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Toronto Mayor John Tory plans to opt out of a municipal election debate organized by a transit-advocacy group this week and instead attend a campaign cocktail fundraiser at a private golf club – amid tensions over just who should be invited to debate whom.

After the first mayoral debate of the campaign, held Monday and focused on arts funding, Mr. Tory was asked why he was skipping a transit-themed debate Wednesday night in Scarborough, organized by the activist group TTCriders.

That event was designed so that Mr. Tory would face off with former chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, his leading rival, in a one-on-one contest. Its moderator is Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee.

Open this photo in gallery:

(Left to right) Toronto mayor John Tory, and mayoral candidates Gautam Nath, Jennifer Keesmaat, Saron Gebresellassi and Sarah Climenhaga. take part in an ArtsVote 2018 debate at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, Sept 24, 2018.Fred Lum

Quizzed by reporters, Mr. Tory declined to reveal what he was doing instead: “I have a long-standing engagement in Etobicoke, and I am just telling you it was scheduled long before this debate invitation was extended to us. I am here debating today. I’ll be debating tomorrow. I’ve got two that are confirmed for next week.”

His long-standing engagement, The Globe and Mail has learned, is a cocktail fundraiser for his campaign at the private Lambton Golf and Country Club in Etobicoke hosted by former Rogers executive Bill Linton and his wife, Marilynne Day-Linton, with a “suggested campaign contribution” of $250 to $2,500.

Mr. Tory and his campaign say they told debate organizers from the beginning their date was a problem. But TTCriders organizers dispute this, and were planning a protest Tuesday morning where they would hand-deliver an invite to Mr. Tory’s home.

Mr. Tory has also tangled with TTCriders and other organizers of future debates over who should be invited. He insists other candidates with much smaller grassroots campaigns be allowed to share the stage with him and Ms. Keesmaat. At the TTCriders debate, other candidates were to be invited to make statements on transit policy after Mr. Tory and Ms. Keesmaat went head to head.

In a statement issued last week, the mayor also said he would not share a stage with any candidate with a “history of spreading hate speech or bigotry.”

The debate on Monday was briefly interrupted as it got under way by fringe mayoral candidate Faith Goldy, a far-right “white nationalist” who has appeared on a neo-Nazi podcast. Ms. Goldy walked onto the stage uninvited with a smirk, saying her invitation to the debate must have been “lost in the mail.”

She was greeted by loud boos from the crowd and quickly removed by police, followed by a handful of her shouting supporters.

Ms. Goldy was also one of scores of people to manage to snap a photo with Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford at his Ford Fest event over the weekend, an image that quickly made the rounds on social media.

Facing questions from the NDP Opposition at the legislature on Monday, Mr. Ford refused to distance himself from Ms. Goldy: “What I found amazing is the diverse group of people who showed up to Ford Fest, the 8,000 people. And there were thousands of people who couldn’t come in through the door.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Mr. Tory during the debate at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, Sept. 24, 2018.Fred Lum

At Monday’s mayoral debate, organized by advocacy group ArtsVote and held at the TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre downtown, candidates Sarah Climenhaga, Saron Gebresellassi and Gautam Nath also shared the stage with the two front-runners.

Mr. Tory trumpeted his achievement of boosting per-capita arts funding to $25. And he said he would sit down with the arts community to set a target to increase it further. Ms. Keesmaat, in her first chance to share a stage with Mr. Tory, said she wanted to see Toronto’s arts spending rise to the level of Montreal’s, which she said was $55 per capita.

But Ms. Keesmaat veered well away from art funding, outlining her call for more affordable housing, attacking Mr. Tory’s scaled-back Smart Track transit plan, and arguing she was better suited to standing up to Mr. Ford, who she warned would cut arts funding.

“You can’t fight Conservative cuts with a conservative mayor,” Ms. Keesmaat said. “We need strong decisive leadership at city hall.”

With a report from Justin Giovannetti

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