(This piece is my original coverage of the first Toronto mayoral debate in 2018. The debate in question was of little consequence and no one read what I wrote at the time. That said, my blog post was probably the best thing written about the event as it succinctly identified the fundamental dynamics of the race very early on. If you want independent/critical insight into the Toronto context don’t hesitate to get in touch.)
The debate was supposed to be arts-focused but instead the main themes were affordability, funding cuts and transit -with arts used as a proxy.
Volunteers from each campaign doled out literature in front of the venue. John Tory had the most sidewalk-support, but the far-right candidate for mayor -Faith Goldy- had a much larger clique than Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s former chief planner and Tory’s main competition.
Goldy almost certainly has more support in Toronto than some of the candidates that were included in the debate but has been sidelined due to her white nationalist leanings. She would go on to interrupt the event after the participants were introduced but was quickly escorted off stage.
As the debate wore on it became clear how the dynamics of the race favour the poll-leading incumbent, John Tory. He seemed relaxed in his status as the consensus right-of-centre, low-tax candidate.
Keesmaat jabbed at Tory over the unaffordability of rental housing and “Smarttrack” -the transit plan that was the centerpiece of Tory’s campaign in 2014. Tory ignored the first subject and dealt with the second effectively, saying Keesmaat had supported the plan when she was chief planner.
Keesmaat’s other line of attack highlighted the challenges Toronto will face with the newly elected Conservative government of Ontario headed by premier Doug Ford. Keesmaat said “you can’t fight Conservative cuts with a conservative mayor.” Tory responded with a warning about a “state of war” with other levels of government.
Tory intends to paint Keesmaat as a chaos candidate who will set back progress on transit and infrastructure. Meanwhile Keesmaat is attempting to portray Tory as a weak leader -a “ditherer”- in contrast to herself, a change candidate with “a clear plan and a clear path”.
Tory is exactly where he wants to be. At mayoral debates -if the current cast of characters stands- he will play foil to three of the other four candidates who are left of centre. Tory emphasizes a “balanced approach” while literally balancing the candidates ideologically.
For whatever reason -perhaps the crowd, the timing or their being off-topic- Keesmaat’s pointed barbs against Tory didn’t seem to land. In general, Keesmaat faces an uphill battle to appeal to Torontonians across the city, particularly in the suburbs where her “urbanist” politics are less a natural fit.
Saron Gebresellassi -a human rights lawyer and the most left-wing candidate- closed the debate with a strong final statement which was in part an attack on Keesmaat’s plan to build 100,000 units of affordable housing at 80% of market rate. Still unaffordable according to Gebresellassi, woe is Keesmaat.