So-called "swing" ridings have a history of deciding which political party wins an election and forms a government. And, as luck would have it, a number of Toronto ridings could end up swinging the October 2 provincial vote. Scarborough Southwest and Willowdale are two of them. Events in these suburban districts are all the more intriguing because they're the domains of two members of Premier Ernie Eves's Tory cabinet. Dan Newman, the associate minister of health and long-term care is the MPP for Scarborough Southwest, and David Young, the minister of municipal affairs and housing, represents Willowdale at Queen's Park.
Both are considered beatable and are being targeted by strong Liberal challengers: Lorenzo Berardinetti, a long-time city councillor, and David Zimmer, chair of the Toronto Community Housing Corporation.
Scarborough Southwest: This riding stretches from Eglinton and the CN Rail corridor in the north to Lake Ontario in the south. It extends east from Victoria Park to the intersection of Hwy 2 and the CN Rail line. Newman turf since the Tories swept to power under Mike Harris in 1995, it was NDP and Liberal territory before that. In 1999, Newman was re-elected by a margin of just 2,357 ballots over Liberal Adrian Heaps.
But the NDP candidate, Michael Yorke, made a respectable third place showing with more than 23 per cent of the vote. Newman is clearly counting on the NDP to help him hold off the Liberals again this time out, with Barbara Warner - daughter of former Scarborough MPP and speaker of the House David Warner - as the party's candidate. "She's out there working hard, and I think they'll do well," Newman said this week. "They've got a strong base of support. At least the NDP is consistent."
But Berardinetti, who's been knocking on doors in the riding for more than a year, says voters are wise to the Tories' vote-splitting strategy, and introduces some seasoned former socialists as key players on his campaign team.
"The overriding message I'm getting in the riding is that people want change," he said. "The difference this time is that we're getting a lot of help from the unions that traditionally back the NDP. They saw what happened four years ago and they're not prepared to let it happen again."
But Newman is convinced his record of "good constituency work" combined with Eves's reputation as party leader will put him over the top.
"I think for the most part people have made up their minds and it's based on the issue of leadership," the two-term MPP says during a lunch-hour interview in his Kingston Road campaign office Tuesday. He's not bothered by the most recent polls that show the Conservatives well back of the Grits again.
But Berardinetti tells a different story. He says the voters he talks to are insulted by the Tory attack ads and turned off by Eves's flip-flops on policy positions he took during the Conservative leadership campaign.
"People are not as stupid as the premier thinks they are," he contends. During a brief stop at his Kingston Road election headquarters, several senior citizens drop in to express similar sentiments and leave armed with campaign signs for their front yards.
"I've been involved in five municipal campaigns and I've helped with some past provincial races, and I can't recall people coming in for signs on a daily basis and volunteering to help in any way they can," Berardinetti says.
Willowdale: This affluent residential riding in north Toronto runs south from Steeles to Hwy 401 between Bathurst and Victoria Park. It has a large Jewish community, an immigrant population of nearly 50 per cent and the third-largest number of seniors in the province. Charles Harnick, the former Tory attorney general, wrested the seat from the Liberals in 1990 and was re-elected in 95. Young, a lawyer, took over for the Conservatives in 1999 after a close two-way race (22,200 votes to 18,579) with Liberal Fahimeh Mortazavi. The NDP candidate was well back in third place with 1,871 votes, and the party is not expected to make gains in the current contest billed as "The Battle of the Davids." The question now being posed is, will Willowdale voters put their X beside the Y or the Z?
"The campaign is going marvellously well - even better than we thought it would," says Zimmer. "We have every expectation that the riding is going to swing back to the Liberals," says the lawyer and one-time deputy chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
Zimmer maintains that health care and education are the hot-button issues in Willowdale. But many voters also blame Queen's Park for the declining state of their city as a result of the additional municipal costs associated with amalgamation. "It doesn't translate into any personal animosity toward David Young, who is well-regarded as a very principled man," Zimmer says. "But they feel his party deserves to take a hit."
Young insists he's not picking up any sense that his constituents feel betrayed by the Tory government. "I've still got lots of support out there.' He says taxes are the issue he's hearing about on the campaign trail. According to the municipal affairs minister, he's getting a very positive response to the premier's mortgage interest deductibility plan and seniors' education property tax rebates.
Funny, but he fails to mention what some see as his biggest political advantage in the campaign. Young's name will be listed ahead of Zimmer's on the ballot two weeks from today. We'll wait to see if that swings things.