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Mayoral candidate Matt Brown canvasses in London, Ont., on Wednesday. Mr. Brown calls the road map put out by the city’s planning department, which would aim to revitalize downtown with rapid transit and a redeveloped waterfront, ‘an opportunity of a generation.’

GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

In the run-up to Ontario's municipal elections on Monday, the spotlight has mostly been on Toronto. But the stakes for the rest of the province are arguably higher in other mayoral races – namely those in the southwestern manufacturing belt, where towns that have faced some of Canada's worst economic troubles face pivotal decisions about who will lead their attempts to reinvent themselves. Adam Radwanski visited the region's three biggest cities, where the incumbents are not seeking re-election, and interviewed the leading candidates.

LONDON

One of the leading candidates for London's mayoralty, Matt Brown, calls the road map put out by the city's planning department, which would aim to revitalize downtown with rapid transit and a redeveloped waterfront and pedestrian streets on weekends, "an opportunity of a generation."

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The other, Paul Cheng, calls it "the most painful piece of fantasy I ever had to read."

In a city where there are still fewer jobs than before the 2008 recession, and where the last elected mayor is serving house arrest for a fraud conviction, strong opinions are what's selling. So Londoners have wound up with a much starker choice than most observers expected at the race's outset.

The competitiveness of Mr. Brown, the candidate who has embraced the "London Plan" for urban development, is not surprising. The bookish 40-year-old served as an unofficial opposition to former mayor Joe Fontana, and the crowd of young progressives around him has run a slick campaign. But his main opposition was supposed to come from a pair of fellow city councillors, Roger Caranci and Joe Swan, both of whom seem to have been too close to the status quo for their own good.

Mr. Swan, who argues that London just needs an experienced hand at the helm, has been polling under 10 per cent. Mr. Caranci, fairly or not perceived as too aligned with Mr. Fontana, faced similarly grim numbers – that is, until he threw his support behind Paul Cheng, who came out of nowhere to emerge as Mr. Brown's main challenger.

Save for an unsuccessful Reform Party candidacy more than two decades ago, Mr. Cheng – who was born in Hong Kong, grew up in London and has spent much of his adult life outside the city – had no public profile until the campaign. "I'm a very private person," he said in an interview. "You will not find me anywhere electronically prior to April 14, 2014."

Mr. Cheng offers an odd mix of earnest charm and populist fervour. While puttering around his kitchen – the interview was at his home, rather than his campaign office as with the other candidates – he spoke compellingly of overcoming anti-Asian prejudice to get work on oil rigs in Alberta, travelling the world once he had worked his way up to project manager, and noticing London's decline each time he returned to it.

When he got to his sudden leap into the mayoral race, things turned darker. Mr. Cheng said the decision was prompted by getting "madder and madder" after Fanshawe College turned down his offer to speak to its students, and by going to a council meeting and watching councillors vote "like trained seals." He complained of a city where red tape causes potential investors to "just say 'screw it,'" said the University of Western Ontario is underperforming because "nobody gives a shit," claimed "there's a lot of dark deals in London," and called other candidates' experience in municipal politics "poison."

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Meanwhile, Mr. Cheng dismissed urban-renewal strategies common in Rust Belt cities seeking to reinvent themselves. He disagreed with the aim of encouraging downtown density, attacked efforts to put university and college campuses in London's core and dismissed plans to develop the waterfront.

To attract those jobs, he would launch a $10-million program to help businesses hire apprentices, and start a new venture-capital fund. But his economic agenda mostly comes down to injecting "a lot more hustle" into a city he claims has been too smug. "I'll be happy when you can call city hall," he said, "and by law or engineering the phone gets picked up on the second ring."

Seeking to assuage fears about city employees losing their jobs, Mr. Cheng insisted he's "not a cutter." But he also implied that salaries and the size of the work force could be targeted when existing contracts expire.

Next to all this, Mr. Brown came off during an interview as an urban sophisticate, arguing the city's vibrancy will determine whether younger professionals and entrepreneurs will want to settle there. Beyond downtown beautification and transit, hundreds of millions in new spending would include a new high-speed fibre network. Touting his experience chairing the city's audit committee, he insisted those investments could be funded largely through efficiencies found during a switch to "zero-based" budgeting.

Both candidates, in their way, are asking for a leap of faith – Mr. Brown because of his city-building ambition, Mr. Cheng because he wants to reverse course on most city-building efforts to date. The leap Londoners choose will depend on the mood their city's woes have left them in.

