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Why some Toronto council hopefuls face an uphill battle, even though they're running in open wards

CBC.ca
Oct. 19, 2022

Grant Gonzales makes his way through the hallways of a condo building on Toronto's Dupont Street, knocking on doors and introducing himself to potential voters.

The first-time candidate running for city council in the Oct. 24 municipal election is one of nine hoping to replace Deputy Mayor Ana Bail√£o, who chose not to run again in Ward 9, Davenport, after 12 years in office.

"The response has been absolutely positive at the door," Gonzales told CBC Toronto.

"I've been able to share my vision for the community and ... we'll find out what happens on election day but I'm very optimistic about our chances."

Even with no incumbent, Gonzales and the other candidates are facing one challenger who started the race with a high profile and a track record of earning votes.

Alejandra Bravo has run for the Davenport seat three times and once federally for the New Democratic Party, losing by only hundreds of votes each time.

While open races such as the one in Davenport are supposed to be among the most competitive, experts say the name recognition and campaign experience that come from previous runs for political office -- successful or not -- gives certain candidates better odds of winning.

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"In a highly contested race where there's an open seat ... you don't need 50 per cent plus one. You need 20, 30, maybe 40 per cent to win," said Jim Burnett, a political consultant at the firm Pathway Group who's worked on municipal, provincial and federal election campaigns.

"So if you have a brand that you can associate with from your name, you can build on that and be able to get those people who know you, who trust you and get you, get them out to vote"

Not so competitive after all?
This dynamic is playing out in several open council races across the city.

Chris Moise was a council candidate in 2018 but pulled out of the race after Premier Doug Ford slashed the size of council from 47 to 25 wards in the middle of the campaign. Instead of running against his friend Kristyn Wong-Tam in Ward 13, Toronto Centre, he successfully campaigned for re-election as a trustee on the Toronto District School Board -- earning more than 18,000 votes.

In Willowdale, Lily Cheng, who's the executive director of the NeighbourLink North York food bank, is taking another shot after placing second last election. She took in 5,149 votes against former councillor John Filion's 8,104.

And former councillor Jon Burnside is hoping to return to city hall after losing narrowly to Jaye Robinson last time around.

Burnett said while the name recognition and campaign experience these candidates have may position them as favourites, it's not enough to win on its own.

"Previous involvement in the community means a lot because you have trusted people who are out there, who believe in you and are out there knocking on doors for you or taking sides," said Burnett.

He cited work with local associations, community organizations, clubs and sports teams as major assets.

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Endorsements carry some weight, too. John Tory, who is running for a third term as mayor, has endorsed Burnside and Gonzales this time around, while advocacy group Progress Toronto has endorsed Moise.

Still, there's nothing more effective than engaging with voters face-to-face.

On the campaign trail in Regent Park
Across the city in Regent Park, council candidate Nicki Ward is delivering signs to supporters.

She's one of eight candidates running against Moise in Toronto Centre, and is leaning on her decades of human rights advocacy for the LGBTQ2S community, people with disabilities, as well as on environmental issues and housing.

"After the course of 35 years, you get known in the community for what you've done, not necessarily what other people say you've done, but what you've actually suited up, shown up and and done," Ward told CBC Toronto.

"That stands for something."

Ward placed fourth for the Green Party in this year's Ontario election, losing by more than 13,000 votes. This time around, she said her campaign's assessment is that she's running neck-and-neck with Moise. Safety, mental health and addictions and housing are her primary concerns.

"This has been an election where at the mayoral level, there's not a lot of excitement, but here in Toronto Centre, there's a lot of activity. People are looking for an alternative. They are tired of the status quo. They're tired of the partisan politics and the gridlock at city hall," Ward said.

With just days to go until voting day, Ward and Gonzales say they'll keep doing what they can to overcome the odds -- door-by-door, sign-by-sign, voter-by-voter.