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Five ideas to build a better progressive mayoral candidate for Toronto

Let’s be honest, gang. That election we just had did not go very well for Toronto’s political left. Really, it’s hard to imagine how it could have gone much worse.

Olivia Chow was supposed to be the chosen one, returning to this city to save us from the guys who ripped up our bike lanes and wouldn’t shut up about subways. This was supposed to be the election in which Toronto firmly closed the door on the backwards politics of the Rob Ford era.

Neither of those things happened.

Instead Toronto elected a card-carrying conservative as mayor and a mostly centre-right city council. And that anointed progressive candidate? She came in about 10 points below Doug Ford, who invested far less time and money.

Sure, 2014 will go down in history as a very weird election year, but it would be a mistake to just chalk Chow’s low numbers up to some kind of Ford-related phenomenon. The anybody-but-Ford voting bloc was a giant part of Tory’s win, but there’s still a reason they decided to put their support behind mayor-elect John Tory instead of Chow. It wasn’t just a coin flip.

Architects of future progressive mayoral campaigns need to spend the next four years — or eight years, or 12 years — coming up with new strategies. Here are a few ideas for how they could do better.

1) Acknowledge that the NDP is not synonymous with “progressive”

 Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and then-candidate Adam Vaughan campaign in Trinity-Spadina in May. (Torstar News Service)

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and then-candidate Adam Vaughan campaign in Trinity-Spadina in May. (Torstar News Service)

The results of this year's provincial election and the federal byelection in Trinity-Spadina have prompted some to wonder if downtown Toronto voters are becoming less left-leaning. The results of Monday’s vote, where most downtown wards gave a plurality of the vote to Tory, will exacerbate this kind of grumbling.

But the evidence remains weak. I’m skeptical that most voters thought they were going with the less progressive option when they voted for Liberal Adam Vaughan in the federal byelection. And both Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath and NDP-backed Chow ran campaigns that could be called more populist than progressive.

To that end, before strategists start declaring that there’s been a major ideological shift in Toronto’s urban core, maybe it’s worth considering that the NDP has simply just run campaigns that haven’t resonated with voters who are still looking for a progressive option.

In the years ahead, it'll be worth spending some time thinking about why that is, and maybe what “progressive” really means in the context of an urban centre like Toronto.

2) Don’t take the base for granted

  David Soknacki's campaign never quite got off the ground, but it drew a devoted following. (Torstar News Service)

David Soknacki's campaign never quite got off the ground, but it drew a devoted following. (Torstar News Service)

Though he never amounted to much in the polls, the mayoral campaign of David Soknacki should be a cautionary tale. By positioning himself as the forward-thinking candidate with detailed policies, Soknacki captured the hearts of a small but influential group of voters that should have been solidly in the Chow camp from day one.

These voters were mostly young and mostly left-leaning, but the Chow campaign — especially in the early days — wasn’t effective at reaching out to them. It would not have been difficult. A few targeted policy announcements, and maybe a more significant emphasis on building the downtown relief line, could have roped them in early.

But it didn’t happen. Later in the campaign, some of these voters went over to the Ari Goldkind camp, still feeling like Chow wasn’t doing a great job of representing them.

3) Steal some ideas from other 2014 candidates

  Ari Goldkind drew attention for his feisty debate performances. (Torstar News Service)

Ari Goldkind drew attention for his feisty debate performances. (Torstar News Service)

Speaking of Soknacki, there are lessons to learn from some of the less-prominent candidates who made a bid for mayor in 2014. Some of them had ideas worth noting -- or even stealing.

Soknacki’s wonky, idea-driven campaign, for example, should be emulated by future candidates. So too should Goldkind’s ability to deliver a progressive message through retail politics. This campaign video, where he effectively convinces people that Toronto’s taxes are too low and that residents should pay more for better services, is illustrative. Even young Morgan Baskin offered some strategy worth stealing — her “because youth matter” slogan and focus was a mostly overlooked part of the race.

4) Hold on the parts of the Chow campaign that did work

  (Torstar News Service)

(Torstar News Service)

Though her campaign faltered, Chow wasn’t necessarily a bad candidate. There are qualities about her that should have been better emphasized. I’m thinking about things like her institutional knowledge of city hall, her lived experience as someone who doesn’t come from privilege, her no-BS stance on issues like police carding and the passion she showed when she schooled that racist guy at a mayoral debate.

With a better and more focused campaign, these are exactly the kinds of qualities that could make for a stronger candidate.

5) Clearly define what your campaign wants to do

  (Torstar News Service)

(Torstar News Service)

Chow’s biggest misstep was that her campaign seemed to lack a unique, defining purpose. She started off saying she was running for mayor because Toronto needed a new mayor. Which is fine, except there were several other people running who could say the same thing. Anyone running for mayor who isn’t the incumbent thinks Toronto needs a new mayor.

It was a weak pitch, and too many of her policies were similarly unambitious. Talking about increasing bus service was fine, but people also wanted to see real commitment to a project like the relief line subway. Instead of telling us the DRL was decades away, Chow should have been telling us that she’d work to get it done sooner.

I suspect it’s easier to run progressive campaigns when they can be defined by public opposition — to say, a bridge to the island airport or a plan to get rid of 100,000 jobs. It’s easy to talk about being against something. It’s harder to talk about what you’re in favour of, especially at the municipal level where being in favour of something almost invariably means raising revenues through taxes.

But there won’t always be flashpoint issues for left-wingers to oppose. They need to get better at telling voters what they want to do, and how they want to do it. Until progressive politicians stop shying away from the reality that building a great city means paying for a great city, their message will always be muddled.

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