Olivia Chow was elected mayor of Toronto on Monday, taking on the leadership of a city facing a housing affordability crisis, concerns about public safety and troubled finances.
The 1990s-era city councillor and later NDP MP fended off a late-campaign surge from former councillor Ana Bailão, after she was endorsed by former mayor John Tory, whose departure prompted the by-election. Ms. Chow will become the first racialized person to be elected leader of Canada’s most diverse city.
She won with 37 per cent of the vote with nearly all polls reporting, while Ms. Bailão was second with 32 per cent.
Ms. Chow addressed cheering supporters holding signs marked “hope” after slowly making her way through the throng of people eager to congratulate her.
“If you ever questioned your faith in a better future, and what we can do with each other, for each other, tonight is your answer,” she said. “Thank you to the people of Toronto for the trust you placed in me, and the mandate for change as your new mayor.”
Ms. Chow said she had spoken to Premier Doug Ford and his Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Steve Clark, and was ready to work with them. She vowed to improve public services and make the city more affordable by having residents chip in a little more.
She is ready to raise Toronto’s property tax, which is the lowest in the region. She has not been more specific other than to say that any increase will be “modest,” arguing that the city must determine its needs before setting the tax rate. She also promised to increase the vacant home tax and raise the land transfer tax on homes priced above $3-million.
She acknowledged that affordability challenges are making it difficult for people to get by and urged residents not to give up.
“I pledge to you, I will dedicate myself to work tirelessly in building a city that’s more caring, affordable and safe, where everyone belongs.”
Randy Besco, a University of Toronto associate professor of political science, said Ms. Chow will have to make the adjustment from her former role in opposition to a position with executive authority.
“She’s going to have to learn how to operate as a mayor,” he said. “Getting things done is really hard, actually, so I think that’s going to be the big challenge.”
Ms. Chow also assumes the strong-mayor powers granted last year by the province. These include the ability to hire and fire senior city staff, write the budget and, in certain instances, pass bylaws with only one-third support of council. The latter power was requested specifically by Mr. Tory, though Ms. Chow has said she wouldn’t use the minority-vote powers.
In her concession speech to an adoring crowd chanting “Ana, Ana, Ana,” Ms. Bailão congratulated Ms. Chow on her victory, acknowledged labour unions for their support, and thanked her “bumblebee” volunteers (named for their yellow and black T-shirts) for breaking records on door-knocking and phone calls. “I don’t think my parents could have ever imagined when they arrived in this city that I would one day run for mayor,” she said.
Former police chief Mark Saunders, who was endorsed by Mr. Ford and finished a distant third, congratulated Ms. Chow and urged his supporters to work with her to help the city reach its potential.
”We have to do everything we can to make this city an amazing city,” he said. “We have to support Olivia Chow in that position of mayor, because there’s a lot of work that we all have to do.”
Monday’s vote was triggered by the February resignation of Mr. Tory. Only months earlier, he had cruised to re-election and, had he finished his third term, he would have become Toronto’s longest-serving mayor. Instead, he resigned after acknowledging an affair with someone on his staff.
The resulting campaign focused largely on two issues: affordability, as the city had become increasingly out of reach for many, and public safety, after a series of high-profile violent incidents on transit and elsewhere.
Toronto Metropolitan University Professor Emeritus Myer Siemiatycki said he was surprised by the limited attention paid to big issues such as the climate crisis and reconciliation with Indigenous Canadians. Instead, he characterized the campaign as being “rooted in addressing daily lived realities, as perceived by the public.”
The new mayor has two key tasks, he said. On a micro level, she must improve city services such as transit, public garbage pick-up and other quality of life issues. And on a macro level, she has to sort out a new fiscal deal with the higher levels of government.
Toronto faces a budget crisis after years of leaders who focused on keeping taxes low, followed by a pandemic that blew massive holes in municipal revenues. The city is short $1.4-billion for last year and this year, and is seeking provincial and federal support that has not been forthcoming. The city is also facing a shortfall of nearly $50-billion over the next decade for its operating and capital expenses.
Turnout in Monday’s by-election was on track to be significantly higher than the general election last year, when just 29 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots. While the City of Toronto had yet to release a turnout estimate, there were about 724,000 votes counted with all but a handful of polls reporting, compared with 552,000 ballots cast last October.
Monday’s ballot result will be certified officially by the city clerk on Wednesday. The new mayor will take the declaration of office after that, at what the city says will be “a time mutually agreed to by the mayor-elect and the city clerk.” The next council meeting is scheduled for July 14, though the mayor could call a special meeting earlier.
The new leader will have the traditional power to appoint committee chairs from among the ranks of sitting councillors. These people in return typically support the mayor’s agenda.
This mayoral by-election race was unusual in part because it happened in isolation. There were no city councillor or school trustee candidates on the ballot, just a record 102 mayoral candidates. Most of them, such as the person who promised to make his dog Molly honorary mayor, had no realistic path to victory.
It was the city’s first mayoral election since 2014 without an incumbent, and thus guaranteed to produce a new leader. And the short timeline – it has been only 4½ months since Mr. Tory announced his plan to resign – left little time for candidates to build teams and raise money.
“One of the things about municipal elections is, because there’s no parties, in most places, name-recognition is really important,” said Prof. Besco. “If John Tory had been going not to run again, and everybody kind of knew this a year or two or three years in advance, we likely would have had other high-profile candidates.”
Ms. Chow led consistently in polls since entering the race in mid-April. However, support for Ms. Bailão began to rise in recent weeks, particularly after she was endorsed last Wednesday by Mr. Tory.
Other candidates included Mr. Saunders, sitting councillors Josh Matlow and Brad Bradford, one-time columnist and pundit Anthony Furey, former Liberal MPP Mitzie Hunter and policy analyst Chloe Brown.
OLIVER MOOR, EURBAN AFFAIRS REPORTER
DUSTIN COOK, KATE HELMORE, ANA PEREIRA
The Globe and Mail, June 26, 2023