Analysis

John Tory has no high-profile opponents for mayor — but he does have grassroots challengers

With no big-name challengers in the mayoral race, and only 24 hours to go before sign-ups close at city hall, John Tory looks poised to sail into a second term — but he does have critics hoping to end his time in the top job.

It's typical to have lack of big name candidates running against incumbent, experts say

With no big-name challengers in the mayoral race, and only 24 hours to go before sign-ups close at city hall, John Tory looks poised to sail into a second term. (Martin Trainor/CBC News)

On King Street this morning, Mayor John Tory was all smiles while wishing children a good day at camp and chatting with residents on their way to work.

And he has reason to be chipper today.

With no big-name challengers in the mayoral race, and only 24 hours to go before sign-ups close at city hall, Tory looks poised to sail into a second term — a far cry from four years ago, when he faced off against Olivia Chow and now-Premier Doug Ford.

But while some have questioned the lack of high-profile interest in the top job — something others are still hoping will change before Friday's 2 p.m. ET deadline — political watchers say the lack of recognized candidates is no surprise.

"Is it a big story that [Tory] doesn't have many challengers? Not in the context of a sitting mayor seeking a second term. That's very common," says Gabriel Eidelman, director of the Urban Policy Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

"There's not usually a big gathering of folks in the second-term race," echoes Kim Wright, who oversees the municipal affairs practice at Hill+Knowlton, a public affairs firm.

Mayor John Tory is back on the campaign trail, and he's brought a team with him to King Street on Thursday morning. (Martin Trainor/CBC News)

Take, for instance, Mel Lastman's second-term win as mega-city mayor in 2000: His main competitor was politician and environmental activist Tooker Gomberg, who wound up only winning roughly 9 per cent of the vote compared to Lastman's whopping 80 per cent.

Six years later, a similar scene, with incumbent mayor David Miller's only major challenger being then-councillor Jane Pitfield. With 37 other candidates in total for mayor that year, Miller handily defeated all of them with 60 per cent of the vote.

More than 20 people in 2018 mayoral race

This year, after Lastman's son Blayne Lastman confirmed he won't be running despite rampant speculation, 23 other people are still challenging Tory.

The group is a mix of activists, policy wonks, lawyers and community advocates.

None are household names, but a few are poised to challenge Tory on his track record on transit, road safety, gun violence, and other hot-button issues, including Saron Gebresellassi, a 31-year old lawyer and activist, and Sarah Climenhaga, a perennial city hall deputant and supporter of safe street design.

Throughout the campaign season, Climenhaga has been an outspoken advocate whose online brand involves challenging the decisions coming from Tory's current council through a grassroots, listen-to-the-people lens.

"Action must be taken on gun violence," she tweeted this week. "But listen to the experts and affected communities. Such action cannot be reactionary or harmful."

Gebresellassi is also speaking out against Tory's track record, questioning why it took him four years to create a standing committee on affordable housing. She calls that issue a "crisis."

Both women say they offer a different voice from a status quo: Climenhaga has talked about rising above the polarization at city hall, a tone she feels is set by Tory, while Gebresellassi sees herself as a more authentic champion for working-class Torontonians than the current mayor.

"We recognized very early on that his big advantage is going to be budget," she says. "He has a lot more money available at his disposal. What we have that he doesn't have in a number of ways is people."

Diverse people, specifically, including first-time voters and immigrants — groups Gebresellassi believes she can reach, in part, through her ability to speak Spanish, French, Tigrinya, German, sign language, and some Arabic.

Toronto lawyer and activist Saron Gebresellassi, left, and local safe streets advocate and mother of three Sarah Climenhaga, right, are both planning to run for mayor.

'He's been very strategic'

But political watchers say even the most driven candidates will have a tough time toppling Tory. All the way into last fall, one year before this October's municipal election, two surveys by Forum Research and Campaign Research each gave Tory an approval rating of 53 and 59 per cent, respectively.

"He's been appealing to a majority of the electorate, as well as he can be," says Eidelman. "He's been very strategic as to how he sets himself up."

"So the challenge for anybody who would be criticizing him is finding something powerful enough that it can take down that general mayor-for-all-the-people approach," adds John Matheson, head of the municipal practice group at StrategyCorp.

For his part, Tory says he still has unfinished work to do, and it's clear he's eager to get out on the campaign trail.

"I'm going to campaign hard to keep this job, because I want to make sure the city stays safe," he says. "I want to make sure the transit plan gets implemented. I want to make sure we address affordable housing."

About the Author

Lauren Pelley

City Hall reporter

Lauren Pelley is a CBC reporter in Toronto covering city hall and municipal affairs. Contact her at: lauren.pelley@cbc.ca