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Olivia Chow asks: ‘Who do you trust with the public purse?’

It is almost identical to the question Rob Ford says he wants voters to ask themselves on election day: “Who do you trust with the public purse?”

On Sunday, it emerged from the mouth of Olivia Chow.

Three of Chow’s conservative rivals have accused her of harbouring a big-spending agenda. In a novel gambit for a progressive New Democrat, she responded Sunday by appropriating their rhetoric for herself.

Chow, speaking at a downtown campaign rally, argued that she is the race’s true fiscal steward — because she wants to replace the Scarborough RT with a seven-stop light rail line rather than the far pricier three-stopsubway advocated by incumbent Ford and challengers John Tory and Karen Stintz.

Those candidates, Chow said, have “a scheme that is so big it will tie up all the money in the treasury for the next 10 years” — an exaggeration. She said she is “the woman who wants to make every nickel count.”

“A better city does not mean building an expensive underground rail (line) to Scarborough that will cost more and do less, and leave us with less money to invest in other priorities,” she said.

Tory, the former provincial Progressive Conservative leader, habitually refers to Chow as “the NDP candidate.” He said her claims to financial prudence are “an absolute joke.”

“Olivia Chow is the poster child for being a career politician who never met a public dollar she didn’t want to spend as quickly as she could,” he said in an interview.

“In the end, the voters will be able to examine the actual track records of people and their management of money and their habits with respect to money, and I think they’ll see through this in about two seconds.”

The once-planned light rail line was expected to cost $1.8 billion, to be paid entirely by the provincial government. The subway that is now planned will cost a significant additional sum — from hundreds of millions to $1 billion or more — and will require a 30-plus-year municipal property tax levy.

There is not yet evidence that Chow seeks a significant spending increase. She has promised a tax hike “around” the rate of inflation, and she has released a spate of modest policy measures aimed at lower-income suburban residents who have supported Ford in the past.

Ford is planning to return to work next Monday, ending a two-month leave of absence. Chow offered a pre-emptive rebuttal to any future Ford claim that he has been changed by his time in rehab for substance abuse.

She alleged on Tuesday that Tory is out of touch with the lives of ordinary people. She alleged on Sunday that Ford is “out of touch with our values.”

“Even if he’s changed his ways, I don’t think his beliefs have changed one little bit. He’s insulted women and our city’s ethnic, racial and sexual diversity too many times,” she said. “And all that’s changed is that he doesn’t even apologize.”

Chow’s campaign also ran a daylong training event for volunteers; more than 600 people took part, campaign spokesman Jamey Heath said. George Smitherman, who was defeated by Ford in 2010, gave the closing pep talk.

In her own speech, Chow became the first Ford rival to mention the November incident in which the mayor bowled over a diminutive colleague on the council floor.

“We’ve all seen Rob Ford’s idea of reaching across the aisle. It usually involves knocking people down. I prefer to tackle problems, not people,” she said to laughter.

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