Toronto left sees political opportunity as Mayor John Tore poised to resign
It’s been more than 16 years since a left-of-center candidate won a Toronto mayoral election, but political organizers on this side of the spectrum believe the circumstances are ripe for a progressive to run for the mayoral seat.
Mayor John Tory intends to remain in his post on the city council at least until Wednesday’s budget meeting, but has announced he will be stepping down over what he calls a miscalculation of a relationship with one of his staff.
Thus, a mayoral election at a date yet to be determined in the coming months is in prospect.
According to multiple sources, left-of-center candidates being asked to consider running include:
Mike Layton, a three-year councilman from 2010 to 2022 and son of the late Jack Layton, who served as Toronto councilman and NDP national chairman
Kristyn Wong-Tam, also a three-year councilwoman who won the Toronto Center riding for the NDP in the 2022 provincial election
Bhutila Karpoche, New Democrat MPP for Parkdale-High Park since 2018
Tory runner-up Gil Penalosa says he intends to run. Other potential mayoral candidates who have not ruled out running include Beaches-East York City Councilor Brad Bradford, Toronto-St. Paul, Josh Matlow, and former Davenport Councilwoman Ana Bailão.
Tory’s expected departure is “a great opportunity for the city and for Toronto’s progressives to elect a progressive mayor,” said Michal Hay, executive director of Progress Toronto, a nonprofit advocacy group that focuses on community issues.
“After more than a decade of conservatives running things at City Hall, it’s very clear they didn’t work for Toronto,” Hay said in an interview.
“Housing is more unaffordable, transit traffic is still being cut,” she said. “A lot of people have talked about Toronto being a city in decay and decay.”
David Miller, the only progressive candidate to win a Toronto mayoral election in the 25 years since the megacity merged, believes there are parallels between the city’s state today and when he was first elected in 2003.
“People were very dissatisfied with the level of city services at the time,” Miller said in an interview with CBC Toronto.
Now in 2023 the city services “evidently in decline,” Miller said, pointing to what he described as a housing crisis, overflowing trash cans, derelict streets, disrepair parks and the state of the TTC.
“If you listen to people, they are very concerned about basic services,” he said. “I think that gives someone a chance to speak to what the problem is, why this is happening and how to fix it.”
In the last four mayoral elections since Rob Ford won in 2010, progressive candidates have struggled to win voters in the suburbs.
Political strategists say that for someone on the left of the spectrum to become mayor, they must have appeal beyond the city’s core.
Improving people’s lives “resonates throughout the city,” says Miller
Miller’s victories in 2003 and 2006 came with significant support at Scarborough and Etobicoke.
“In my experience, a message that there are excellent public services that are investing in neighborhoods and people, youth and transportation and making people’s everyday lives better and easier is a message that resonates across the city,” Miller said.
Kim Wright, who has worked on community political campaigns in Toronto for more than 20 years, says she hears about the need for urban development from across the political spectrum.
“Cuting and burning city services or cutting bureaucracy, all of those slogans aren’t really going to help with the big problems Toronto is facing right now,” said Wright, director of Wright Strategies, a public affairs firm.
Wright says the unexpected nature of the upcoming election poses some challenges for potential candidates.
“They have to show very quickly that they have a vision for Toronto, that they can raise the money, they can raise the resources and they can win,” she said.
Although no one carries the banner of a political party in Toronto’s mayoral election, most high-profile candidates have ties to provincial or federal parties, or rely on campaign organizers who have worked in party backrooms.
Conservative political sources in Toronto told CBC News they aim to run only a center-right candidate to avoid a vote split that could allow a left-of-center politician to become mayor.
On the other end of the spectrum, a similar strategy is in the works.
“We really need to come together to have a unified progressive voice in this election,” said Hay, who led Jagmeet Singh’s victorious campaign for NDP federal leadership and served on Mike Layton’s town hall for six years.
Neither Layton nor Wong-Tam have said anything publicly about the possibility of running for mayor.
Karpoche told CBC News over the weekend that people are encouraging her to think about running, but that she hasn’t made any decisions yet.
Although Tory won the mayoral race with more than 60 percent of the vote last fall, political organizers believe the local election results are showing some signs of an appetite for a progressive mayor across the city.
They point out that Penalosa received nearly 100,000 votes in a race against a two-term incumbent, despite never holding elected office.
They are also encouraged by how left-of-center council candidates have fared outside of downtown, notably Amber Morley’s win at Etobicoke-Lakeshore.
Miller also argues that recent moves by Premier Doug Ford’s administration — particularly giving powers to “strong mayors” to pass key policies with the support of just a third of the council — are fueling demand for changes at Toronto City Hall .
“The question for me is will there be a really good, strong candidate who will represent the future, serve the needs of all Toronto residents and make sure no one is left behind, and invest in the public services and infrastructure that… we need.”