Jennifer Keesmaat is in trouble. Her campaign to replace John Tory as mayor of Toronto has not achieved lift off and, with the election only three weeks away, time is running out. That’s a shame, because Mr. Tory deserves to be challenged and voters deserve a choice.
Ms. Keesmaat entered the race late, jumping in at the end of July after Ontario Premier Doug Ford took the city by surprise and announced he would cut the size of Toronto city council in half. Her candidacy promised to transform a race that was looking like a coronation for Mr. Tory, who was first elected mayor in 2014 and is seeking a second four-year term.
Ms. Keesmaat stood out in her time as chief planner of Toronto. Articulate, forceful and not shy to express her opinions, she became a leading light at City Hall. She entered the race for mayor with the support of the city’s well-organized political left. She instantly became Mr. Tory’s chief rival – in fact, the only rival worth talking about.
Her campaign is well run and well funded. She has proved to be a skilled campaigner, with strong speaking and debating skills. She has the royal jelly. It is easy to picture her as mayor.
So what has gone wrong? Bad luck is part of it. The contest has been overshadowed by the dramatic fight over Mr. Ford’s council-slashing plan. It only began in earnest this week with the first of the election debates. Ms. Keesmaat has been left with a small window for getting her message across.
But she must bear part of the blame. The attacks she has made on Mr. Tory have often been unfair and ill-founded. She says his mayoralty has been marked by “dithering and delay,” a phrase she drops as often as she can. He has dithered on building new transit, dithered on building affordable housing, dithered on fighting crime, dithered on making the roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
She, of course, would do far, far better. She would build 100,000 new affordable housing units, an ambitious and wildly expensive promise that knowledgeable people say is unachievable. She would beef up community policing to reduce gun crime. She would aim for zero pedestrian deaths on the roads. She would accelerate transit building.
If Toronto is to forge a bright future, she says, all that’s needed is “strong, decisive” leadership. Hers, naturally. The whole thing has a canned, scripted air about it. When she speaks you can almost hear the trainers in her corner saying: Hit him where it hurts, kid. Call him a ditherer again.
Mr. Tory can take it, of course. And some of her blows hit the mark. She is right to say that his SmartTrack transit plan is a mirage. Trumpeted in 2014 as the solution to Toronto’s congestion woes, it turned out to be a few extra as-yet-unbuilt stations on the GO train. She is right to say his opposition to Mr. Ford over the council slashing was unsteady.
But is he really responsible for this year’s disturbing jump in gun crime? Is it, as she told the media, a problem of his creation? Ms. Keesmaat oversimplifies a tough problem. She is doing the same on transit and housing. If Toronto is behind on building them, it is not down to Mr. Tory alone. All three levels of government, over many years, are at fault.
The fact is that Mr. Tory and Ms. Keesmaat are not very far apart on most things. He is a classic Red Tory. She is running with the NDP mainly because they had no one else. They are both centrist types, equally keen on better transit, more housing, safe streets and all those other good things. So it just looks strange when Ms. Keesmaat pretends there is a yawning chasm between them. Having stood by his side at city hall, she makes an unlikely attack dog.
Ms. Keesmaat has years of rich experience and lots of good ideas about cities. If she hopes to gain momentum in the final stretch of the mayoral race, she should stress her own undeniable strengths.