As the September 14 by-election approaches in Parkdale-High Park, it's hard to find much evidence of a movement to punish Dalton McGuinty's Libs - which makes the race to replace wannabe PM Gerard Kennedy all the more shocking.
The fact is, the premier's hand-picked, high-achieving candidate, Sylvia Watson, is actually at risk of losing to Cheri DiNovo, a radical reverend who ministers to a rainbow congregation of middle-class parishioners, the transgendered, drug addicts and the poor - and an electoral novice.
To understand this seemingly contradictory political state of affairs, you have to understand the players: Watson, a former lawyer in the municipal legal department and current city councillor for half the area; and DiNovo, riding the momentum of a local NDP that took Peggy Nash to power in the last federal election.
Oddly, one of the NDP's best advantages may be the personality of the Liberal candidate herself. Evidently, it's hard for a litigator to change her stripes, and Watson is known for her hard edges, bulldog focus and low charisma rating.
Some find this no-nonsense approach laudable, particularly colleagues who have worked with her on City Hall's budget committee, where she reputedly didn't fall for financial flim-flammery, no matter how worthy the program.
"She doesn't work well with the community touchy-feely types because she gets down to brass tacks,' says one insider. But with money so tight, "you need someone like that,' he says.
Other councillors are less charitable. Councillor Joe Mihevc, for example, still feels the bruises from the beating he received as a TTC commissioner trying to get a bit of extra dough for the Rocket. "She was extremely hostile to public transit and to the TTC in particular,' Mihevc says, recalling that her questioning of TTC staff was more in the nature of a cross-examination than an inquiry.
Watson's relations with some of the residents' associations in her ward have been just as rocky. Her constituents have slagged her for being disrespectful of citizen groups.
Perhaps the most notorious dust-ups between councillor and locals took place over her move to turn a stand of willows on the waterfront over to parking for the Palais Royale.
Michael Craig of the Sunnyside Residents Association, though supporting the NDP, says both women have a history of getting things done, and either would make a good provincial rep. But, he adds, if Watson loses, it will be her own fault. "She has ruffled a lot of feathers because of her manner,' Craig says. "Her approach is so brusque and resentful of community input that she has alienated a lot of people.'
Of course, only a fraction of the approximately 100,000 people who can vote in this riding are tuned in enough to have picked up on Watson's rep. After all, she's sensitive enough for June Callwood, one of her high-profile supporters.
And the mouthiest constituents appear to be in the Parkdale part of a riding that's bordered by the lake on the south, the Humber on the west and by the CPR tracks on the north. As well as the rough-and-tumble of Queen and Lansdowne - the heart of Parkdale - the riding also includes tonier areas in the north such as swanky Swansea, where you can see Grenadier Pond through the trees.
Despite rumours of her imminent defeat, it's a defiant Watson who sidles into the seat opposite mine at a coffee shop down the street from her office at Bloor and Keele. Though quick with a smile, she sits toward the edge of her chair, as if ready to spring forward at the hint of an untoward query.
There's a kind of argumentativeness in the way she emphasizes the final few words of a sentence, as when she explains her stormy relationship with citizen groups.
"There is a small group of people, and that very small group has its own ideas of what they would like to see. I'm not sure that humouring people or leading them along is fair or reasonable,' says Watson, who's campaigning on the billions the Liberals have put into health care and public transit.
As for her aggressive questioning of Mihevc and TTC staff, she says, "Joe is a great advocate. As far as he's concerned, you can't spend enough on the TTC. But there are a lot of competing requests. I want to make sure the public gets value for money.'
If Watson pulls off a shocker and lets Parkdale-High Park slip from the Liberal fold, it will be because of a candidate whose arrival on the ballot comes via an unlikely route from youthful Marxism to adult business success and latterly the sacred ministry of a United Church on Roncesvalles.
It's a most improbable community that DiNovo has built at Emmanuel Howard Park United Church, but one that's perfectly Toronto, sculpted out of the many pieces of the flotsam and jetsam of our urban humanity. I remember celebrating Eid there last year with a group of gay Muslims unable to find a mosque who'd host them.
The tired Ontario NDP caucus needs a free spirit like DiNovo, who still shows the good posture and physical poise learned in childhood ballet classes.
When I meet her at her campaign office on Dundas West in the Junction area, I suggest that she could do more good as a preacher of conscience than as one of nine MPPs stuck in a corner of the Ontario legislature. Not so, she says. The provincial perch will give more reach than her pulpit for tackling issues important to her riding, and the opposition offered by the tiny NDP caucus is disproportionate to its size, she argues.
DiNovo has made the Liberals' proposed investment in new nuclear plants the centrepiece of her doorstep come-on. "We're making this a big issue,' she tells me in her campaign office, a former bank at Dundas West and Pacific in the Junction area.
Among those lending their names to her campaign are Kennedy's successor at the Daily Bread Food Bank, Sue Cox, and Halima Saad, executive director of the Somali Canadian Women's Association.
Handing out the same Greenpeace and company anti-nuke lit as DiNovo is Green candidate and Ontario party leader Frank de Jong. When I ask him whether eco-energy fans might be better off supporting the NDP, since its candidate has the best chance of beating Watson, he demurs.
Also in the race is PC candidate David Hutcheon, a pre-amalgamation city councillor who hopes to rehabilitate his party's brand. "John Tory and I are Bill Davis Tories,' Hutcheon emphasizes. "We are progressive Conservatives.'
But if DiNovo wins on September 14, it won't be tried and true party policy that sends her to victory but a combo of personal appeal and political circumstance. For one thing, there's the Nash factor. The NDP's victory in the last federal election has bequeathed DiNovo not only an emboldened riding association but also the canvassers and popular MP to go with it.
With an up-to-date list of NDP supporters from the last federal count and a traditionally low by-election turnout, the situation for the social democrats is as good as it gets.