HAMILTON

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Brad Clark insisted that, contrary to other mayoral candidates' claims, he wasn't trying to rally his city's suburbs against its core. But a few minutes later, it sounded as though he was doing just that.

"It cannot be downtown Hamilton at the expense of everyone else," said Mr. Clark, a city councillor who was once a member of Mike Harris's provincial cabinet. "We have to make sure businesses in outlying communities are being treated equally to those downtown."

A relatively affordable place to live and work in close proximity to Toronto, Hamilton has recently experienced stronger growth than most other cities in Ontario's manufacturing belt – and all three of its mayoral contenders are more or less agreed on the need to continue aggressively diversifying away from steel. But interviews with them underscored that the city's continued development can be impeded by intercommunity tensions, dating back to amalgamation with smaller surrounding towns when Mr. Harris was premier in the late 1990s.

While Mr. Clark is perceived as the candidate of the outlying communities, one of his rivals acknowledged "there's no question I'm sort of the downtown guy." Although Brian McHattie has tried to fight that perception by making a show of touring neighbourhoods far from the downtown ward he represents on council, he is an unapologetic urbanist.

That leaves Fred Eisenberger, who struggled to bridge urban and suburban divides during a previous term as mayor and lost his 2010 re-election bid. Now he's positioning himself as someone who can "unify this great community," saying he would work harder this time to help the city's notoriously fractious council reach consensus.

The extent to which Mr. Eisenberger is trying to split the difference between his opponents is evident in his handling of the campaign's most contentious issue: whether Hamilton should continue pursuing a light-rail transit line through its core.

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Mr. McHattie has been among the project's most vocal champions, arguing it would help spur development and density. Mr. Clark opposes it even if the province provides full funding, arguing it's not needed and would ultimately increase municipal costs. Mr. Eisenberger says he supports LRT personally, but that despite council having already voted in favour, the city should "hit the reset button" and launch consultations to bring the public on side.

Mr. Eisenberger argued that urban-suburban divides get exaggerated during elections . But there is a common complaint from local business and civic leaders that parochialism has sometimes led to paralysis on infrastructure and development decisions, preventing the city from fully capitalizing on opportunities to attract new investment.

Incumbent Mayor Bob Bratina, who is not seeking re-election after a single term, has gone so far as to float de-amalgamation. None of his would-be successors seems inclined to entertain that idea. But whoever wins will have his work cut out for him in achieving common purpose.

WINDSOR

While other Southwestern Ontario cities replace mayors who had limited impact, Windsor faces a different challenge.

Eddie Francis proved it's possible to have a strong mayor even in a weak-mayor system. From the battle with labour unions that put the city on stable financial footing to the new aerospace hangar aimed at economic diversification, pretty much everything that's happened in Windsor the past decade has his fingerprints on it.

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Even with the auto town still suffering one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, Mr. Francis gets enough credit for steering it through dark days that he probably could have won a fourth term.

Instead, the 41-year-old has decided to move on, leaving a leadership void his would-be successors are struggling to fill.

Courtesy of a power struggle between rival factions, the race has political intrigue. One leading candidate, Drew Dilkens, has received Mr. Francis's endorsement and inherited his campaign team. The other, John Millson, is backed by allies of former provincial finance minister and long-time Windsor MPP Dwight Duncan.

A staunch ally of Mr. Francis during his two terms on city council, Mr. Dilkens is running on the outgoing mayor's record. "People are saying 'How are you different than Eddie?'" he said. "Well, if you pulled the voting records and looked at how we voted, it's almost identical on everything … If supporting good ideas is a crime, then I'm guilty."

Mr. Millson, who served as mayor from 1988-91, is more union-friendly than his opponent. But he conceded in the interview that he doesn't take much issue with the basic policy goals pursued under Mr. Francis. He is mostly promising an attitude adjustment: Arguing the city government has been inaccessible and lacked transparency, he is vowing to "wrap my arms" around the business community and rehire a city auditor whose role has been outsourced.

If Mr. Francis has been imperious, Mr. Millson and Mr. Dilkens – along with an affable but even less policy-specific third candidate, Larry Horwitz – give the impression they would be less so. But they could also struggle to match the charisma and ferocious sense of purpose that enabled him to pursue policies they both broadly support. And with Mr. Francis leaving office at least in part because he believes he has seen his agenda through, the absence of a comprehensive one to replace it might be cause for some concern.

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