Olivia Chow won the Battle of Toronto. Can she win the war?

WITHcompared to management it is easy to win elections. And while Olivia Chow and her team can’t describe their victory in the Toronto mayoral by-election as a cakewalk, the challenges they now face are significant. As mayor, Chow must navigate a continually underfunded Toronto while at the same time building relationships with a divided city council, a Progressive Conservative Ontario government that loves to intimidate provincial cities, a liberal federal government facing its own problems, and a progressive a community that has high hopes for it.

If you followed the results on Election Night, you saw a head to head race that Ana Bailao led for part of the night. By the time the count was complete, Chow had moved ahead with 269,372 votes to Bailao’s 235,175: a margin of just under 5 percent—a comfortable but unlikely breakthrough. The former city councilman and deputy mayor of Bailao was supported by John Tory, whose scandalous resignation as mayor prompted the by-election in the first place. Bailao has been described as a “pragmatic centrist” characterizing a group of Canadian politicians at various levels of government. Her campaign made her look like an establishment candidate proposing the same thing. And “same” for the naysayers meant underinvestment in the city and deprioritization of public space, hallmarks of the Tory era. Chow was not an establishment candidate; her campaign was based on a break with that past, advocating increased income, community engagement, and a city where everyone could feel at home.

This difference may matter. Indeed, this could serve the new mayor well. If investment in public infrastructure, backed by community support, pays off, the city could see results. Better, safer, more frequent transit. Or more accessible houses and people from the street. Accessible and clean public parks and places. Garbage cans with a place for garbage. Saman Tabasinejad, acting executive director of Progress Toronto, a progressive advocacy group, says Chow has set the bar high. “With John Tory, we had to fight for such basic things as opening toilets in parks,” she says. “Whereas we are in a different scenario now. The lawyers have a man who has shown that he listens and meets with the activists.”

This other script became official on Wednesday, July 12, when Chow rode his bike to City Hall to be sworn in as mayor in a ceremony presided over by actor Jin Yoon. Two days earlier, Chow had called for an overhaul of Ontario’s property valuation system following the incident. Toronto Star an investigation that found a disparity between the richest and poorest owners, with the former not paying their share compared to the latter.

Chow’s victory offers a chance to rule Toronto in a new way. She also represents a racist community that has been shut out from the city’s upper management despite being a large part of its population. She was born into a middle-class family in Hong Kong in 1957 and came to Canada with them in 1970. By 1985, she had entered politics as a school trustee. She later became a member of the Toronto City Council and later a Member of Parliament. She ran for mayor of Toronto in 2014 and lost. In 2015, she tried to return to federal politics, but lost the election to Liberal Adam Vaughan. Losses didn’t stop her. But now she faces a bigger challenge than those elections: to change the course of a city that has long stubbornly walked in the same direction.

Bbuild another city means adopting a different way of thinking about cities. It also means a new way of doing business. Tabacinejad believes Chow’s approach of relying on social movements to strengthen his mandate while standing in front of other levels of government will work. “One thing that sets Olivia apart from her predecessors is the fact that she’s going to negotiate in public,” she says. Tory and Bailao were chosen as lead negotiators with connections who could work behind the scenes and at all levels of government, but Tabasinejad did not buy into this. “That’s nonsense,” she counters. “It didn’t work.” Backroom deals and pats on the back of buddy politics won’t help you just yet. Cozy relationships with the elite are one thing, but without public pressure and support from mainstream communities, politicians are likely to shy away from making difficult or controversial decisions, such as reallocating resources from the police to community-led, non-police programs. What’s more, it’s all too easy for politicians behind the scenes to accept that what their well-to-do pals in suits are telling them is gospel truth.

But to succeed, there’s another key part of her city hall that Chow will have to unlock: convincing non-progressives that her break from Toronto of the past is better for the city’s future. You might look at overflowing trash cans and public transit delays and think the argument is obvious, but getting Torontons to invest in their city—yes, taxes—after years of austerity is a project. Chow is facing an entrenched political establishment, and many members of that establishment appear to be convinced that her election will lead to a Marxist revolution. The Canadian Federation of Taxpayers called her “a threat to Toronto taxpayers”. During the race, Ontario premier Doug Ford spoke out against Chow as a “leftist” mayor, saying her victory would be “a real disaster” and warning that her tenure would alienate business from the city. Tabacinejad says that progressives “should talk to the people on the ground” and “create a grassroots movement and dispel people’s fears.” This entails spreading Chow’s agenda throughout the city and pressuring city council members, Premier Ford and Premier Trudeau to join them.

A few days after winning the election, Chow faced her first skirmish with the province over the Ford government’s Ontario Place project. The twelve-acre renovation includes an upscale spa, an expanded entertainment center and a huge garage. The City of Toronto said part of the project “crushes public space” and “prioritizes private use” by limiting waterfront access to those willing to pay. Chow is fighting for this public space, but the Ford government has played what it probably considers obscene. “Unless an agreement is reached to transfer water or land owned by the City of Toronto to the Government of Ontario, expropriation will be required,” according to a report prepared for the government’s environmental assessment of the project. In short, the Ford government needs redevelopment space, and it will get it one way or another, even if it has to force the city to give it up.

The redevelopment of Ontario Place seems like the perfect subject for Chow to take the stand. She made a promise to “keep Ontario Place open to the public” and she’s sticking to that promise. She must. Her vision for the city is based on inclusiveness, which means maximizing public space that is accessible and open to all.

When asked about the environmental assessment report, she said she would sue the Ford government if it tried to seize city land. “Hopefully we don’t get to the stage where the two levels of government are going to meet each other in court,” she said, noting that the option is “available.”

Will it work? Let’s see. The fight for Ontario Place is an example of how Chow will balance movement building, reconciliation and struggle. She cannot please everyone. That is the nature of government. The question is whether she can choose her battles wisely over the next three years, capitalize on the support of social movements, and implement structural changes in the city’s political priorities. But wrestling is what the progressive left is used to. What they are less used to is winning.

David Moskrop

David Moskrop – political theorist, columnist Washington Postand the author Too stupid for democracy?

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