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Marcus Gee (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Marcus Gee (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

MARCUS GEE

Olivia Chow is a strong candidate. She’ll need to get stronger Add to ...

Olivia Chow and Jack Layton liked to go whitewater canoeing. On holidays, they would head to some remote northern river to navigate the rapids. This week, without Jack, Ms. Chow paddled skillfully through the first white water of the 2014 election for mayor of Toronto.

Her campaign launch was an energetic affair that displayed her strengths as a candidate. Her kickoff speech at a St. James Town church steps from where she lived as a young immigrant to the city hit the right notes of optimism and anger – optimism about Toronto’s promise, anger at the failures of Mayor Rob Ford.

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In a series of media interviews, she showed a calm poise that should serve her well in what is sure to be a heated, even brutal, campaign that still has seven long months to go. Her launch had an almost regal feel that sent the not-so-hidden message: I am the one to beat. Ms. Chow has a lot going for her. She is a well-known figure with years of experience in city and then federal politics. In a contest where name recognition counts, she will have no problem simply establishing who she is.

She has a compelling personal narrative, which she sketched in her speech and has filled out in her recent memoir My Journey – the Hong Kong girl who came here as a teenager, struggled to survive and fit in (her family could not even afford to buy her skates), learned the importance of strong public services for newcomers, then helped to build them through a career in public life.

The dignity she showed through the ordeal of Mr. Layton’s sudden death from cancer in 2011 is remembered across Canada. She has a strong team behind her and she enjoys the undivided support of the Toronto left, still a powerful force in the city.

She can be earnest, sometimes painfully so, but the seriousness and sincerity she brings to the task should be an advantage in a city weary of the current clown show.

But if Ms. Chow has some clear strengths as a candidate, she has obvious deficiencies, too. The first and most troubling is her record as a reliable, even doctrinaire, champion of the left. It is not nice to pigeon-hole, but she fits this slot rather snugly. After swinging hard right under Mr. Ford, does Toronto really want to swing hard the other way this time?

Ms. Chow was at pains to address this concern in her first interviews as a candidate. She said she would keep property-tax increases within the rate of inflation. She reminded voters that as a struggling immigrant, she learned to count every penny. She said that when she was on city council, then parliament, she learned to work across party lines to get things done – to be be “propositional” as well as oppositional, as she puts it in her book. But her rivals on the other side – four of them so far – are bound to keep battering away at her record as a stalwart of an out-of-touch NDP.

What is her vision for the city? What is her plan? Like most candidates at this early stage, she has been vague on the details. She wants to “put children at the heart of this city.” Who could be against that? She would say yes to “smart, responsible” investments but no to the other kind. Well, good. She would help businesses create jobs. How? Mayors have limited economic powers.

In a landscape littered with empty slogans – “Stop the Gravy Train” comes to mind – “New Mayor, Better City” sets a new standard for vapidity. The one firm position Ms. Chow has taken – cancelling the Scarborough subway and going back to above-ground light rail – would unravel a plan backed by three levels of governments and throw the city into yet another transit debate.

Olivia Chow is a strong candidate off to a good start, but she has a lot of explaining to do if she wants to steer her way into city hall.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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