John Tory vs. Jennifer Keesmaat: campaign promises are expensive, attacks come cheap

If you love candidates getting in digs at one another, this election has been for you. But if you’re in the market for substantive campaign promises about issues that affect the city, there hasn’t been much there yet.

Toronto's mayoral race has been about personal attacks, not policy, writes Matt Elliott

Toronto's former chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat, left, is hoping to unseat the current mayor, John Tory, in this fall's election, and she's been quick to attack his record in online videos. Tory, meanwhile, is firing back.

This week, mayoral candidate Jennifer Keesmaat did something we haven't seen much since Toronto's race for mayor kicked off in earnest just over a month ago: she announced some actual policy.

The former chief planner's roll-out of her transit plan came after weeks of mostly negative campaigning from both Keesmaat and incumbent John Tory.

If you love candidates getting in digs at one another, this election has been for you. But if you're in the market for substantive campaign promises about issues that affect the city, there hasn't been much there yet.

So far, despite the occasional policy announcement, both candidates have bet big on negative campaigning.

Ads released online last week by both the Tory and Keesmaat camp suggest both campaigns are working from similar playbooks. The key message from each side is not that their candidate has a vision that make them especially suited to hold the office, but rather that their opponent is bad.

Tory camp paints Keesmaat as a separatist

Tory's ad is the more blatant of the two. It focuses exclusively on Keesmaat's tweets suggesting Toronto should secede from Ontario. The tweets came after news that Premier Doug Ford intended to cut the size of Toronto council, and she later said she was merely expressing "frustration" and that her tweets were "not a policy statement."

Undeterred, the nearly two-minute video features interviews filmed on Toronto streets with people who believe the notion of secession is ludicrous. The underlying message to voters is that a candidate who even briefly contemplated secession just isn't up for the serious job of being mayor.

But this is a curious strategy for Tory.

Name recognition is among Keesmaat's most significant barriers to election — one of the interviewees even says he does not know who she is — but the ad repeats her name a whole lot.

Tory's name, on the other hand, is said only once, and he does not appear in the ad.

Keesmaat calls out Tory 'dithering'

Keesmaat's ad differs from Tory in that it does feature an actual mayoral candidate. In her ad, Keesmaat uses the backdrop of Union Station to call out Tory's SmartTrack transit plan as a "mirage."

"No more dithering," she says. "We need a mayor with a plan."

The attacks on SmartTrack and the characterization of Tory as a ditherer have quickly become a regular of the Keesmaat campaign script.

The substance of her transit plan announcement was revealed only after she pointed out Tory has significantly reduced the scope of his SmartTrack plan since he introduced it in his 2014 election campaign. And her campaign launch speech on August 23 contained four references to dithering.

The criticisms of Tory are pointed, but also underscore that Keesmaat has yet to find a significant policy disagreement to use as a wedge against Tory.

Her most significant announcements to date — her transit plan, and a pledge to build 100,000 rental housing units — aren't a major departure from the plans Tory has advanced.

Her pitch is that she can do this stuff better, and faster, though there are still many unanswered questions, especially when it comes to paying for her promises.

The tax question

A constraining factor for both candidates is how, if elected as mayor, they'll find the money to deliver on any campaign promise that deviates from the status quo.

Tory has promised to keep residential property taxes at or below the rate of inflation, a decision that greatly restrains the city's ability to introduce any new spending.

Keesmaat has yet to reveal her tax plan — something Tory's camp is quick to point out — but her decision on whether to follow Tory's lead will be critical.

With no obvious untapped options at the municipal level, any major service expansion or city-building project will likely require a property tax increase, or another major city-wide fee.

Once a candidate takes that giant issue off the table, there is not much they can do beyond criticizing their opponent. Campaign promises are expensive. Attacks come cheap.


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