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municipal politics

A 25-year political career on the line. A defeated MP looking to get back in the game. A dinner strategy meeting that drove a wedge between two allies. A slate of 27 candidates vying for a single seat. Looming over it all, the spectre of Canada's longest-serving big-city mayor and the protracted fight to succeed her.

A wild, pitched battle is not what anyone would expect from a summer by-election for a spot on a suburban city council, but that's exactly what the race in Mississauga's Ward 5 is turning out to be. The seat was left vacant when Eve Adams was elected to the federal Parliament in May, less than a year into her term, and an impressive roster is vying to take her place in a Sept. 19 vote.

The biggest name is Carolyn Parrish, the outspoken former Liberal MP and city councillor. During her municipal term, she backed a judicial inquiry into Mayor Hazel McCallion's involvement in a land deal that stood to make her son a millionaire and questioned the governance of the city's hydro utility.

Ms. McCallion campaigned against Ms. Parrish in last year's municipal election, including sending out a recorded telephone message urging people to vote for her opponent. Ms. Parrish went down to defeat.

More than eight months after leaving office, Ms. Parrish is colourful as always – she talks about "pummelling" the provincial government to extract money for a community health centre in ward 5 – but characterizes her tussles with Ms. McCallion as simply democratic debate.

"I was never after the mayor, I was just asking questions...and I got some brick-wall answers," she said on Friday afternoon in her campaign headquarters, a neat storefront in a strip plaza. "Aside from the inquiry and the [hydro utility], we agreed 95 per cent of the time."

Ms. Parrish has long been said to be interested in succeeding Ms. McCallion, who is set to retire at the end of her current term. The 64-year-old, however, insists she's not planning for that.

Running in the by-election is a risk for Ms. Parrish: lose a second time and she may not have enough political capital to launch a future bid for office, mayoral or otherwise. Her career, which began as a school trustee in 1985, may very well be done.

A formidable lineup of candidates is trying to end it.

Among them is Bonnie Crombie, 51, who lost her attempt at a second term as a Liberal MP in the spring. While she did not refer to Ms. Parrish by name as she launched her council bid on Thursday, she took square aim at the perceived front-runner.

"I want to provide an alternative to the divisive council practices of the past," she said. "I don't think that anyone should use one office as the stepping stone to another."

There is also Jake Dheer, manager of the local Rogers TV station and a well-known community organizer with a long history of volunteer work. Mr. Dheer, 49, has never run for public office before and insists that council needs a fresh face like his.

"These are defeated politicians," he said of Ms. Crombie and Ms. Parrish. "In one case, the residents of one ward fired her; why would the residents of another want to hire her?"

While the mayor balks at suggestions she will back one of Ms. Parrish's opponents, she has given both Ms. Crombie and Mr. Dheer encouraging signs. At Ms. Crombie's election night party, the mayor suggested she run for the open council seat. During at least one public event this summer, meanwhile, she has introduced Mr. Dheer as a future councillor.

Ms. Parrish's greatest worry, however, may actually come from a former friend: Ms. Adams. According to Ms. Parrish, the ex-councillor at first encouraged her to run. Then, last month, over dinner at an Italian restaurant near the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus, informed her that her husband, Conservative Party strategist Peter Adams, would enter the race. Ms. Parrish says Mr. Adams told her he had waited for her to draw out other candidates and asked her to drop out.

Ms. Parrish hasn't spoken to the couple since; Mr. Adams could not be reached for comment.

Adding to the election's complexity is the bizarre geography of Ward 5 itself. The constituency consists of two residential neighbourhoods – Britannia and Malton – separated by a sea of industrial parks and Pearson International Airport. Most of the candidates, so far, have made similar promises on local issues: tackling crime and poverty in under-privileged Malton, and holding the line on taxes.

In the end, Mississauga politics expert Tom Urbaniak said, the ground game will be key. Given the traditionally low turnout for by-elections and the possibility for the vote to fracture in unpredictable ways, a polarizing candidate like Ms. Parrish may have to motivate only a relatively small number of people to cast their ballots.

And amid such a large field of contenders, anything can happen.

"With [27] candidates, how do you even run a debate?" Mr. Urbaniak said. "It'll be a really fun election to watch."

Some of the 27 candidates

Peter Adams

Bio: Conservative Party strategist and husband of former councillor Eve Adams.

Strength: Access to his wife's support in the ward.

Weakness: While working on Ms. Adams's council campaign in 2003, he was charged when signs belonging to her rivals were allegedly pulled down. The charges were dropped after a charitable donation was made.

Bonnie Crombie

Bio: A history of civic-minded volunteerism, including a stint as vice-chair of the mayor's task force on the arts, led to a term as a federal MP, from 2008 to 2011.

Strength: A precise, 10-point platform that addresses local issues in Ward 5. Being close with Mayor Hazel McCallion doesn't hurt either.

Weakness: Despite her name-recognition from her recent term as an MP, she doesn't quite have Ms. Parrish's profile.

Jake Dheer

Bio: Station manager at Rogers community television, prominent volunteer known for hosting charity events.

Strength: A compelling personal story. Born in India, he immigrated to Canada as a child and watched his father pull himself up by the bootstraps. This could play well in Ward 5, which has a high number of new Canadians.

Weakness: If he's hoping to attract some of the pro-McCallion vote, he will have a tough time topping Ms. Crombie for closeness to the mayor.

Carolyn Parrish

Bio: A school teacher by trade, she served on the local board of education from 1985 to 1991, in the House of Commons from 1993 to 2006 and city council from 2006 to 2010.

Strength: Her criticisms of Ms. McCallion have made her one of the city's highest-profile politicians.

Weakness: Her flamboyant style has frequently got her in trouble. On one occasion, for example, a Mississauga restaurant owner complained that Ms. Parrish had torn down a poster for a pro-McCallion rally.