The long, dark hallway of the May Robinson Apartments echoes with the dull thud of democracy. Candidate and foot-soldiers fan out, rapping knuckles on apartment doors as they try to rouse folks in this sweltering government-run retirement home.
A door creaks; a sliver of light spreads across the hall floor.
"Sir, it's Gerard Kennedy," says the blue-blazered candidate. "Just coming by to say hi and see if you're coming out for the election."
"Yes, I am."
"Can we count on your vote then?"
"No, Ms. Nash of the NDP got it."
Mr. Kennedy makes an attempt to change his mind.
"Nope, Ms. Nash is the one for me this time around. There's no budging me."
The Liberal MP for Parkdale-High Park knew he would have to perform Herculean feats of door-knocking long before the election was called. His main opponent, Peggy Nash, held the riding from 2006 to 2008 and remains a popular figure in an area that, for a second straight election, may feature the fiercest battle between the Grits and NDP anywhere in the country.
The late campaign surge of NDP leader Jack Layton - along with Michael Ignatieff's popular decline - has cast even greater doubt over Mr. Kennedy's already uncertain prospects, possibly placing this swing riding at the vanguard of an NDP success story on election day.
A recent Forum Research Poll conducted for the Hill Times predicted that Ms. Nash will unseat one of the Liberal Party's star candidates.
"I thought Kennedy would hold his seat - until a few days ago. But now I think the scales are tipping towards Nash," said Nelson Wiseman, a University of Toronto professor specializing in Canadian politics. "In any case, the Conservatives don't have a chance. This is a choice between the left and the more left."
But Mr. Kennedy is used to bucking national trends. Stéphane Dion's clumsy 2008 leadership campaign was thought to be even more of a drag on local races than Mr. Ignatieff's is now. Yet Mr. Kennedy, coming off stints as a provincial education minister and federal Liberal leadership contender, prevailed, stealing away an NDP seat by a safe 7-per-cent margin.
Though Mr. Ignatieff pledged to campaign hard throughout the party's GTA stronghold this time around, Mr. Kennedy is frank in his assessment of the Liberal leader's local impact.
"The party stuff was not strong last time," he explains. "And this time it doesn't seem to be strong again. We don't get a lot of lift from the party, if you will. That's okay. Last time we surprised a few people. We were self-reliant then and we're self-reliant now."
He needs to be. Lawns are streaked with rows of orange signs, punctuated by the odd splash of red. They symbolize the drastic changes this community has undergone over the last two decades.
Provincially an NDP stronghold, Liberals and Conservatives jockeyed for federal supremacy here throughout the seventies and eighties, a rivalry that ended when vote-splitting between the Reform and the PC parties coincided with a wave of gentrification to erode right-wing support. As recently as 1993, the NDP barely cracked 9-per-cent support here. Ms. Nash's 2006 victory made her the first NDP candidate to represent the riding in Ottawa, as she tapped into the hordes of gentrifying newcomers who have largely supplanted the more conservative eastern Europeans that once dominated the area.
Recently, the demographics have shifted again. It's a riding that encompasses Parkdale, with its low-rent high-rise towers, newcomers and slightly scruffy creative types, but also the area surrounding High Park - a land of wide boulevards, huge old houses and established, well-off residents. With average home prices climbing well above $600,000, middle-class families, the bedrock of NDP support, are being squeezed out. "It is becoming increasingly unaffordable for new families coming into the area, but I don't know, I look around and I still see a lot of orange signs," said Ms. Nash, president of the national NDP and a negotiator for the Canadian Auto Workers, sitting amid the chaos of her bustling Dundas Street West campaign headquarters.
Her supporters agree. "It's not Mercedes or BMW wealth coming in," said 20-year resident Tom Pratt. "It's people driving Volvos, Japanese cars, the odd Prius. I don't see those as indicators of a right-wing shift. I'm certainly going NDP."
At all-candidates meetings, fired-up constituents have demanded to know about stances on social issues and green policies, such as the electrification of an airport rail line planned to run through the riding. Some groups have accused Mr. Kennedy of being absent on the issue. Many have also picked up on the negative tone of some NDP campaign literature that attacks Mr. Kennedy's voting attendance record in the House of Commons.
