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Voters cast their ballots on Monday in one of the closest mayoral contests Toronto has witnessed in recent years. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Voters cast their ballots on Monday in one of the closest mayoral contests Toronto has witnessed in recent years. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Marcus Gee

Toronto, it's no time for cynicism. Every vote counts Add to ...

People find all kinds of reasons not to vote: "I don't know what the candidates stand for; they're all the same; elections don't make any difference; my vote doesn't really count; it's all so boring anyway." Seldom have those excuses looked so weak as in the 2010 election for mayor of Toronto.

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This has been the most compelling Toronto election in memory, a roller-coastering, lip-gnawing affair that could go either way when polls close at 8 p.m. Every vote counts. The result could change the future of the city.

Only someone numb from the neck up could find it boring. Among other things, the close-fought, 10-month campaign has featured the high-profile candidacy of a former deputy premier who happens to be a married gay father; the phenomenal rise of an angry suburban councillor whose "stop the gravy train" message has made headlines across the country; the revelation that said councillor was once busted for pot and drunk driving (and that no one seemed to care); the withdrawal of another candidate after his scorned lover told all to a local paper; and, finally, a photo finish that had the two leading men next to tied in opinion polling as election day approached.

In a campaign that has grabbed this much attention, you have to be almost willfully oblivious not to learn what the candidates stand for. Each of them has given scores of interviews and made countless announcements laying out their positions on everything from transit expansion to bed bugs. Each has a comprehensive website with biography, videos and detailed policy prescriptions, not to mention all the stuff on their Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. Together, they have jousted in dozens of debates, several of them televised or broadcast on radio for all to see and hear.

Anyone who has spent even a few minutes absorbing this onslaught of readily accessible information can tell that it's nonsense to say all the candidates are the same. The three remaining hopefuls have starkly different policies and philosophies.

Joe Pantalone is a left-leaning "city builder" who would avoid drastic budget-cutting and carry on governing very much like outgoing Mayor David Miller, who has endorsed him as his anointed successor. Rob Ford is everything Mr. Pantalone is not: a populist foe of government waste who would slash spending. George Smitherman, while he has borrowed from Mr. Ford's war-on-waste rhetoric, is a mainstream Liberal who would invest in "green jobs" and troubled neighbourhoods.

The two front-runners differ sharply not just in substance but in style. Mr. Smitherman is an outgoing, glad-handing A-type personality who tends to dash off in all directions. Mr. Ford is a lone wolf with a one-note howl. They would be very different kinds of mayors.

So don't pretend that it doesn't matter who wins. The outcome will not only set the direction of civic government in Toronto for the next four years - an entirely opposite direction from the present one if Mr. Ford wins. It could set the tone for elections at other levels as politicians elsewhere absorb the meaning of Fordism.

Civic elections, in their own right, are becoming more consequential. Four out of five Canadians live in urban areas. Many of the services voters depend on in their daily lives, from road maintenance to garbage collection, are delivered by cities. Cities are where it's happening, which is why more and more politicians are doing as Mr. Smitherman did and quitting higher levels of government to run for mayor.

The mayor of Toronto matters. Thanks to amalgamation, the mayor leads a megacity of 2.6 million people. On paper, mayors are only first among equals, with one vote out of 45. But the fact that they are directly elected by the whole city gives them a big stick. No other single politician in Canada will have as many people put an X beside his name - not just his party's name but his own name - than the winner in this election.

Who that winner is depends on the informed judgment of Torontonians. In a jaded world, cynical about politics and skeptical of politicians, voters often complain they are powerless. Here is a case where they can really make a difference. The leadership of Canada's biggest city is in the balance. Vote.

 

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