animal from running city-wide. Both Ford and Tory have the advantage there. Conservative Tory, as former head of CivicAction and before that Ontario PC leader, has experience campaigning on a larger scale.
The Chow campaign has also made a number of uncharacteristic missteps as well. First was trying to position Chow out of the gate as the only one who could beat Ford. Tory's emergence in the lead quickly put the lie to that notion.
Before Joe Cressy left the fold to run for the Chow's old seat in Trinity-Spadina, the talk was of selling Chow as the progressive candidate. After four years of Ford's gutter politics, it's arguable that voters, particularly those in racialized communities suffering under stifling poverty in the inner burbs, would be looking for someone with vision thing to lift them up.
But somewhere along the line the decision was made to sell Chow as a pragmatist. And so the narrative of her immigrant roots and growing up watching every penny became the focal point. As a result, she's looked out of sorts and heavily scripted more often than not.
There were a few bad strategic decisions as well. Chow's not calling for Ford's resignation was a calculated political move. Obviously his presence in the race helped Chow in that it peeled votes from Tory. But it also made Chow look hypocritical. More importantly it helped position Tory as the anti-Ford candidate.
The recruiting of former Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella also proved a disaster.
He exited the campaign under a cloud last week after he essentially called Tory a racist because his SmartTrack proposal would bypass Rexdale and Jane and Finch.
Kinsella was supposed to be a conduit to Liberal partisans, who no longer care for him much, as well as Ford Nation (he writes a column for the Sun and is a regular contributor on Sun News Network). Truth be told, more than a few Chow insiders were always leery about whether he'd be a good fit. Some say his ego was behind attacks on Tory, the man he once supported for mayor. Now Kinsella's musing publicly about Chow not having his back in the Tory dustup, which can only mean he may be planning to exact his own political payback, which would certainly be true to form for him.
For Chow there's still the all-important TV ads period to help turn things around. If you believe Nanos, 16 per cent of voters are still undecided.
The possibility of a Ford win is still remote. Ford's ceiling is 30 per cent. For Tory, the issue is whether he can withstand the barrage that will invariably come nearer the finish now that he's the clear frontrunner.
Maybe some of us overestimated Chow. But I wonder how much her heart can still be in it given the dramatic turn. Conservative media commentators are already beating the drums for her to drop out.