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Andrew Tumilty: For Olivia Chow, winning might be the easy part
It can be very hard for politicians who've spent a career in opposition to make the transition to successful leaders.
By: Andrew Tumilty
A by-election for Toronto’s mayor that kicked off with a surprise resignation ended last night with the long-expected outcome. The results confirmed what the polls have said for some time: Olivia Chow is the next mayor of Toronto.
It was a closer race than many expected, but Chow came through with a convincing win, finishing roughly five points and more than 34,000 votes ahead of her nearest competitor, former councillor Ana Bailão. Chow becomes the first racialized person elected mayor of Toronto, and the first woman to hold the job since amalgamation.
Some may be tempted to credit Chow’s win solely to name recognition. This is not quite fair: if your name stands out in a crowded field featuring two sitting councillors, one recent three-term councillor, a former Ontario cabinet minister, and former chief of police, it is because you have worked hard over the years to ensure everyone knew who you were.
In addition to the political lifetime spent building the reputation needed for this moment, Chow and her team deserve enormous credit for running a challenging campaign.
After Tory’s resignation, early polls showed many voters wanted him to stay on. Failing that, polls said he was likely to win again in a landslide if he were a candidate. Several candidates ought to have been able to appeal to voters who still wanted him in office. Chow was not one of them, yet managed to exceed that demographic.
Chow has been the front-runner in a municipal race before. In 2014, when Toronto voters were focused on sparing the city late-night monologues by removing Rob Ford from office, Chow was the early favourite. Come election day she found herself in third place — in what was effectively a three-way race.
A frontrunner’s campaign can be difficult, especially if you are not the incumbent, or worse, if there is no incumbent. The accepted wisdom is that a frontrunner should avoid bold statements and policies that alienate as many voters as they inspire. A candidate like Chow, running on change with a voter base hoping for the same, can have a hard time balancing the strategic needs of a frontrunner with the inspiring vision of a plucky underdog.
A disciplined approach to messaging and a focus on her own personal story saw Chow find the balance and ensure she ended the race the way she started it, in the lead.
Challenging as a surprise election and shortened campaign might have been for her, winning this election may end up as the easiest part of her coming term as mayor.
Chow made it clear she did not plan to use the newly legislated strong mayor powers. Assuming Premier Ford doesn’t decide to strip them — don’t pretend you would be surprised if he passed the “anyone but Olivia act”— to achieve what she has promised, she will need to consistently find 13 votes among city council’s 25 councillors.
When this council was elected in 2022, Tory was still seen as having the support of a majority of councillors — albeit a reduced majority from his 2018 win. Chow, as her campaign has made clear, is not John Tory.
A generous headcount suggests there are 10-12 votes that could be considered reliable for the new mayor. On an issue-by-issue basis, that is a workable coalition, but it will mean finding a couple of votes every time; there will be all the inevitable tradeoffs that come with such legislative bargaining.
Chow’s other challenge will be one of expectations. For her entire political career, she has effectively been in opposition to power. For the first time in a lifetime of public service, Chow will have the ability to bring about the changes she has spent decades trying to achieve.
In Hamilton sits another mayor with strong NDP ties and a long record of serving in opposition. Andrea Horwath was NDP leader as well as leader of the official opposition at the Ontario legislature for many years, and her performance as Hamilton’s mayor thus far ought to be a cautionary tale for Chow. Politicians who spend their career in opposition better know how to use power when the voters finally give them the opportunity to do so.
Toronto voters have spoken, twice now in less than a year. They have earned a reprieve from campaigns, and it’s time for politicians to actually govern for a while. The campaigns and candidates in this election spent a lot of time focused on what Toronto needs to fix. While Toronto voters take a break, Olivia Chow’s work is just getting started.
CORRECTION: Olivia Chow is not the first immigrant to be elected mayor in the post-amalgamation era — David Miller was born in the United States before moving to Canada at a young age. The Line regrets the error.
Andrew Tumilty has crafted strategic communications on election campaigns for all three orders of government, and was war room director to John Tory in 2018 and 2022. He is a senior consultant for strategic communications and issues management with Enterprise Canada in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter at @AndrewTumilty
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