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Chow at home in Toronto. (KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Chow at home in Toronto. (KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

politics

Can Olivia Chow be Toronto's next mayor? Add to ...

When Olivia Chow and Jack Layton were married on the Toronto Islands in 1988, they gave themselves a tandem bicycle as a wedding present. He always rode in front and she in back – much as they did in life. He was the orator, she was the organizer; together they were a formidable political couple on Toronto City Council, in the NDP and on the opposition benches in the House of Commons. Since Mr. Layton’s death in 2011, three months after he led the NDP to its largest electoral success ever, the bike has been stored in the basement of their Victorian semi on Huron Street, and Ms. Chow has been riding solo as NDP transportation critic in Ottawa, and now as a front-runner in the mayoral race to wrest the chain of office from Rob Ford.

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The campaign is partly a homecoming, partly a tribute to her decades of political and social activism and partly a gamble that Ms. Chow, 57, who was the supporting player in a duo with a charismatic public face, can move into leadership mode and unite the disparate parts of the country’s most diverse and polarized city.

Ms. Chow launched her campaign with the slogan ‘New Mayor, New City’ less than three weeks ago. Wearing a black dress and a jacket the colour of daffodils, she stood confidently in front of a bank of cameras and delivered a sleek performance in a packed church hall on the fringes of the St. James Town neighbourhood where she grew up, an only child, caught between a raging, physically abusive father and a fiery tempered mother. Her tightly scripted speech emphasized her four key messages: putting children at the heart of the city; growing the economy; fixing transit and minding the public purse. Since then her team has released an impressive barrage of updates and statements on social and every other kind of media. Off camera, off teleprompter, she is less impressive.

In the burgundy living room of the home she and Mr. Layton bought 20 years ago on the edge of Kensington Market, Ms. Chow talks about her politics and her life. She speaks in brief bursts, rather than expansive paragraphs. “If there had been a really good mayor and we could be proud of what the city is doing, then my decision might have been different,” Ms. Chow says. “But there seems to be a huge vacuum.”

Her strength lies not in persuasive intellectual arguments, but in collective action. She is what used to be called “a doer,” a person who brings people together on a committee to organize after-school programs or to expand the languages that can be served on 911 emergency calls. ‘Doers’ don’t make late night talk shows or viral YouTube videos, but they resonate with ordinary folks and community activists such as family doctor Joseph Wong, founder of the Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care. Mr. Wong, also an immigrant, met Ms. Chow in the late 1970s when she was working on behalf of Vietnamese boat people.

He says Ms. Chow has “integrity and honesty,” she can bring people together at city council and restore the pride and credibility we have lost.

She has a poignant narrative, decades of social activism and a strong team behind her. But Ms. Chow has a challenge ahead to parlay that into a galvanizing vision that will overcome Rob Ford’s powerful, if simplistic, “stop the gravy train” semantics, and unravel John Tory’s verbose bromides about moving the city neither “to the left nor the right, but forward.” In the first televised debate this week, Ms. Chow was scrappy, but she couldn’t topple Mr. Ford from his bully pulpit, or silence Mr. Tory’s insistence that she is the NDP candidate.

Both Mr. Ford and Mr. Tory have denounced her as a “tax and spend” socialist, although neither has provided any examples. “That’s because there is no evidence,” says Councillor Joe Mihevc, a Chow supporter, who remembers her as “tough as nails” when she sat on mayor Mel Lastman’s budget committee, especially when it came to drilling deep into budget lines to find funds to reallocate to community programs such as school nutrition. “It is the politics of deception and repetition,” Mr. Mihevc says about the NDP slurs, “until people think that it is true.”

Councillor David Shiner, who was Mr. Lastman’s budget chief, tells a different tale that reflects the perception she must overcome. “Olivia often wished to expand social service programs at the cost of the taxpayer,” he recalled. “It was something that we had to manage and control at the budget committee to make sure that we didn’t increase taxes beyond what property taxpayers could afford to pay.”

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