Peggy Nash, veteran CAW negotiator, long-time human rights activist and NDP candidate for Parkdale-High Park, insists she never would have joined Jack Layton's socialist team if she hadn't believed there was a chance a New Democrat could win the southwest Toronto riding. But few political observers could have predicted that, with less than three weeks to go before Canadians go to the polls, the Parkside Drive resident would be well positioned to topple two-term incumbent Liberal MP Sarmite Bulte.
"There is just so much frustration out there," Nash says. "People obviously have a lot of different issues they're focusing on, but overall we are getting increasing support.'
That momentum got a huge boost when Mayor David Miller gave Nash his personal endorsement late last month. "In the past, federally, people in Parkdale-High Park have kind of automatically voted Liberal," says Miller, an NDPer who used to represent the western half of the constituency on city council.
"But I don't believe it's going to be the same this time," he adds. "Voters are seriously considering the alternatives. This is a riding where, if people want to hold the government accountable and have an MP who believes in city-building, they've got a real chance to elect one in Peggy Nash."
Also working in Nash's favour is the changing complexion of the community. Councillor Sylvia Watson, who represents the eastern half of Parkdale-High Park (Ward 12) at City Hall, points to the metamorphosis and says the NDP is the natural beneficiary.
"There's been a big demographic shift out there," says the former city solicitor. "The people who used to form the majority - Polish, Ukrainian and other European immigrants - have largely moved out of the area."
Those departed residents formed the core of support for Bulte, and Conservative candidate Jurij Klufas hopes to get their vote as well. But Watson, who is unaffiliated, notes that they've been replaced by an "arts-oriented crowd with a natural affinity for the NDP agenda." According to Watson, something else has also changed the riding's electoral perspective: "the politicization of the economically challenged south of Queen West."
In the past, these residents haven't had the habit of voting much. But Watson says they're getting increasingly involved in politics. And "the reality is, the social justice policies of the NDP are very appealing to them.'
This all bodes well for Nash, who has clearly made an impression on the Ward 12 councillor. "It wouldn't matter what party she's affiliated with," Watson suggests. "She impresses people as being concerned, willing to listen and willing to work hard for the community. I think that's a real strength."
And a real contrast to Bulte, who has been consistently knocked for failing to bond with a constituency that first elected her in 1997 after then prime minister Jean Chretien put her in position to win the Liberal nomination over potential candidates who actually lived in the riding.
"It's very difficult for local candidates to distinguish themselves unless they manage to get into cabinet," says one Grit organizer who once worked on Bulte's behalf, but passed on the Parkdale-High Park campaign this time out to concentrate on other Toronto ridings where the odds are better for Liberals.
Bulte's campaign manager, however, can't see how the Liberals' winning margin of 13,000 votes over the third-place NDP is suddenly going to evaporate. Ian MacMillan believes the Conservatives are the Grits' natural opposition and would be more of a concern if they had a stronger candidate in Parkdale-High Park.
"I'm not sure why the New Democrats think they're going to do a whole lot better than they did last time," he says. He agrees Nash has a lot of campaign workers in the riding, but that won't necessarily translate into an upset at the polls. And McMillan maintains that changing demographics actually play to Bulte's strength in the multicultural community.
"She's got a lot of roots down in the Parkdale area," he says. What's more of a concern to MacMillan right now is the Liberals' falling support in the polls. "I think there's a huge volunteer vote out there waiting to see how things develop," he says. "A lot depends on the national campaign. It's really up in the air, but all else being equal I would expect to win."
Nash says the message she's hearing at doors in the riding is that voters want an MP who can articulate their concerns in Ottawa on local issues that may not mesh with government policy. She points to all the federal foot-dragging that's so far prevented a definitive response to the city's rejection of a bridge to Toronto Island Airport as just one example.
The mayor, for one, is confident that will change if Parkdale-High Park voters choose Nash as their next MP. "The election is fluid. There's still almost three weeks left in the campaign, but so far she's done very, very well in getting support from a broad coalition,' he says.