In a cramped City Hall committee room last month, several members of the city’s ethnic press organization spent more than three hours diligently questioning nine mayoral aspirants: the four leading rivals to Mayor Rob Ford, who wasn’t present, as well as four (significantly) lesser known challengers.
Rounding out the pack was Women’s Post publisher Sarah Thomson, who enjoys enough name recognition from her 2010 campaign to escape the “fringe” designation, but not quite enough to be considered mainstream.
While the front-running candidates – Olivia Chow, John Tory, Karen Stintz, and David Soknacki – repeated their campaign messages and traded shots, the others on the panel offered up ideas less, well, constrained by political calculation.
Ms. Thomson outlined a plan for how she’d force non-416 drivers on the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner to pay tolls, and then use the revenue to build subways everywhere.
Michael Nicula explained that his approach to kick-starting transit would be to make it free for three years, thus drawing enough people off the roads to allow construction crews to work quickly.
Morgan Baskin, an 18-year-old high school student, talked about how she’s in the race to draw attention to youth issues.
While the lengthy session lacked zing because the format didn’t allow candidates to debate one another, the presence of some fringe candidates did mark a contrast to the earlier, and more raucous, mayoral debates, at CITY-TV and Ryerson. Yet, with the provincial race over and public attention refocused on the mayoral campaign, the debate also raised questions about how non-mainstream candidates will figure, if at all, in the dozens of such sessions that will occur in the coming months.
Case in point: some of the better-known fringe candidates – musician Richard Underhill, and lawyer Ari Goldkind, who has been energetically drumming up attention for his candidacy – weren’t present. “I hate being lumped in with the fringe candidates,” Mr. Goldkind said.
At this point, 61 candidates have registered to run. Most of them won’t raise funds, campaign or influence the outcome.
In 2010, Ms. Thomson, a political unknown, found herself included in the debates because she was the only woman on the ballot. This time around, the names of a handful of several other determined second-tier candidates – among them Mr. Goldkind and Ms. Baskin – have bobbed to the surface. Both have attracted media attention.
These challengers, of course, want a platform to air their views. But the mainstream candidates, eager to make their positions known in a crowded race, aren’t keen on large and unwieldy debates. “Since it’s impossible to have a debate” with so many candidates, said Jamey Heath, spokesman for Olivia Chow, “organizers need to make choices that allow a diversity of views in a coherent way.”
“Less is more,” added Karen Stintz, who said that, as the campaign progresses, there should be fewer debates with fewer candidates.
Some outside observers think they need to earn their way onstage by generating buzz and public interest.
“They shouldn’t be gifted with artificial recognition,” said Ryerson political science professor Myer Siemiatycki. “The first mayoral debate called into question whether even five is too many.”
He observed that Ms. Thomson’s journey through the 2010 campaign is instructive: granted a spot on stage as the only woman running, her campaign would fizzle. “She ended up not building a significant base of support.”
Unlike federal and provincial campaigns, there’s no entity or party system that manages the debates, which, in Toronto races, are hosted by community organizations, academic institutions and service clubs. Consequently, no single group chooses the guest list; nor is there any kind of policy guideline.
The lesser-known challengers, therefore, face a Catch-22: because they aren’t at the debates, they have less opportunity to draw supporters, promote their views or have their names included on public opinion polls.
“It’s not very balanced right now,” said Mr. Underhill, who feels the serious second-tier candidates could offer a counterbalance to the “sloganeering and name-calling” of the five best-known challengers. Debate organizers, he added, “should go out of their way to incorporate some of the candidates that aren’t super mainstream, perhaps adding one or two people to balance the field.”
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