Former chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat says Toronto has had enough of what she calls John Tory’s “dithering” and “gimmicky press conferences” and needs real leadership. But in a sit-down interview with The Globe and Mail, she would offer few specifics on what she would do differently if she is elected mayor on Oct. 22.
Her campaign is just a week old, launched after she hopped on her bike and rushed to City Hall last Friday, signing up just hours before the deadline in what she described as an “impromptu” decision that ended months of speculation. She acknowledges she only informed her employer, the Creative Housing affordable-housing initiative launched by Vancouver developer Ian Gillespie, on Friday morning.
Her leap into the race came, she says, after she saw Mr. Tory’s news conference responding to Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s plan to slash city council almost in half. The mayor’s call for a referendum that’s unlikely to happen, Ms. Keesmaat said, was underwhelming: “After months and months of this growing chorus from the city that not enough was being done on so many critical issues, that was the last straw.”
In a 20-minute interview on Thursday, she said she would be quicker to “stand up for Toronto." She said the mayor’s office needs a new approach that is “not afraid of leadership, that isn’t based on dithering, that isn’t based on PR, that isn’t based on gimmicky little press conferences.”
She spoke to The Globe while perched on a rock by the waterfront trail in Etobicoke’s Humber Bay Shores Park, an area where Ms. Keesmaat, 48, says she used to run while training for a marathon. She and an aide hopped out of a white SUV at midday, only to find the view of the city’s downtown skyline meant to serve as a photo background blurred by the summer haze.
In broad strokes, she laid out the key issues for her campaign: better commutes, a more aggressive plan to build affordable housing and changes to streets to improve cyclist and pedestrian safety that go beyond what she called the current “tinkering.” But she offered little in the way of specifics, promising more detail as the campaign rolled out.
Ms. Keesmaat, who once called listening to city councillors “insufferable” on Twitter, will likely be painted by detractors as a champion of downtown Toronto’s urban so-called elites. But she insists she can win over even suburban and right-wing local politicians with her “bold vision,” instead of the “horse trading” that she says characterizes city council today.
“I have never bought into the suburban-urban divide,” she said. "… I regret that we’ve had a council that has been in some ways playing that up and reinforcing that.”
Over her five years as the city’s outspoken chief planner, she clashed with Mr. Tory over both the $3.5-billion Scarborough subway extension (which she later included in the city’s transit network plan) and the mayor’s insistence on rebuilding the eastern elevated section of the Gardiner Expressway, something she defiantly argued was a relic that needed to be torn down. She would not say whether she would support the subway or reopen the Gardiner question in the coming campaign.
In the days since Ms. Keesmaat signed up, Mr. Tory’s campaign has wasted no time trying to portray her as eager to raise taxes and surrounded by New Democrats. On Thursday, the Tory campaign issued a media release listing some of Ms. Keesmaat’s past comments favouring new levies and higher property taxes and demanded that she “come clean” on her “tax hike plan,” saying she is supported by some of the “most radical members of City Council’s left wing.”
Ms. Keesmaat would not commit, as Mr. Tory did this week, to keeping residential property tax increases at or below inflation. And she would not say how much, or if, she would raise property taxes. She pointed out that the city has other taxing powers under the City of Toronto Act that it has not used, although she did not offer any specific suggestions. (Among those powers are taxes on alcohol and tobacco dismissed in the past as impractical, and the vehicle-registration tax that was axed under former mayor Rob Ford.)
“We’re a big city. We don’t need slogans. We need a real fiscal plan," Ms. Keesmaat said. "… I will be bringing forward a fiscal plan, as part of my campaign, precisely because this is such a key priority, figuring this out. And it is about ensuring that we can build a city for the future.… There’s tools that we haven’t yet used that we ought to consider using.”
Asked to respond to Ms. Keesmaat’s comments that the mayor’s leadership was characterized by “dithering” and “gimmicky little press conferences,” Tory campaign spokeswoman Keerthana Kamalavasan again raised Ms. Keesmaat’s tweet last week calling for Toronto’s “secession” from Ontario.
“The only gimmicky ideas and phrases thus far have been from the NDP candidate herself,” Ms. Kamalavasan said in an e-mail.
Ms. Keesmaat says her tweet, already seized upon by Mr. Tory at a campaign stop this week, was made in frustration with Mr. Ford and was not a “policy statement.” She also dismissed Mr. Tory’s claim that her campaign is solely an NDP operation. But she would not yet say who is on her team, or who is giving her advice.
“It will all be revealed in the coming weeks as we begin unrolling the campaign," Ms. Keesmaat said. "Suffice it to say: big broad tent, players from across the political spectrum. This is not about one party. This is about the future of our city.”