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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford walks past candidate Olivia Chow (L), pauses before a Toronto Mayoral election debate in Toronto, March 26, 2014. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford walks past candidate Olivia Chow (L), pauses before a Toronto Mayoral election debate in Toronto, March 26, 2014. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

MARCUS GEE

Chow’s campaign strategy: out-Ford the mayor Add to ...

In the opening weeks of her campaign for mayor, Olivia Chow has been trying to beat Rob Ford at his own game – appealing to hard-pressed ordinary people who feel short-changed by government.

In her first speech, she sounded positively Fordian when she said “we’ve all paid more and more, and got less and less.” In her first debate with other candidates, she chided the mayor, who paints himself as a champion of the taxpayer, for rising water rates and other fees.

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She staged her first policy announcement at Jane and Wilson, a struggling suburban neighbourhood where she talked about improving rush-hour bus service. “Rob Ford says he stands up for the little guy,” she said. “That’s news to people on the bus.” She staged her second on Eglinton east in Scarborough, where she stood in a local store and talked about lightening the tax burden on small businesses.

Traditionally, politicians of the left tend to say thing like “great cities don’t come cheap” or “we need to invest in the future” or “taxes are the price of civilization.” There has been no trace of anything like that from the Chow camp so far.

Instead, she has been attacking Mr. Ford for the things he usually attacks others for – picking taxpayers’ pockets and wasting their money. She says he is wasting a billion dollars on a subway to Scarborough when a much cheaper light-rail line would do a better job. She says neither he nor John Tory has any idea where they will get the money to pay for their “faraway ideas” on transit.

None of this is accidental. Ms. Chow’s team decided that, to beat Mr. Ford, they had to appeal to many of the voters who backed him in 2010. To dismiss his victory then as an anomaly, or to discount those who voted for him as stupid or deluded, would be a mistake. He tapped into something real: a sense that city hall was remote, overfed and possibly corrupt.

To out-Ford Mr. Ford, they concluded they had to address that sense of alienation. One way they are doing it is through the kind of pocketbook populism we saw in the bus-service and small-business announcements. Another way is to remind voters that Ms. Chow came to Toronto as an immigrant from Hong Kong and lived in St. James Town. The hope is that with policy aimed at the everyday troubles of regular folks and a life story that gives her a claim to understand them, she can make a connection with voters.

Will it work? Although Ms. Chow is off to a strong start, out-Fording Mr. Ford is no easy trick. Even as thoroughly disgraced as he is, the mayor is a master at this small-ball politics. It is no mystery why he has been spending so much time touring public housing. On Friday, he summoned reporters to talk about his war on potholes.

Even if it proves to be smart strategy, it is not clear Ms. Chow’s approach is good for the city. It’s fine to focus on everyday concerns, but Toronto has some big problems that need a long-term fix.

If the buses are crowded, it is partly because the city has failed to build ambitious rapid-transit projects like a downtown relief line. Calling them “faraway ideas” ensures they will remain so.

Let’s hope that in her vote-seeking plan to home in on the troubles of today, she doesn’t forget about a vision for tomorrow.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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