In the riding of Davenport, wedged between St. Clair, King, Ossington and Keele, local voters are choosing between two candidates who made their mark at City Hall over the last decade.
Incumbent MP and former councillor Mario Silva sat behind the fuzzy blue rope before leaving for a federal Liberal seat in 2004. NDP challenger Gord Perks was a fixture on the other side of the fuzzy blue rope in the public gallery as an environmental lobbyist.
Of the two, it's undoubtedly Perks who made the most indelible impression on the public consciousness. He was, after all, the man captured by news cameras during the 1990 provincial election who, handcuffed to a briefcase containing a tape recording of broken Liberal environmental promises, hounded former Ontario premier David Peterson. For this, he's widely credited with sparking the downfall of the Peterson regime.
At the time, he was a Greenpeace staffer. His more recent work has been with the Toronto Environmental Alliance, where he was instrumental in establishing the windmill, the green bin program and the pesticide ban. Silva's political career at City Hall is noteworthy for less impressive reasons namely, the raft of developers who lined up to fund his re-election campaigns.
Perks' call to federal politics, he tells me, was a natural extension of his activism. "It's the difference between what politicians say and what I knew as an activist was really happening. I've always thought it's the duty of someone who sees that breach to highlight it."
Silva, from the other side of the fishbowl, hung out on the left side of the Mel Lastman camp. As a councillor, he supported many environmental initiatives and resisted the drive to demonize the homeless. On the other hand, he pushed for the Island Airport expansion, the Front Street extension and the Union Station lease.
Silva won by 5,000 votes over NDP newbie Rui Pires in 2004. Pires was a first-time candidate without much of a profile outside his Portuguese base. Silva's mediocre showing may also have had something to do with how he came to run in Davenport in the first place pushing aside long-time incumbent Charles Caccia, last of the Trudeau Liberals, one of the party's leftmost and best-liked members.
Now Perks is banking on widespread dissaffection with the Martin Liberals to yield him a win. His profile in the riding was raised by his active involvement in the controversial St. Clair streetcar right-of-way debate. There's a glimmer of hope for Perks in the analysis of Michael Marzolini, former Liberal pollster and head of Pollara Inc. Marzolini believes the growing discontent with the Grits across the board could be a boon for lefties.
"As people are turned off the Liberals in the rest of the province they're going PC - but here they're parking with the NDP or Green party." In the case of Davenport, he says, the seat "has always been Liberal, with a tendency to go toward the NDP." And while the significant Portuguese vote (the riding has the province's largest Portuguese community) has traditionally been Liberal, Marzolini notes that the demographics are changing, and second- and third-generation Portuguese voters are "more likely to consider the NDP."
Nonetheless, Silva is confident because of Davenport's history as a Liberal enclave. "People are faithful to Liberal principles here," he says of a riding that receives more immigrants than any other in Ontario most, these days, from China and India.
"We represent the balanced approach," says Silva, himself born into a working-class Portuguese family. Facing a green opponent, he defends the Grits' Kyoto record by noting that Martin put $1 billion toward windmill construction.
Still, he ultimately believes environmentalism has limited resonance in Davenport. "A single-issue candidate isn't going to win here," he says. "The issues are very complex. Immigration - that's the work I do."
But Perks thinks the Libs have done a terrible job at immigration reform. "There are currently 700,000 immigration applications pending," he says. "I've come across so many horror stories of people whose refugee application processes are in a mess. The system is so backlogged that people's futures are left hanging. Liberals try not to talk about the Martin cuts to settlement programs," Perks says.
His greatest ire is reserved for the environmental status quo. "A Liberal talking about Kyoto is appalling," he tells me. "All they did was sign a piece of paper. Canada's emissions have been increasing twice as fast as the U.S.'s" But what about the windmills, one of his pet issues? "The liberal policy on windmills is just hot air," he says, then pauses before a self-aware chuckle. "Sorry, I had to."
As to whether enviro issues sell at the doorstep, Perks is convinced they do. When canvassing, he most often underlines his environmental lobbying with TEA. "Google me," is his answer to why someone should vote for him instead of the Green party, which pulled in over 1,000 votes last time. But immigration, he admits, takes up almost as much time as the environment in one-on-ones.
Over dinner at the Black Horse Tavern, he tells me that "between soundbites and pandering, there's pressure on the process to dumb down."
I mention that I have a hard time enjoying canvassing even when I do it for money.
"This is better than doing it for money," says Perks. "I have an excuse to talk to as many strangers as I can about politics. The best thing is to talk with people you don't agree with."
He looks up from his supper and past me, through the window of the tavern, where volunteers working on his campaign are waving to him. Time for more canvassing.
"The fascinating irony," he says with a sly grin, "is that what looks like pursuing power is really just taking orders from people."