How non-partisan mayors can influence a partisan election campaign

It's a tightrope for mayors to walk: weighing in on the federal election while remaining non-partisan.

Any mayor 'needs to work with whoever is in power, whether it's orange, blue, red or green.'

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau met with mayors from the Greater Toronto Area on Tuesday. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

It's a tightrope for mayors to walk: weighing in on federal election issues while remaining politically unaligned to federal parties. 

Mayors play an important role in the political conversation at campaign time. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau signalled their importance by holding a roundtable with mayors from the Greater Toronto Area focused on gun violence. 

While some mayors have clear links to the parties, and a few have even made official endorsements in past campaigns, among the current crop of mayors in the GTA, such partisan tendencies are largely being shelved.  

Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie used to be a Liberal MP. Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown used to be a Conservative MP. Now as mayors, both decline to publicly back the parties whose banners they previously campaigned under.

"I limit my role to encouraging my residents to vote for a party that will invest in our city," said Crombie in an interview with CBC Toronto. "That's as far as I'm willing to go. I try to be very non-partisan." 

Some important issues affecting the people of Brampton aren't being adequately addressed in the federal election campaign, says the city's mayor, Patrick Brown. (CBC)

Asked how much influence a mayor can have in an election, Crombie laughed and said, "Well, we've certainly seen the role that [Mississauga's longtime former mayor] Hazel McCallion has played in the past." 

For Brown, being non-partisan at campaign time is a new thing.  

"This is my first federal election that I've ever sat out in my entire adult life," said Brown, who became active as a teenager in the federal party that was then called Progressive Conservative. 

Since becoming mayor last fall, Brown has met with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. 

"The reality is a mayor of a municipality needs to work with whoever is in power, whether it's orange, blue, red or green," Brown said in an interview. "I at least appreciate that they're all taking the time to listen."

Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie says she limits her role 'to encouraging my residents to vote for a party that will invest in our city.' Crombie served one term as a Liberal member of Parliament. (CBC)

One key reason federal party leaders listen to mayors: the majority of Canadian voters live in cities, and by far the bulk of battleground ridings in the federal election are in cities, whether urban or suburban.  

"I think you have quite a bit of political influence on actually shaping the policies and platforms of these parties," said Toronto Mayor John Tory in an interview with CBC Toronto. "You don't have a lot of power in our constitutional setup as a mayor, but what you do have is a platform."

It's not difficult to advocate for Toronto in a non-partisan way, said Tory, but he added it can be challenging to be perceived as non-partisan when he gives his views of party promises.

"That's my job," said Tory. "I have to assess these policies and talk about them on their merits for the citizens and the government of the city of Toronto."

Tory sees a mixed bag from the parties so far: he says all of them are addressing some of the issues that are important to Toronto, while no party is promising as much as he wants. His top concerns are long-term transit funding, gun crime and affordable housing. 

Big city mayors can have 'quite a bit of political influence' on shaping federal parties' policies and platforms, said Toronto Mayor John Tory. (Oliver Walters/CBC)

Despite having sat on opposite sides of the aisle in Parliament, Crombie and Brown want similar things from the federal parties for their respective cities including solid funding commitments to help build infrastructure, and more support to deal with gun-and-gang crime.

"There's concern that some of those important issues that affect our day-to-day lives are not being addressed," said Brown.

"You see every political leader spend a lot of time in the 905," he added. "Making announcements and seeing the funding flow are two very different things." 

Crombie says Mississauga has made "every effort" to let local candidates know what the city's issues are, through a campaign called Mississauga Matters.

This includes a push to make voters aware too, in the hopes that canvassers will hear the message when they go to door-to-door, and flag the issues to party decision-makers.

About the Author

Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C.


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