Monday's (March 19) by-election in Toronto-Danforth is more than just a local race to fill an empty federal seat. Its results will be a statement on the vibrancy of a post-Jack Layton NDP - or another chance for its adversaries to crow about the collapse of the party's "unlikely" stint as the official Opposition.
The NDP needs to win big on Layton's home turf to demonstrate that the party's electoral breakthrough was not the peak, but the crest of a rushing wave.
Currently, mainstream media ignore the New Democrats' interim leader, Nycole Turmel, in favour of the third party's interim leader, Bob Rae, for words to set the national debate - part of a determined effort to portray the NDP's rise as a personality-propelled fluke whose momentum died with Layton.
Even if NDP candidate Craig Scott wins on Monday, every vote by which he falls short of Layton's numbers will be held up as proof of the party's relative decline. The former leader won the riding with at least 44 per cent of the vote, topping out at 60 in 2011. If the Liberals - the only other serious contenders in this left-leaning riding - lose, as seems likely, but can muster more than the party's 2011 low of 17 per cent, or even the 28 per cent they once achieved against Layton, their pals in the press may start crowing about a resurgence of the former ruling party.
Fortunately for New Democrats and other voters, Scott is an excellent candidate. His only real challenger is Lib ad man Grant Gordon. Though both are long-time residents of the People's Republic of Riverdale, they have widely diverging experiences.
Scott's resumé includes the fact that he's a Rhodes Scholar, Osgoode Hall law school professor, a former adviser to the African National Congress on South Africa's first post-apartheid constitution, commissioner on the Honduras Truth Commission, former director at the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, an expert on international law and the environment, an arts advocate and former gallery owner.
Gordon's resumé is a little thinner. He boasts of founding his own advertising agency, Key Gordon Communications, where he works, and of co-founding the Toronto Bridge Club and coaching local ice and ball hockey teams. The easygoing Gordon is Mr. Gillian Deacon, TV personality and enviro writer, author of There's Lead In Your Lipstick, and Gordon himself makes legitimate claims to environmental activism.
Scott's green cred is at least as deep or deeper, and supporter Rick Smith of Environmental Defence Canada declares, "Craig was advocating for action on global warming before most of us had even heard of it."
Scott makes a compelling case that voters should send him to Ottawa to join T.O.'s other seven NDP MPs who are determined to fight for this city, among other issues, as they take on the Tories as the official Opposition.
Gordon attempts to position himself as the man to fight Harper, but the dismal record of local Lib MPs over the last 20 years on the Toronto file, whether in opposition or in power, is hard to dispute. And how does electing a political neophyte member of a third-place party in decline pose a challenge to the ruling right wing anyway?
While humour is always welcome, Gordon's campaign and YouTube messages feature a goofy "Aw, shucks, I'm a nice guy. Don't vote for the scary NDP" approach - simplistic messaging that smacks more of a high school student council race than a federal election. I keep searching for promises of "more dances."
Gordon says that if elected, he will "start" a buy-local campaign for business, mentor local youth and grow local breakfast programs. None of these are exactly under federal jurisdiction, but what's stopping him from initiating these projects now?
Scott is already decades into working on the issues he advocates for, issues historically dear to Toronto-Danforth, the riding that launched not only Layton but also the NDP-era Bob Rae onto the national stage. With his track record and platform, the NDP lawyer is capable of the same far-reaching influence.
Out-of-riding volunteers have got behind Scott's campaign, a sign that this race isn't important just to left-leaning east-enders, but to progressives right across the city.