When Olivia Chow declared her candidacy to be Mayor of Toronto in March, she was the clear favorite. She was seen as a candidate that could excite the left much as the Fords excited the right. Meanwhile, Rob Ford was mired in scandal, and looked like he would split the right vote with John Tory, and perhaps Karen Stintz and David Socknacki.

 

So what happened? Why did Chow only get 23 per cent of the vote, finishing behind Ford and Tory?

 

Emil Cohen, a volunteer with U of T Students for Chow, noted several possible factors. He suggested Chow’s “platform wasn’t as progressive as it could have been” and that early in the campaign “[Chow] was gunning for Rob Ford instead of John Tory who should have been her real target.”

 

Others, however, have suggested that Chow may have come off as too progressive. Peter Kuitenbrouwer of the National Post argues that “Chow originally sounded centrist, be she later veered left…and the tactic flopped.” Yahoo Canada News’ Matthew Coutts speculated that “some voters found Chow’s promise of a far-left alternative to Ford a little too shocking.” While there is no doubt that some Torontonians, including the Toronto Taxpayers coalition, hold this view of Chow, it’s worth pausing to ask what merits the “far-left” label has, if any.

 

Chow promised to extend small business tax cuts, and ensure that Toronto businesses do not pay disproportionately higher taxes than those in the 905 area.   While, to her credit, she proudly touted herself as a supporter of progressive taxation, her proposed 1 per cent increase on the land transfer tax for houses valued over $2 million hardly makes her worthy of the title “tax and spend” socialist. While Chow no doubt represents a challenge to Doug Ford’s view that denouncing racists can make you a racist, and John Tory’s professed disbelief in white privilege, her refusal to defend Warren Kinsella’s anti-racist critique of John Tory’s transit plan, also exposes the hollowness of attempts to paint her as a radical.

 

Chow’s moderation was no accident. Rather, she, and arguably the NDP as a whole, have seemingly bought into the right-wing narrative that taking a pro-business, spending-cautious approach is fiscally responsible. Chow spokesman Jamey Heath even said: “it’s not good enough for a progressive candidate…to want to work with business. [They must] actively prove the point.” Arash Ghiassi, a supporter of the UofT students for Olivia Chow campaign, described this attempt to rebrand Chow as a mistake. “[Chow’s] brand was quite strong, placing her first in the polls before the campaign even started,” Ghiassi argues. “Instead of an energetic, outspoken activist everyone knew her as, she was portrayed as a business-friendly albeit progressive manager of the public purse. This, however, was a role in which John Tory more comfortably fit”

 

If Toronto’s left is ever to take power again, it cannot afford to take its mantras from the right, but rather, must define concepts like fiscal responsibility on its own terms. In 2013, Kshama Sawant was elected to Seattle’s city-council, running on an unabashedly socialist platform. Sawant called for a $15/hour minimum wage (which has since been introduced), a millionaire’s tax, the unionization of low-paid service workers, the creation of a civilian review board to combat police brutality and more. Had she run against Tory and Ford, they could have tried to call her fiscally irresponsible, but that would be a hard charge to prove seeing as Sawant is also an economics professor.

 

Of course, not every good leftist needs an economics degree to legitimize their campaign, but there are some clear lessons the left should take from Chow’s defeat. Firstly, Rob and Doug Ford should be recognized populists who won votes in some of the poorest areas of Toronto. This suggests that the Fords’ popularity was not due to their fiscal responsibility, but due to their willingness to push for popular investments that other politicians dismissed as unfeasible (i.e. subways, subways!). Ghiassi claims that Ford “supporters...were [dissatisfied] with the usual business of politics and could have been won over by a more radical Chow campaign.”


Secondly, the Fords were also right-wingers, and thus needed to get some support from elite voters. Elite institutions, including the Globe, Post, Sun and Star, are not always comfortable with populists and can thus make it possible for the non-populist right (i.e. Tory) to win pluralities.


Therefore in order to win, a leftist candidate should not mimic the right and fight for elite endorsements, but rather should develop policies that can unite working and progressive-middle class voters throughout the city.


According to Cohen,  “Rob Ford’s biggest achievement was making John Tory … look like a borderline attractive vote for progressive people.” Had Chow actually done what her right-wing critics said and firmly articulated an overwhelming gap between her worldview and Tory’s, Rob Ford would not have succeeded.

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