Posted July 28, 2018
It speaks ill of Toronto’s level of civic engagement that there are no high-profile contenders to run against Mayor John Tory in the fall election.
The cut-off for registration officially ended on Friday at 2 p.m. and, unless there was a last-minute big-name entry, it looks like Tory will get a smooth ride toward re-election on Oct. 22. He does not deserve it. Nor would any incumbent mayor.
Maybe polling known to potential rivals shows that Tory can’t be beat. Maybe legitimate contenders don’t relish a weak mayoral system that requires an army of staff to browbeat councillors to vote for — or maybe even against — projects that mayors have at least publicly supported.
Whatever the reason, Toronto is worse off for it. Ideally, mayoral campaigns should be the best of times, when candidates for the top job describe their vision for city building. It’s a time for innovative ideas, debate and promises that should follow the winning candidate into office.
That’s not going to happen in Toronto’s mayoral campaign of 2018.
There is good news, however. Growing movements led by articulate and passionate citizen activists are filling the leadership vacuum.
Acting as shadow mayoral contenders, these citizens are trying to hold Tory to account on important issues like affordable housing, pedestrian and cyclist safety, and policing. Others are pushing what should be a fundamental element of democracy: increased representation of people from diverse backgrounds. All but a handful of Toronto’s 45 city councillors are white and less than a third are women.
It’s heartwarming to see citizen change agents stepping in to fill the leadership void.
Women like Hema Vyas and Melissa Wong are co-chairs of Women Win TO, a progressive leadership group that is helping other women launch viable campaigns across the city. If voters want change, why not choose a woman who knows the challenge of finding affordable housing, has had to fight for a job or struggle to get her voice heard?
Many candidates supported by Women Win TO would bring a fresh perspective to city hall, including mayoral contender Saron Gebresellassi, a multilingual lawyer who practices in the Weston St. Dennis neighbourhood, where she was raised after her family arrived as refugees from the Eritrean civil war.
Does Gebresellassi have the name recognition of Tory? Not yet. But she’s running a worthy campaign, raising challenging questions about Toronto’s commitment to all its communities, affordable housing, transit and mental health issues. Her perspective deserves to be included in the city’s political mix. Barring a surprise upset of Tory, let’s hope Gebresellassi and the Women Win TO candidates running for council (at least those who don’t win) remain politically involved. They speak for so many.
And then there’s the pedestrian-safety movement inspired through Twitter.
A hashtag called #NearMissToronto launched an impromptu but inspired campaign highlighting the number of times that pedestrians and cyclists were nearly hit by the reckless drivers that plague city streets.
In the two years since Mayor Tory announced Vision Zero, a plan to eliminate all pedestrian and cycling deaths, almost 100 walkers or cyclists have been hit by vehicles and died. Despite a recent injection of money and a new accelerated plan to give pedestrians extra seconds to cross some dangerous intersections, Torontonians are dying, in part, because the city failed to take swift action.
Councillors like Josh Matlow and Kristyn Wong-Tam are among the politicians who have rightly pushed for safety measures, while the mayor and council relied on the unfulfilled promise of Vision Zero.
Now a rising chorus of citizen voices is framing the problem — individual tales of near death or maiming — that resonate in a powerful way.
People like Abigail Pugh, who started the Twitter hashtag after witnessing a car narrowly miss a boy on a crosswalk and Daniel Leao, who had his own near miss while walking with his young son, have provided the inspiration. Hopefully, #NearMissToronto will continue, with citizens sharing the constant terror of walking or cycling in Toronto during the fall campaign. Seriously, keep it up. Toronto needs you.
On the issue of affordable housing, activists like Alejandra Ruiz Vargas are framing the problem in a concise way so that citizens understand and empathize with low income residents struggling to pay rent.
It’s as if ACORN has a war room with politicos focused on talking points.
“We have a mayor with good intentions, but good intentions are not enough,” said Ruiz Vargas, chair of ACORN Canada’s East York chapter. “His affordable housing plan is missing the mark and too many vulnerable people are being left behind. We need him to deliver.” That’s a smart approach — a compliment followed by a critique.
It’s not bare-knuckle politics, like the kind practised in the spring provincial campaign, but ACORN succeeded in getting Tory to admit that Toronto needs a proper definition of “affordable.” That should inspire improvements to Tory’s much-touted solution, the Open Door program, that fails to help people find affordable rent. That’s a significant win.
And that’s the value of citizen activists when a mayor is otherwise taking a slow stroll toward victory. Even if it’s clear he’s going to win, Tory should be forced to fight for his job. With a citizen uprising, Tory just might become the progressive mayor Toronto needs him to be.
Source: Toronto Star Editorial