In an election with several exciting ward races, few will be as dramatic and closely watched as the campaign for Ward 2, which Mayor Rob Ford will seek to win even as he faces a health crisis.
Until yesterday, that campaign pitted Mr. Ford's low-profile nephew Michael against Andray Domise, a 33-year-old financial planner and Munira Abukar, a Ryerson University criminology student who sits on the Toronto Community Housing board as a tenant rep. (Eleven other candidates have registered.) Today, those candidates find themselves running against an international celebrity who won't have to worry about gaining name recognition.
Mr. Ford's opponents have a tough fight on their hands. Ever since the charismatic Mr. Domise entered the race in the spring, he's emerged as a promising contender: He's attracted city-wide media attention with his tough anti-Ford rhetoric and his active social media presence. His campaign resonated with progressive voters well beyond the ward's boundaries, and has drawn significant donations: $22,000 to date, and well over $2,000 yesterday alone as the news broke that Mr. Ford was running in Ward 2.
But Mr. Domise will need more than money and a way with words to defeat Mr. Ford, whose family has represented the area since his father, Doug Ford Sr., was elected to a provincial seat in the area in 1995.
'We've had enough of this ward being treated as a consolation prize'
Doug Jr. has served as councillor there since 2010.
Located mostly north of Highway 401 and west of the Humber River, Ward 2 is something of an anomaly, as the bulk of the area is an industrial zone. Besides Rexdale, it encompasses a strip of low-income high rise apartments on Dixon Road, and an enclave of residential neighbourhoods near Scarlett and Lawrence.
Census data shows that Ward 2 has a population of about 55,000 people. The average household income, $72,000, is almost 20 per cent less than the city-wide average, as is the proportion of residents with post-secondary education. Immigrants from India make up the largest cohort of newcomers.
The area is perhaps best known as the home of the Woodbine race track and slots facility. Before he became mayor, Rob Ford vowed to transform the facility into a major entertainment/commercial complex, bringing in thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in investment. But those plans fell through, and the Fords subsequently opposed a proposal to locate a new casino there.
"We knew that we could potentially end up running against Rob Ford," Mr. Domise said. Ward 2, he argues, has endured a lack of investment in community services, shoddy transit and an out-flow of jobs since Mr. Ford was first elected city councillor. "We've had enough of this ward being treated as a consolation prize."
He claims he doesn't intend to change strategies now that he's facing an international celebrity. "If you're asking me if we're flustered by Rob Ford, we're not panicked," Mr. Domise said. "We are running the exact same campaign as we did yesterday."
When he started, however, Mr. Domise didn't expect to be cast as the David in a closely watched David-and-Goliath-type showdown. "Six months ago, I was an office worker for Sun Life Financial. No one knew who I was."
He gained traction by telling local voters that Doug Ford, who is now running for mayor, has neglected the area's social needs, which means residents don't see much in the way of services in return for their taxes. "Not a lot has been accomplished here."
Ward 2, he says, "is not a world-class neighbourhood."
A progressive-minded candidate who rails against the rhetoric of tax cuts and reduced spending, Mr. Domise comes by his politics honestly. He grew up in Rexdale in a family dominated by caregivers. His grandmother, who came to Canada from Jamaica in the 1970s, worked in a senior's home, while his aunt ran a daycare and his mother managed a group home for troubled youth. "I was raised in and around a lot of marginalized people," he recalls. "Addicts, sex workers, people from troubled backgrounds. I thought they were just like everyone else."
After finishing high school in West Palm Beach, Fla., where his step father had a job, Mr. Domise enrolled in the University of Windsor but quit because he was struggling to balance school and three part-time jobs. He found work selling insurance products, and ended up at Sun Life resolving customer conflicts. (Mr. Domise left the company in the spring when he registered to run.) In 2012, he re-enrolled at UW and completed a political science degree through a distance education program.
Mr. Domise's name bobbed to the surface of the city's cluttered news cycle in late July after he called out Olivia Chow for her handgun ban policy, and then lambasted Rob Ford for making racist remarks. Soon after, he found himself on Newstalk 1010, fielding a call from Doug Ford, who made headlines by claiming his brother is more popular among black voters than Barack Obama.
It's clear he doesn't want to be pigeonholed as a visible minority politician, and Mr. Domise came away from that radio clash wondering if that's what he's up against. On the hustings, he's pitched himself as a candidate who reflects the area's considerable diversity. The Fords, Mr. Domise says, "almost seem to see diversity as a sticking point. They've mastered a certain political game, which is toxicity."
Etobicoke veteran John Capobianco, a former federal Tory candidate, describes Mr. Domise as "phenomenally impressive." However, he feels Mr. Domise should focus more on the Fords' record.
Mr. Domise intends to do just that, even if his opponent is confined to a hospital bed, seeking treatment for a tumour in his abdomen. "I'm not shy about talking about his record, because his record here hasn't been good," he said yesterday. "Rob and Doug had their chance, and unfortunately, they blew it."
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article included an error about the number of part-time jobs Andray Domise juggled as a student at the University of Windsor. This version has been updated.