Rob Ford and four other mayoral candidates debated transit, finances and leadership on Wednesday, during a televised debate that saw the incumbent repeatedly tout his record over the past four years, while taking a few digs at his opponents along the way.
In alphabetical order, Olivia Chow, David Soknacki, Karen Stintz and John Tory were the four other candidates participating in the debate, which was broadcast on City News and kicked off at 5 p.m.
In total, more than 40 people are seeking Ford’s job in the October election — though Wednesday’s debate featured only the incumbent and four other high-profile contenders.
More than an hour into the debate, Ford was hit with a direct question from a reporter about the drug-related scandal that has clouded his administration for much of the past year.
Asked to explain how voters can trust his judgment, Ford said they should look to his record as mayor.
"People have heard the story. It’s rewind, rewind, rewind," Ford said.
"People know my track record. They know they can go to sleep at night, knowing that their tax dollars are being watched."
Ford's fellow candidates stayed away from directly asking him about a so-called crack tape and other scandals that have made the incumbent mayor world famous.
When Ford was pushed during an earlier exchange in the debate on his ability to lead, he suggested that three of the opponents in the room lacked respect for taxpayers and the fourth was inconsistent in her support for subway development.
Stintz said she heard Ford "talk a lot about respect for the taxpayer," but she suggested that elected officials had an obligation to act as role models.
"Some do have respect for taxpayers, Karen, you’re absolutely right. And some don’t," Ford responded.
In a reference to Soknacki and Chow, Ford said that "unfortunately these two people to my right do not." He then added Tory to that list and remarked that Stintz had "been all over the place on the TTC."
Until recently, Stintz had served as the chair of the Toronto Transit Commission in addition to her regular duties as councillor. But she stepped down from that role immediately before formally filing her papers to run for mayor.
Chow a target, too
On several occasions during Wednesday’s debate, mayoral contenders took apparent shots at Chow and her affiliation with the New Democratic Party.
Chow had sat for more than eight years in the House of Commons as a New Democrat, representing the Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina. She resigned her seat in order to pursue her current mayoral bid.
During the back-and-forth of the debate, Chow was more than once cast as being an NDP candidate in the mayoral election, or words to that effect.
In his opening remarks, Tory referred to "Olivia Chow, the NDP’s candidate for mayor," before going on to criticize her positions on subway-related transit issues.
In a segment of the debate that related to finances, Stintz twice referenced the fact that the city could not go back to "NDP budget practices."
Chow had sat on the budget committee when she served as a city councillor in the past.
Later on, Stintz said that both Soknacki and Chow were once "part of Team [David] Miller…and we heard loud and clear in the last election that voters wanted change. They didn’t like those NDP spending practices."
But Chow had her own jabs for her opponents.
Moments after the mayor’s opening remarks referenced that he had been elected to "stop the gravy train," Chow said Ford needed to go "because your gravy train has turned into a train wreck."
The mayor also made reference to the NDP.
"Everybody can talk about saving money: I've done it," he said. "We don't need a left-wing tax-and-spend NDP government."
'Taxed to death'
From the very start of the debate, Ford stuck to the theme that he has delivered on keeping a close watch on public money.
He boasted about his first term as mayor and said that when he was first elected four years ago, he heard from many people who told him they were "sick and tired" of "being taxed to death."
'Rob Ford wants to waste $1 billion on his transit plan in Scarborough' - Toronto mayoral candidate Olivia Chow
Ford said the city had "the lowest tax increase over the last three years compared to any North American city." He said residents had also benefited when he eliminated a vehicle registration tax, when he cut back council’s budget and when he contracted out some garbage collection.
Some of his opponents, however, took aim at the mayor's support of a subway extension in Scarborough and the amount of money it will cost to make it a reality.
Soknacki said that Ford had come to power pledging respect for taxpayers, but that the mayor then pushed for a subway extension in Scarborough that will cost $1 billion.
"His plan disrespects taxpayers," Soknacki said. "Truth is, he’s never bothered to look at the price tag."
Chow also took a shot at the Scarborough subway plan.
Candidates speaking over each other
"Rob Ford wants to waste $1 billion on his transit plan in Scarborough," she said.
There were also some testy exchanges when the candidates had three minutes to mix it up on the finances issue.
Ford addressed Soknacki as "Mr. Ex-Budget Chief" and he accused him of causing "a mess" that had to be cleaned up.
Soknacki, who served as a budget chief under former mayor David Miller, said that Ford had only been able to achieve savings through surpluses that were delivered under the previous administration.
Chow pointed to the experience that both she and Soknacki had from their prior stints on council.
"David Soknacki and I actually are the two persons on this panel that have been on a budget committee that did the hard, line-by-line work," Chow said.
"And you sunk the ship," Ford said, in a comment that drew some laughter.
Several candidates were speaking at the same time at various points during the debate, making it difficult to hear the entirety of all exchanges.
Transit, finances and leadership
Wednesday’s debate was to focus on three core topics — transit, finances and leadership.
Each candidate had one minute to lay out their position on each of those topics. A bell rang to signify that their time was up. After those individual statements, the mayoral contenders had several minutes of open debate on each topic.
Transit was the first topic of debate.
Chow and Soknacki spoke about their desire to build a light-rail line in Scarborough, rather than the subway that council has approved. Tory, Stintz and Ford opposed this concept.
"I’ll cancel the three-stop subway extension proposed by Rob Ford that requires the largest tax increase in the city’s history — $1 billion," Soknacki said during his to turn to deliver a one-minute statement before the transit debate got underway.
Chow charged that Ford had championed a subway project in Scarborough "just so he can say: 'Subways, subways, subways,' in this campaign."
'Focus on the fix'
She said a "better choice" was to build above-ground transit that would be built faster, with more service stops and be delivered at a lower cost.
Stintz spoke immediately after Chow and Soknacki during the transit section of the debate.
"What you have heard is the wrong approach," she said. "We have had this fight. Now we need to focus on the fix."
Tory said the city needs to build both the subway in Scarborough and a proposed downtown relief subway line, which has not been approved.
"We don’t need to open old debates, procrastinate, divide. That’s what we’ve done. We need to build," he said.
"All of the governments have agreed to build and to finance the Scarborough subway. I will get on with implementing that decision and making it work."
Ford, who is seeking a second term as mayor, was clear about his preference for subways.
"There is no competition here, folks. This is a no-brainer. We cannot support LRTs," Ford said.
Ford argued that "subways are efficient and they move people the quickest."
The Oct. 27 election is still nearly seven months away.