Six of the leading mayoral candidates at the TVO & Board of Trade debate, May 25, 2023. Ian Williams.
Six of the leading mayoral candidates at the TVO & Board of Trade debate, May 25, 2023. Ian Williams.

The Mayoral Race

Former city councillor and NDP MP Olivia Chow put her name in as a candidate for Toronto’s next mayor relatively late. Since then, Chowhas been polling as the frontrunner, making her the focal point for other candidates’ attacks.

Though over 100 candidates registered, the reality of mayoral elections in Toronto is that the only people who are serious contenders are those who already have a big profile, who can assemble large city-wide campaign teams, and who are able to raise a lot of money. Political insiders say $2 million per campaign is the minimum required to really compete.

That leaves a lot of people – and their ideas – out, since they aren’t able to get their polling numbers high enough to be covered in major media or invited to the big debates.

Who’s still in contention?

Late in the game, there are eight candidates who have polled at or above five per cent.

On the centre-left, there is frontrunner Chow, current city councillor Josh Matlow, and 2022 third-place candidate Chloe Brown, who is, again, running a low-budget campaign full of big ideas to transform the city.

In the centre and centre-right are Mitzie Hunter, who until this campaign was a provincial Liberal MPP in Scarborough, and Ana Bailão, a former city councillor who was John Tory’s deputy mayor.

On the right are former police chief and unsuccessful provincial conservative candidate Mark Saunders, far-right columnist Anthony Furey, and current city councillor Brad Bradford.

Brown and Bradford are barely cracking five per cent in June. Hunter and Furey have hovered around 10. Matlow, who is mostly aligned with Chow on the issues, but doesn’t have the same big-name endorsements or as much money, has been stuck under 15 per cent in the polls.

Unless someone drops out to support one of those candidates, which is unlikely, that leaves Saunders and Bailão vying for second and trying to reach Chow.

Saunders and Bailão chasing Chow

Ana Bailão has been anywhere from under 10 per cent in the polls and up to around 20 per cent or higher. She may have the largest
campaign budget, attracting wealthy donors and real estate developers who have long seen her vote in their favour at Toronto city council. Bailão briefly worked for developer Dream Unlimited before this campaign. (See page 12 for more about Dream.)

In the early stages, Bailão didn’t seem able to recreate the effective campaigns of her long-time ally John Tory. On her team is Tory’s former campaign manager Nick Kouvalis, a long-time conservative operative who also managed Rob Ford’s successful run.

Bailão has attempted to copy Tory’s style, trying to appear as a caring pragmatist. Like Tory, Bailão nods to progressive causes like housing and transit, and then in the next breath promises not to raise taxes and skirts questions about how to pay for service improvements. It was a winning strategy for Tory, and late in the campaign Toronto’s corporate media is increasingly supportive of Bailão. The Toronto Star, for example, plastered her photo on their front cover on Saturday, June 10, calling her “The Pragmatist.”

[Ed note, June 21, 2023: The Toronto Star editorial board fully endorsed Bailão for mayor on June 21, 2023. Ed note, June 24, 2023: late in the campaign period, on June 21, the same day as the Star endorsement, former mayor John Tory endorsed Bailão, after earlier saying he would stay out of the race.]

We can expect a huge ad spend from her team in the lead-up to June 26. We wouldn’t be surprised if Bradford, who has been tanking in the polls, endorses her and gives another late boost.

Saunders started off as the unofficial pick of Conservative Premier Doug Ford and has consistently polled around or above 15 per cent – good enough for second place most of the time.

The lack of details in his tough-on-crime platform, his tired talking points of using the police to solve every problem and his lacklustre performances in the debates seem to have failed to attract new voters.

His disastrous mismanagement of the murders of eight men by serial killer Bruce McArthur in Toronto’s gay village in the 2010s has dogged him throughout the campaign, as has the worsening of 911 response times during his tenure as police chief, even as the budget ballooned.

But he isn’t going away.

Saunders and Bailão have repeatedly attacked Chow, claiming she will raise property taxes. Chow has not put out a costed platform (neither have Saunders or Bailão), but Toronto Star columnist Matt Elliott calculated that the tax increase necessary to pay for what Chow is promising on transit, housing, mental health, and libraries would work out to an average property tax increase per household of $11.76 per month, or $141.12 per year.

Despite the attacks, Chow consistently polled at or above 30 per cent support as of the opening of advanced polls on June 8, a substantial but not insurmountable lead.

Polling versus winning

In elections such as this one, likely to have low voter turnout, leading in the polls and advertising is not enough to win. Calling, flyering, door-knocking and standing on busy streets to talk to people (sometimes called “mainstreeting”) are key to getting people to decide on a candidate and motivating them to actually vote.

On this front, the Chow campaign appears in good shape. NDP MPP for University-Rosedale, Jessica Bell, who endorsed Chow, tells The Grind that “our volunteers and our riding association are working on her campaign as canvassers and organizers and helping her raise the funds she needs to run a strong campaign.”

Fellow NDP MPP Chris Glover (Spadina-Fort York) spoke to The Grind by phone, saying he had been out “mainstreeting in Etobicoke” and getting a “very positive response.”

Progress Toronto, a non-profit that organizes for progressive policy in Toronto, also endorsed Chow. Their acting executive director, Saman Tabasinejad, says she has been “pleasantly surprised” by how willing people are to volunteer to support Chow. In the Tory era (2014 to 2023), even with winnable city council seats up for grabs, it was harder to activate volunteers, Tabasinejad says. Now people are “seeing something exciting and special” in the possibility of electing Chow as mayor and “ending a decade of conservative rule.”

A number of unions endorsed Chow, including the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario. “CUPE Ontario members and staff have been proud to take part in a number of neighbourhood canvasses for Olivia’s campaign,” CUPE Ontario president, Fred Hahn, tells The Grind in a statement.

If the enthusiasm and this mobilization for Chow is to be believed, it will be a hard ground game to beat.

Bailão has the federal Liberal Party establishment on her side, with endorsements from nine Toronto-area MPs. (Hunter doesn’t list any endorsements from sitting Liberal politicians on her site.) And while Bailão couldn’t match Chow’s extensive union endorsements, she has a few, including construction union LiUNA Local 183.

But whether these endorsements translate into significant volunteer mobilization is a big question.

Anything can happen late in an election campaign. Scandals break, allegiances shift, endorsements come out and people  say the wrong things.

Chow might have led through most of the campaign, but that doesn’t mean much until the votes are counted.

This article appeared in the 2023 Summer issue.