Rob Ford is on the sidelines, but the city's controversial leader remains a strong presence among the candidates who want to replace him, with contenders jockeying for position as the best choice to continue his agenda or move away from it.
Nine challengers, including the four front-runners, came to City Hall on Monday night for the first debate since the mayor took a leave from office and his re-election effort to seek treatment for his problems with alcohol.
Without Mr. Ford in the room, only Olivia Chow referred to him by name unprompted in her opening remarks, but his behaviour soon became the topic of debate when the questions started.
Earlier this month, Mr. Ford announced he was taking a leave after two Globe and Mail reporters saw a video that appeared to show him smoking crack cocaine and the Toronto Sun made public a recording of him making profane remarks. A Muskoka facility confirmed last week that Mr. Ford was there after he was pictured in the region and his car was impounded when a local resident was pulled over driving it and charged with drunk driving.
Ms. Chow, a former New Democrat MP, stressed that she wants a change from the mayor's agenda, not just from the controversy that has dogged him in the past year – which she called a "strange episode" in the city's history. "We are tired of Mr. Ford's scandals," she said, as well as his "worn out" policies.
John Tory, the former leader of the provincial Progressive Conservatives, who arrived at the debate 45 minutes after it started, repeated his call for the mayor to resign, saying it is a "miracle" council has continued to function in spite of Mr. Ford's behaviour.
Councillor Karen Stintz, the former TTC chair appointed by Mr. Ford, provided the most biting comments in the three-hour marathon, which lacked the energy of the past two debates. Ms. Stintz ran through the mayor's accomplishments in his first two years in office, arguing that if not for his "troubles," he would likely be re-elected with ease, and going on to describe him as a bigot and a homophobe. Ms. Stintz was the subject of sexist comments made by Mr. Ford heard on the audio recording earlier in May.
David Soknacki, a former city councillor, said he is running for mayor to "make change, not to make excuses."
Sarah Thomson, who also ran against Mr. Ford in 2010, said the mayor won because of his sincerity and because voters "liked what they saw and wanted change."
Only youth candidate Morgan Baskin refused to talk about the mayor. Others at the debate were Erwin Sniedzins, Michael Nicula and Dewitt Lee.
The debate, hosted by the Nation Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada, lacked the verbal jostling and one-liners of the first televised faceoff and one hosted by Ryerson University. The format gave candidates no chance to debate each other, and Mr. Ford's absence eliminated much of the tension.
Ms. Stintz stressed that she has no intention of stepping out of the race to make way for Mr. Tory, a response to rumours in recent weeks that her campaign is falling apart. "I am at 5 per cent now, but trust me, I will be on the ballot on Oct. 27," she said.
As in the campaign so far, transit and gridlock were main topics. Ms. Stintz proposes to use a TTC surplus to fund a fare freeze next year. Ms. Chow said she wants to move forward with a Scarborough light rail line, not a subway that would take years. Mr. Tory, set to unveil his transit plan on Tuesday, said now is not the time to reopen the Scarborough subway debate. Mr. Soknacki, who left early, also opposes the Scarborough subway.