"What you have are two clear records to compare as Members of Parliament," said Ms. Nash. "We're not distorting it, we're not twisting it. My record is one of showing up in the community, showing up to vote, getting things done."
The negative approach has turned off several residents the Globe and Mail polled in the neighbourhood, who said the attack ads turned them away from Ms. Nash. "I usually go NDP, but I have to say I'm on the fence," said Shauna Murphy, walking with her toddler along Sorauren Avenue. "When you see a leaflet attacking another person, that kind of puts me off."
"There's been a backlash against Ms. Nash for going on an attack campaign on me," said Mr. Kennedy. "I think people were offended by that. To me, the new way of doing politics is about none of that bullshit. You have to actually engage people and talk as straight as you can. That's what I'm known for."
So after a bitter race in one of the country's closest ridings, where is it headed? That's where the Jack factor comes in. On the record, insiders with either campaign say they have it in the bag. Off the record, they are far less confident. NDP leader Mr. Layton's surprise surge to 30 per cent in recent national polls has overturned conventional wisdom in dozens of ridings across the country, and Parkdale-High Park is certainly one of them.
"People are warming to him in a way we have not seen before," says Ms. Nash. "People are not warming to Mr. Ignatieff. So, you never know."
With files from Tamara Baluja
OTHER RIDINGS TO WATCH
The Globe and Mail asked two federal-election experts - Ryerson University politics professor Duncan MacLellan and University of Toronto political science professor Nelson Wiseman - to weigh in on hotly contested Toronto ridings. "The Liberals and the NDP tend to have a lot of their support in the downtown ridings, so most of the contested ridings will come down to those two parties," Prof.
Liberal incumbent Maria Minna has won twice against NDP candidate Marilyn Churley, and the margin of victory has grown with each successive federal vote. Now, the NDP have brought in a new candidate, Matthew Kellway. The big question is whether Ms. Minna can hold on to her seat with the NDP's surge in the polls. "The trend suggests the Liberals can hold the riding, but this used to be a solid NDP riding," Prof. Wiseman said. "Based on its history, if there is any Toronto riding that could go NDP again, it would be Beaches-East York."
Davenport has been one of the Liberal strongholds in the city for the past half-century and Liberal MP Mario Silva has been serving in this riding since 2004. But his track record of voting attendance in the House of Commons might work against him, Prof. MacLellan said. "He might be perceived negatively for not showing up often," he said. On the other hand, Mr. Wiseman says the NDP candidate Andrew Cash - a Juno-award-winning composer, singer and journalist - has an "excellent chance" of becoming the MP, especially with his focus on the arts. "It's really a toss-up," he said of the race.
Federally, this north-end riding has sat with Liberal Joseph Volpe since 1988 and before him, another Liberal, Roland de Corneille since 1979. But the Conservatives have managed to narrow the gap between the parties with their new candidate, Joe Oliver. In the last federal election, Mr. Oliver came in a close second with only a 4-per-cent difference, up from the 2006 election, when the margin sat closer to 22 per cent. Mr. Oliver's campaign has an increasingly large backing from the large Jewish population in his riding that tends to support the Conservative government's pro-Israeli stance. "The Conservatives see this as a riding with a lot of potential and they have brought a lot of attention to Joe Oliver," Prof. MacLellan said. "Volpe has been a good MP but the tide is not necessarily with him this time around." Prof. Wiseman added that with the NDP chipping away at the Liberal vote, it's possible for the Conservatives to surge even further ahead and win the riding.
As the federal NDP leader Jack Layton's wife and the sitting MP, Olivia Chow can assumed to be reasonably safe. But the Liberals have a strong contender in Christine Innes, who is a long-time community activist and the riding has been a enduring battleground between the NDP and the Liberals. In 2008, Ms. Chow edged out Ms. Innes by only a 5-per-cent margin. "But with the NDP riding on this momentum, Olivia Chow is probably breathing a sigh of relief," Prof. MacLellan said. "This riding is also very ethnically mixed, which gives Ms. Chow a bit of an advantage."