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Councillor Karen Stintz insists she is not thinking about the consequences of a lopsided race with four of five candidates chasing votes on the centre and right. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Councillor Karen Stintz insists she is not thinking about the consequences of a lopsided race with four of five candidates chasing votes on the centre and right. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Rob Ford gets his first high-profile challenger for mayor Add to ...

Karen Stintz, the North Toronto councillor who made a name for herself as the TTC chair who took on the mayor, used to say she would never run against Rob Ford. Not anymore.

On Monday, Ms. Stintz plans to make good on her October declaration that she would join the race, registering as a candidate for mayor and kicking off a week of electioneering centred on her speech to a Bay Street crowd on Wednesday.

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With Ms. Stintz's entrance, Mr. Ford has his first high-profile contender and the months-long marathon that is a Toronto civic election will pick up its pace. It is sure to be a race like no other, fuelled in part by the international interest in Mr. Ford and his bid for re-election.

Ms. Stintz will likely be part of a crowded field at the centre-right in these first stages of the race. In the coming days, John Tory, the former provincial Progressive Conservative leader turned talk show host, is expected to decide if he will take a second run at the mayor’s office after falling short in 2003. Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong has said he is “seriously considering” joining the race that already includes former councillor and fellow fiscal conservative David Soknacki. And on the left, decision day is also approaching for NDP MP Olivia Chow.

Ms. Stintz, 43, insists she is not thinking about the consequences of a lopsided race with four of five candidates chasing votes on the centre and right. In both 2003 and 2010, the competition was whittled down to two main candidates by the fall, she points out, and in both, the winners – David Miller and Rob Ford – were not seen as front-runners in the early stages. She is emphatic she will last to the end.

“We are running our campaign irrespective of who is in the race,” Ms. Stintz says when asked about Mr. Tory. “I’ve got my plan and my plan is not altered one way or another if he is in or out.”

Ms. Stintz, a former ally of the mayor who parted ways with Mr. Ford two years ago over his bid to extend the Sheppard subway and bury the entire Eglinton Crosstown, is trying to position herself, like Mr. Soknacki, as the fiscal conservative candidate without the fuss.

To do that, she is emphasizing her success in controlling costs at the TTC – she oversaw contracting out of some services such as cleaning, cut costs to meet budget reductions and held fare increases to the rate of inflation.

On council since 2003, Ms. Stintz entered politics on a whim and gained attention as part of the responsible government group that took on David Miller. That profile only increased as Mr. Ford’s hand-picked point person on the controversial transit file. As TTC chair – a post she recently gave up to run for mayor – Ms. Stintz began this term taking heat for the demise of Mr. Miller’s light rail plans, only to change course and lead efforts to resurrect them in two dramatic special council meetings during which she became the darling of transit advocates.

A few months later, she caught many by surprise when she began talking about replacing a light rail line planned for Scarborough with an extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway. It was an idea that at first fizzled badly as part of her “One City” transit plan, before gaining more acceptance – and funding – and the eventual backing of council, the mayor and the province last year.

Along the way, she’s had some rough moments, such as the voice lessons charged to her councillor expense account in 2009 and her comments on Twitter last summer encouraging police to concentrate on other matters after she was ticketed for blowing through a stop sign on her bike.

She’s also had her share of run-ins with the Fords, particularly on the transit file and most recently in the January debate over the city’s response to the ice storm.

Monday’s official entrance into the race has been about a year in the making, and began to take shape when it appeared Mr. Ford would get booted from office over conflict-of-interest charges at the end of 2012.

Mr. Ford won his legal fight on appeal, but not before the phone started ringing in Ms. Stintz’s office. The calls included one from former provincial finance minister Greg Sorbara encouraging her to run. “I was impressed how she, unlike so many others, was able to stand up to the bullying tactics of the incumbent mayor over the whole TTC battle,” says Mr. Sorbara, who describes himself as a “political scout,” rather than a part of her campaign. “I told her she should think real hard about it, that the city deserved better than what it had,” he said.

Four years ago, Ms. Stintz considered a bid for mayor, but then thought otherwise. “At the time I didn’t have the experience. I didn’t have a strong enough team. I wasn’t ready to run,” she explains. “It’s different this time.”

This time, she says, she has the experience of being TTC chair under her belt and a campaign team that includes two veteran Liberals who, along with Mr. Sorbara, helped craft former Premier Dalton McGuinty’s election wins – one against Mr. Tory – Don Guy and Dave Gene. Mr. Guy also worked on B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s come-from-behind election win last spring.

A married mother of two – she has a son Jackson, 9, and a daughter, Hailey, 7 – who has one car, a “big mortgage” and two dogs, she describes herself as like “every other person in this city.” Among her funding commitments are two post-dated cheques, one from her mother-in-law, another from a best friend.

Ms. Stintz is making every effort to distance herself from Rob Ford, whose antics have put this year’s race in the international spotlight. Even late-night TV hosts are watching the election as a kind of Litmus test of the city’s sanity, a punchline in the making if Toronto re-elects the guy they have labelled the “crack-smoking mayor.”

“I just don’t share the life that Rob has,” she says. For the record, she says she has not smoked crack cocaine. “I have smoked pot. I wasn’t the mayor when I smoked a joint. I wasn’t even a parent,” she says.

Mr. Ford has made no secret he is spoiling for a fight, declaring war on many occasions and using his own YouTube channel, Ford Nation, to name his political foes. He’s branded Ms. Stintz a “flip-flopper” for her change of heart on the Scarborough subway. .

Ms. Stintz promises not to make things personal. “I don’t want my campaign to be about the mayor and his behaviour. I want my campaign to be about ideas and the people of Toronto,” she said.

Conservative Paul Brown, who co-chaired the federal party’s Ontario campaign in 2006, is also in her court, a long-time friend and constituent Ms. Stintz describes as her political mentor. “I’ve told her: don’t worry about all the speculation and pontification. At the end of the day, people don’t like to admit it, but they are usually wrong,” he said. “It’s like the people that predicted the Denver Broncos were going to walk away with the Super Bowl. It didn’t work out so well.”

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