Why the balance of power on city council could rest on a handful of races

We now know how many seats are up for grabs on Toronto city council in municipal elections next month, now that Premier Doug Ford has succeeded in slashing the number of wards from 47 to 25. But after all the votes are counted, what will that council look like?

With veteran incumbents going head-to-head, it's not clear what political stripe will prevail

Nominations for city council races in all 25 wards officially closed Friday. (John Rieti/CBC)

One big question about Toronto's municipal election has finally been answered. Barring something truly absurd, voters will elect 25 councillors on Oct. 22.

Lots of questions remain, however. An important one: what will this new 25-member city council look like? And how will they vote on the big issues coming their way over the next four years?

Because there's a lot coming, and it will come quickly. Soon after they take their oath of office, councillors are due to receive a report with updated costs on the controversial Scarborough subway project. They'll have to decide whether to keep the subway on track.

They'll also have to deal with setting a municipal budget for 2019. With that will come questions about raising property taxes and funding programs, and how to best respond to projections showing the city could have a $1.4- billion gap in its operating budget by 2023.

But wait, there's more.

After a year of trial operation, councillors will be asked whether the King Street pilot which gives priority to streetcars should become permanent. They'll also need to continue to figure out how to best respond to deaths on Toronto streets – both from violent shootings and from traffic collisions.

The decisions made on these issues will hinge on who wins office next month, and how they decide to vote on these issues.

Councillor versus councillor match-ups will help determine city's future path

With nominations finally closed, the new boundaries have created 11 wards where council incumbents will square off with other incumbents. Based on analysis of voting records I've identified the races from this set most likely to lead to an ideological shift in the make-up of council.

To do this, I considered voting records on five key issues from the last term — the Scarborough subway, keeping residential property taxes below inflation, the King street pilot, the Bloor Street bike lanes and opposition to the province's council cut — along with data from my City Council Scorecard, which tracks how often councillors voted with the mayor. For longer-tenured councillors, I considered data from both the 2010-2014 term and the 2014-2018 term.

There are eight incumbent-versus-incumbent showdowns where the councillors have similar voting records. This includes races like North Etobicoke's Ward 1, where Coun. Michael Ford is squaring off with Coun. Vince Crisanti. Both frequently vote the same way on major items.

The same goes in Ward 14, which includes the neighbourhoods of Leslieville and Riverdale, where Coun. Paula Fletcher is matched up against Coun. Mary Fragedakis.

With some veteran incumbents going head-to-head in a handful of wards, it's not clear whether city council will be dominated by conservatives or progressives. (Lauren Pelley/CBC)

In these cases, while the outcomes will be interesting, the policy stakes are lower. Assuming one of the two incumbents prevails, the new councillor for Ward 1 is likely to support the Scarborough subway and favour keeping property taxes low, for instance, where the new councillor for Ward 14 is likely to oppose the subway project and favour raising property taxes when necessary to fund services.

That leaves three councillor-versus-councillor races where voting records are significantly different. These are the races that are most likely to really determine the ideological bent of Toronto's government. These are the ones likely to matter most.

The races:

Ward 6 York Centre: Coun. Maria Augimeri vs. Coun. James Pasternak: Augimeri opposes the Scarborough subway, is open to property tax increases to pay for services and supports the King Street pilot. Pasternak voted the other way on all issues.

Ward 7 Humber River-Black Creek: Coun. Giorgio Mammoliti vs. Coun. Anthony Perruzza: Giorgio Mammoliti votes against almost everything when he's at a city council meeting, and has a reputation for causing controversy in other places. Opponent Perruzza is known as a progressive councillor, who supported the King Street pilot, Bloor Street bike lanes and a bunch of other projects Mammoliti opposed. Candidate Tiffany Ford is also running a much-watched campaign in this ward, and may be able to take advantage of a vote split.

Giorgio Mammoliti has one of the worst attendance records among councillors, but is still responsible for many of its most dysfunctional moments. (Tina MacKenzie/CBC)

Ward 13 Toronto Centre: Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam vs. Coun Lucy Troisi: Wong-Tam won re-election in 2014 with more than 62 per cent of the vote. Troisi has never received a vote, having been appointed to council following the death of Coun. Pam McConnell, but she's got a high profile in the community as the former executive director of the Cabbagetown Youth Centre.

Troisi is decidedly more centrist than Wong-Tam, having voted with Tory 81 per cent of the time on major council items, compared to Wong-Tam who voted with Tory 40 per cent of the time. Former MPP and one-time mayoral candidate George Smitherman is also in this race, and could shake things up.

In addition to these three incumbent-versus-incumbent battles, there are two open seats — Ward 19 in Beaches-East York and Ward 23 in Scarborough North. With a smaller number of councillors, the winners of these two races will hold huge influence over council decision-making.

Don't count on a more conservative — or more progressive — city council

Despite some indication that it was part of the reason he did it, Premier Ford's council cut does not guarantee a more conservative council.

With no other incumbent opponent and many would-be challengers dropping out of the race to clear the way, downtown councillors like Gord Perks, Joe Cressy and Mike Layton are all heavy favourites to be re-elected.

Joe Cressy is one of several downtown city councillors heavily favoured to win re-election. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Other progressive-minded candidates like Shelley Carroll (who resigned from council earlier this year to make a failed bid for a seat at Queen's Park), Coun. John Filion and Coun. Neethan Shan also have good odds to pull off victories.

Ideologically, the new council is likely to be a whole lot like the old council: It will be split, with left-leaning, right-leaning and centrist voting blocs.

The difference this time is that with fewer seats, each race will matter so much more. The outcomes of just a handful of races will shift the balance of power — and with that power, the future of the city.