Is someone who came to Toronto as a striving immigrant more sympathetic to the downtrodden as a result? Is someone who comes from privileged circumstances bound to be deaf to the struggles of ordinary people?
Class background and whether it matters when it comes to judging candidates for political office has become a live question in the race for mayor. Some supporters of Olivia Chow think that her history as a teenaged immigrant from Hong Kong who had to fight to fit in and get by give her a special insight into the plight of the poor. Doug Ford argues that John Tory's background as a member of a prominent Toronto family means he comes from a "whole different world" from most of us and can't possibly understand the trials of ordinary people. Mr. Ford's critics say that as a wealthy businessman himself, he can hardly claim fellowship with the common folk.
In a diverse city where we are taught to judge people by their character and achievements rather than their origins, these are strange arguments to be making. Are we saying that only an immigrant can understand what an immigrant faces? Are we saying that a rich man can never appreciate what it means to be poor?
Even if those assumptions are true, does that kind of understanding, or lack of it, really count for anything? Anyone, rich or poor, can see that it is rotten that the office cleaner from Somalia has to spend a couple of hours getting to work downtown on crammed buses and subways because the transit system isn't what it should be. Anyone, regardless of background, can understand that it is not good for the city that the surgeon from Pakistan ends up driving cab because he can't qualify to practise medicine here. Anyone, dripping with empathy or not, can see that it is not a good thing to have pockets of poverty in the inner suburbs where crime flourishes.
If candidates have good ideas about how to fix these problems, who cares about empathy? If they take the time to learn how people live and what troubles they have, what does it matter whether or not they experienced those troubles themselves? A Toronto election should be class-blind.
Olivia Chow, immigrant, has a long record as a city councillor and federal MP of working to improve the lot of the disadvantaged. Native-born John Tory does, too. As a broadcaster, fundraiser for charities and chair of the CivicAction advocacy group, he has spoken many times over the years about the need to tackle problems such as youth unemployment, integrating new immigrants and improving conditions in poorer neighbourhoods.
There is nothing wrong with political candidates talking about how personal history moulded them. It helps bring them into focus for voters. Ms. Chow launched a memoir before jumping into the contest for mayor. Now, trailing in the polls and trying to connect with voters, she is playing up her background again.
A recent campaign video shows her talking about growing up poor in Toronto. She says the experience inspired her to work at making sure others do not have to go through what her family did. Fair enough.
It is another thing to suggest that the experience gives her a superior understanding. "I know what life is like when life is tough. The other two candidates may not know that," she said after Doug Ford started going after Mr. Tory for his "silver platter" life. One of her recent ads, promoting her plan for better bus service, asks snidely, "Ever see John Tory waiting for the bus?"
Whether Mr. Tory rides the bus should be of no consequence. If he can make progress on transit, he can ride a gilded chariot to work.
It is true that a hard-knocks life story can sometimes help a political leader bond with ordinary people. Look at the rise of one-time shoeshine boy and street vendor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to the presidency of Brazil in 2003. But as Ken Burns's recent documentary on the Roosevelts reminds us, a man with an ivory cigarette holder and a Hudson River estate managed to persuade millions of suffering ordinary people that he was their champion through the Great Depression.
Voters have every right to study background and biography when they consider candidates for mayor. But when they stand before the ballot box, what should matter is what the candidates say, not where they came from; what they plan to do, not how much they suffered.