Toronto’s next mayor
Incumbency is the dominant factor in Canadian municipal elections. Ninety per cent of the time, an incumbent candidate for mayor or a council seat wins. This makes it tough for a city without term limits to renew its leadership. Even in cases where an incumbent is under investigation or the cloud of scandal, they still often win.
There are reasons incumbents win. Mostly it is familiarity, a name voters know. Sometimes the incumbent faces so many opponents that they split the opposition vote, allowing the incumbent’s re-election with less than 50 per cent of the vote. Often they attract more campaign funding because they are a known quantity with a dependable voting record.
One of the few times for renewal is when an incumbent steps down, opening the door for new faces without the overwhelming spectre of a long-time elected official. In the last Toronto election, several incumbents stepped down and voters elected a number of “rookies” who are bringing fresh ideas and perspectives to council.
With the resignation of Mayor John Tory, Toronto is about to have an election without an incumbent. Immediately, the discussion about who will run, and who could win, exploded. People are excited.
According to the CBC and the Toronto Star, the local conservative machine is busily working to anoint a candidate. The backrooms of other political persuasions are likely doing the same. There is talk of what so-called progressives will do, which is always hard to guess as they tend to be loosely affiliated.
One of the principal considerations of such efforts is who can win. No point choosing someone who won’t attract votes, particularly in such an open race. So attention is being paid to people with name recognition, and who are likely to be able to attract significant campaign dollars. We’ll see recycled politicians from other levels of government, like we saw provincial campaign losers Andrea Horwath and Steven Del Duca end up as mayors in Hamilton and Vaughan. These calculations pay close attention to the politics of the matter.
But what about the policy of the matter? Toronto is a city that has been struggling in recent years with affordable housing and homelessness, policing and public safety, transit, and the everyday delivery of basic services. Overflowing trash bins, closed or missing washrooms, potholes: all of these are signs of deterioration.
This election can produce a mayor who can reverse the decline, but only if they know how cities work, how decisions get made at cities, and where to find the deep knowledge of how various functions can fit together to create equitable outcomes for residents. Cities in Canada are underfunded, and their own revenues depend on property taxes and other property-related fees. (They aren’t allowed to levy income and sales taxes, which are the most productive taxes, like provinces and the federal government can.) Cities can’t run operating deficits. Municipal finance is a particular aspect of public finance, and a mayor should understand how it works, and how it can be worked to take the city forward.
Toronto has sat on its hands for well more than a decade, offering a few big but unfulfilled promises and a confection of sound-bites. It is an exciting prospect: an election with candidates who can offer a practical vision of how to meet the challenges of housing for people the market leaves behind, of an equitable and affordable transit expansion, of a human-service based policing and public security system, of climate change mitigation, and of a revenue regime that will build the city Torontonians want, not that politicians from elsewhere think we should have.
These are not Herculean tasks. We don’t need stardust and miracles. There are solutions for each of the problems Toronto, and other Canadian cities in the same boat, have. Our next mayor can draw on lessons from other places, projects stuck on a shelf in the past, very smart people in the municipal public service, and a plethora of organizations and people wanting to help. The right mayor can lead the revival of Canada’s largest city, reactivate good solutions, and engage problem solvers within and outside government.
It’s exciting to think the election can be more than just a horse race, over at the finish line on election night. It’s energizing to look forward to candidates who offer more than just electoral sops like low taxes and better services. It would be transformative to choose a mayor on the basis of real solutions to real problems. Because Toronto can get back on its feet. Perhaps our city is tired and dented, but we have the right people and pieces in place to make it work. We just need a mayor with the knowledge, talent, and drive to animate them.