Analysis

With Olivia Chow's jaw-dropping loss, can the left ever win back Toronto?

It was Olivia Chow’s race to lose. And on election night, she indeed lost it.

Chow seemed like a near-perfect candidate at the onset of the election

Toronto mayoral candidate Olivia Chow speaks to supporters after John Tory was elected the city's new mayor in Toronto on Monday. (Michelle Siu/Canadian Press)

It was Olivia Chow's race to lose. And on election night, she indeed lost it.

Coming in a distant third in Toronto's mayoral race raises three exasperating questions for Chow and her supporters:

  1. How did this happen?
  2. What comes next for Chow?
  3. And, most importantly, can Toronto's left ever win again?

When Chow left her seat as a federal MP in Ottawa, she was Toronto's mayor-to-be.

And for good reason. She's an urban, controversy-free, progressive candidate who has won 10 elections representing Toronto — from trustee to councillor to member of Parliament.

She was a star in Ottawa, a leader in the NDP’s Orange Crush and the political counterpart to the beloved Jack Layton, her late husband.

She was the anti-Rob Ford, and seemed to be just what Toronto needed.

But the ascendant Chow was not to be.

For the same reasons she shone on Parliament Hill, she appeared to falter in mayoral debates.

Her messages of "putting children at the heart of the city" were barely audible among her more boisterous opponents.

The first crack in Chow's campaign came on a debate on July 15, when Rob Ford brought up her travel and personal expenses as an MP. The attack — Ford claimed she was among Ottawa's biggest spenders — clearly rattled Chow, who did not have a reply other than to say he had no idea what it's like to be an MP.

That answer, like most of Chow's points that night, were shouted down.

The broadsiding attacks and rowdy, no-holds-barred debates would be considered unparliamentary where Chow comes from. That culture simply does not exist in Ottawa.

Olivia Chow was the political counterpart to the beloved Jack Layton, her late husband. (Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press)

The 57-year-old was clearly more at home on Parliament Hill. But will she go back?

That will be the first question for Chow and her supporters. For several recent elections, Chow and the NDP were facing steeper competition from the Liberals in her old riding of Trinity-Spadina.

The byelection to fill Chow's vacancy showed that competition is even more fierce. Former councillor Adam Vaughan has taken the mantle, and enjoys broad popular appeal in the riding. By the 2015 elections, he'll have only been on the job for a year.

Will it be enough time for voters to decide to go back to the NDP and Chow? Or will she decide, after a gruelling year of campaigning, to do something else?

The bigger question is for the left in Toronto.

A devastating loss

If ever there was a perfect progressive candidate in Toronto, it was Chow. And she got fewer votes than Doug Ford.

To describe that as a jaw-dropping loss would be an understatement.

So the lingering debate there will be whether the left can ever win the mayor's seat again.

Results from the 2014 mayoral election. (CBC)

Mayor Rob Ford was a polemic politician, and his effectiveness as a mayor is very much still up for discussion. But he did convince much of the electorate that the city needs a business-minded mayor.

And on that front, Chow stood apart among the front-runners, all who professed to run the city as a business.

Chow touted no business experience and was the longest-serving politician among leading candidates — and she certainly looked the part in the debates.

Using the past two elections as a template, it's difficult to imagine a future race which doesn't include a successful businessperson using his or her corporate experience to win votes.

If the appetite for a money-managing mayor continues, will the left play along and source its next candidate from the business community? Or will the city tire of the corporate approach of a John Tory administration and elect a city builder next?

Those answers will likely depend on how Tory performs over the next four years.

Similarly, if the federal Liberals and specifically Vaughan fall out of favour, watch for a resurgence of Chow in her downtown riding.

Toronto may not be in the mood for progressives this election. But after the Tory victory, the next election will be the right's to lose.