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Outgoing mayor David Miller officially declares his support for Joe Pantalone in his bid to become Toronto's next mayor, during a news conference in Scarborough, October 6, 2010. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail)
Outgoing mayor David Miller officially declares his support for Joe Pantalone in his bid to become Toronto's next mayor, during a news conference in Scarborough, October 6, 2010. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail)

Union backs Smitherman in place of long-time ally Pantalone Add to ...

The union behind tens of thousands of Toronto construction workers is throwing its support behind George Smitherman, boosting the former deputy premier and eroding Joe Pantalone's traditional labour base as Mr. Smitherman and rival Rob Ford duke it out over a sliver of voters in the final days of the campaign.

The Central Ontario Building Trades is announcing its endorsement of Mr. Smitherman today. "It was a contentious decision" for the body that backed outgoing Mayor David Miller two elections in a row, said business manager James St. John. But "an overwhelming majority" of representatives at a meeting Friday voted to support Mr. Smitherman.

"It's a difficult choice: Joe Pantalone's been a huge friend of labour for a long time. … But we felt at this point in time, George Smitherman is our candidate with the best chance of being elected mayor of Toronto," Mr. St. John said. "George is a candidate that will work with us."

More to the point: He's the candidate the union feels has the best chance of beating Rob Ford, whose mayoralty - and his pledge to end the city's fair wage policy, which he says would save the city $320-million over four years - would be "a detriment" to the group's members, Mr. St. John said. "It would set us back a decade."

The union represents close to 80,000 people in the region and about 60,000 within Toronto - everyone from the city's boilermakers and bricklayers to sprinkler fitters, teamsters and operating engineers.

It was the latest symbolic boost for Mr. Smitherman as the three candidates jostle to bolster support in the final days of a marathon race. A Nanos poll conducted for The Globe, CTV and CP24 put Mr. Smitherman and Mr. Ford in a virtual dead heat, with the Etobicoke councillor ahead by 3.4 percentage points, with 43.9 of the 1,000 people polled saying they'd support him if the election were held today.

And while 15 per cent said they'd support Mr. Pantalone, only 47.5 per cent of his supporters described themselves as "firm" in their support, while more than half listed Mr. Smitherman as their second choice.

That means the pressure's on for Mr. Smitherman to woo a wavering left - the slice of voters who would align themselves with Mr. Pantalone and his predecessor, Mr. Miller, if they weren't so afraid of Mr. Ford.

As Mr. Ford announced the endorsement of Councillor Doug Holyday, Mr. Smitherman announced endorsements of Local 793 of the International Union of Operating Engineers and Justin Trudeau, who joined Mr. Smitherman at a packed College Street lounge Monday evening, smack in Mr. Pantalone's Trinity-Spadina ward.

"I had very, very strong relations with the building trade as a former minister of infrastructure and as minister of health," Mr. Smitherman said. "I think they're also strategic, and they know a city like Toronto depends upon being able to have working relationships with government that are positive and pro-active.… The message is already out that a vote for Joe Pantalone is a vote for Rob Ford."

Mr. Trudeau said he thinks the former deputy premier has "a tremendous amount of momentum."

"Yes, Torontonians have anger. Yes, there is frustration. But I think, ultimately, they will not choose someone who's pandering to their insecurities, their fears and their frustration," he said in an interview with The Globe.

But as Mr. Pantalone made clear Monday, he isn't going down without a fight. He rallied his green-shirted troops at his Bloor Street campaign office Monday morning to announce endorsements from the city's left wing.

"I say to my progressive friends, 'Vote for what you believe in,' " said New Democrat MPP Rosario Marchese. "Because you'll be unhappy the next day to have voted for someone that you think is the least-worst of the alternatives."

Councillor Gord Perks said he's talking up Mr. Pantalone's political virtues going door-to-door in his own Parkdale-High Park ward. He rejected the notion that backing the deputy mayor now will help Mr. Ford's mayoral bid.

"There's only one way to elect Rob Ford and I would never do that - even in my own worst nightmare," he said. "I think Joe's got a lot of traction."

Mr. Pantalone said he has no intention of dropping out of the race and slammed the strategic-voting tactics of reluctant Smitherman-backers, arguing that Torontonians shouldn't vote "out of fear." But even as he insisted that he'll emerge victorious Oct. 25, and as some of his would-be supporters look to Mr. Smitherman, Mr. Pantalone said he's in this election on principle - as a standard-bearer for Toronto's progressive politicians.

"You have to fight the battle in order to win the war - and sometimes you have to fight the battle even though you lose the battle, in order to win the war," he said. "I don't want to be a kingmaker to Emperor Nero, frankly. Or anybody else."

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