Skip to main content

York South-Weston candidate John Nunziata canvasses at a bakery Oct. 22, 2014.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

As Doug Ford hurried to register to replace his ailing brother in Toronto's mayoral race minutes before deadline, the dramatic twist in the election campaign last month included a special cameo by family friend John Nunziata.

Mr. Nunziata, a former MP, joined Doug Ford at City Hall and threw his own hat in the ring for the councillor race in Ward 12 after an 11-year hiatus from politics. It appeared to be a last-minute decision but Mr. Nunziata said he'd been considering it for some time.

"The fact that Doug was running was, I think, the final consideration," he said. Mr. Nunziata supports Mr. Ford for mayor and his sister, council speaker Frances Nunziata, is also a long-time supporter of Rob Ford.

In Ward 12, Frank Di Giorgio, incumbent councillor of 29 years and a Ford ally and budget chief, faces serious challenges to his seat by Mr. Nunziata, non-profit executive Lekan Olawoye and restaurant-owner and third-time candidate Nick Dominelli. All three argue the ward needs a fighter at council.

Mr. Di Giorgio, 68, managed to hold on to his seat in 2010 with just 27 per cent support due to vote-splitting between the three other leading candidates. Mr. Dominelli finished in second place only 422 votes behind.

This year, however, Mr. Di Giorgio is up against another familiar face for the ward. Mr. Nunziata represented the local federal riding in the 1980s as one of the vocal young Liberal MPs called the Rat Pack and later as an independent. He ran and lost in the 2003 Toronto mayoral election and retreated from public view to practise law as a city lobbyist before his recent change of heart.

Mr. Di Giorgio said he wasn't surprised by Mr. Nunziata's decision.

"I heard rumblings and rumours," he said, adding he wasn't threatened by Mr. Nunziata's strong ties to the Fords. "With the democratic system, anybody can run. He basically saw an opportunity and decided to take advantage of that opportunity."

While campaigning in the ward for Liberal MPP Laura Albanese during the summer's Ontario election, Mr. Nunziata said he encountered several residents who urged him to get back into public service.

"Financially, my friends tell me, it's not the wisest thing to do," he said. (He would have to give up his law practice as many of his clients are registered city lobbyists.) "You start thinking about what's important in life and for me, I want to do something that's fulfilling."

Mr. Nunziata, 59, said he's running for council because city politics have the most direct impact on residents. If elected, he said he would fight to allow seniors to defer 50 per cent of their property taxes; make the TTC completely accessible; and reduce the size of city council to eliminate ineffectual councillors who end up being "bench-warmers."

York South-Weston covers the area between Highway 401 and Rogers Road from the Kitchener GO train tracks and Jane Street to the CN Rail line in the east. Its residents live in a mix of houses and apartment buildings and make about 30 per cent less than Toronto's average household income, according to 2011 Statistics Canada data.

"Frank [Di Giorgio] might be a nice guy. Unfortunately, we need a strong advocate," said Mr. Dominelli, 42, who pledges to fight at city hall for a larger piece of the pie for Ward 12 to improve transit; fix the pipe system to prevent frequent flooding; and bring affordable daycare to the community. "Our community deserves the types of services other communities are getting."

He said he routinely receives calls on his cellphone from residents needing help who weren't able to get it from the councillor. "I've done my best to fill in," said Mr. Dominelli, a Community Action Resource Centre board member.

Mr. Di Giorgio insisted most of his hard work for the ward occurs behind the scenes as he fights the city on issues such as bad development projects involving clusters of low-income housing that he said lead to security problems.

"It's emotional because the types of battles that I've been fighting are not readily apparent," said Mr. Di Giorgio, who recently became overwhelmed at a Rogers TV debate, choking back tears as he delivered his opening statement. "I've fought against a whole lot of negative things happening and that's different from just promoting positive things."

Still, he said he got Ward 12 a new community centre set to open next year; helped bring in the Eglinton Crosstown LRT to improve transit; and as budget chief, brought in millions of dollars for sewer upgrades and road repair.

Mr. Olawoye, who moved to Canada from Nigeria after his father died and was raised by his mother in a Rexdale Toronto Community Housing home, said residents aren't aware of Mr. Di Giorgio's work at city hall because no regular newsletters are distributed to inform them.

"As a candidate, I've already started a monthly newsletter for the last eight months," said Mr. Olawoye, executive director of For Youth Initiative, a local non-profit focused on supporting low-income youth. His policy platform includes maintaining communication with the community; building safe community spaces; advocating for tenant rights and beautifying the local business improvement areas.

At his campaign office, his team was optimistic as they compared a list of advance poll voters with residents they'd met and identified as supporters. About 36 per cent of the names matched up.

"You're kidding. You're joking," Mr. Olawoye said, congratulating the team before acknowledging that Monday's result is the one that counts.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the Ward in the headline. This version has been corrected.