While campaigning on a sunny July afternoon, Doug Holyday studies a house and tries to guess by its age whether or not the owners were likely to have lived there when he was mayor of Etobicoke nearly 20 years ago.
The day before, Peter Milczyn took one glance at a different house a few miles south and said he could tell if its occupants were Polish based on the style of its curtains – he is clearly trying to make the most of his own background and the riding's large Polish population.
The two candidates, leading rivals in the race for Etobicoke-Lakeshore in the Aug. 1 provincial by-election, are fighting a close race. Although it's a seat that has been held by the Liberals for 10 years, the latest poll from Forum Research puts the Progressive Conservative candidate, Mr. Holyday, at 47 per cent over Liberal Mr. Milczyn's 40 per cent – the first poll to show Mr. Holyday in the lead.
Though a win wouldn't topple the Liberals' minority government, it would be a telling victory if the Tories manage to sway the riding, where they've been out of power for all but eight of the past 26 years.
"The upside for them is that if they can win in Etobicoke, (PC Leader Tim) Hudak can say to conservatives that his version of conservative politics can win seats in the 416," said John Duffy, a former Ontario Liberal party strategist. "There's been a big dispute in the conservative party for many years over how to win in the 416. So Hudak wants to be able to prove he's right by winning in Etobicoke-Lakeshore."
Mr. Holyday and Mr. Milczyn are both political veterans who were born and raised in Etobicoke, in Toronto's west end. They still live there with their families. They both started their political careers on the Etobicoke council before its amalgamation with the City of Toronto and they've both found success representing the area on Toronto city council since. Both candidates also sit on Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's executive committee, although Mr. Ford has thrown his support solely behind Mr. Holyday, his Deputy Mayor and long-time family friend.
But where Mr. Holyday, 70, touts fiscal restraint, lower taxes and privatization (he privatized garbage pick-up in the borough before amalgamation), Mr. Milczyn, 48, champions social services and investing in public programs like full-day kindergarten.
Also running are NDP candidate P.C. Choo and Green Party representative Angela Salewsky, along with a handful of fringe candidates. But it's clear from debates, press releases and public statements that Mr. Milczyn and Mr. Holyday see each other as the real competition.
Earlier this week, Mr. Milczyn filed a complaint to the city's integrity commissioner over Mr. Holyday's use of a city-contracted garbage truck in a photo-op. Mr. Milczyn called his opponent "self-righteous." Mr. Holyday said the move was "petty." Until this time, they had focused their attacks on the leaders of their rival parties rather than each other.
With less than a week of campaigning left, the gloves have been dropped.
Each candidate faces their own challenges in the riding. Mr. Holyday has long represented the area – he was first elected to council before Mr. Milczyn had even graduated university – but because his ward falls north of the provincial boundaries, he sometimes has to remind people who he is.
"I was the mayor of Etobicoke before," he tells one young woman on the campaign trail, standing outside her newly built house. "You might not have been old enough. It was 1994 so you probably might not have voted."
Mr. Milczyn has the advantage here: His ward overlaps the riding, making him a familiar face among residents. In a ward where, according to census data, there are more immigrants from Poland than any other single country, having a Polish last name and being able to easily slip into the mother tongue doesn't hurt either.
But where Mr. Milczyn loses his edge is defending his party after the recent scandals. The Liberals are worried Ontarians have lost faith in them after the costly closing of the gas plants, the subsequent turmoil over undisclosed e-mails, and months-long disagreements with teachers, which ended with a conciliatory deal under new Premier Kathleen Wynne.
Mr. Holyday said voters who previously voted Liberal have told him they're ready to jump ship this time around.
"There are a couple of things upsetting people. Firstly, those gas plants and the waste at Queen's Park. People are just downright fed up with it," he said, adding the timing of the by-election during peak summer holiday season has been in the reigning party's favour.
"It's an election by a desperate group who want to call an election with the fewest people involved so they don't have to explain as much."
Mr. Milczyn's strategy when facing the criticism from voters is to be forthcoming about his party's failings.
"I'm not going to stand at a door and say 'it's all okay. It never happened. It doesn't matter,' " he said. "Mistakes were made. Certainly the government is being held to account for it. We're putting in place various measures to try and prevent it from happening again ... Nobody's perfect."
The riding, one of five in the province to hold a summer by-election, has traditionally voted Liberal – former education minister Laurel Broten was elected three times and was MPP for 10 years. As such, the Liberals have a keen eye fixed on the riding as a thermometer of their minority government's waning popularity in the province.
The city council, facing the loss of either its deputy mayor or chair of the planning committee, will also be watching closely, according to fellow executive committee member Denzil Minnan-Wong.
He said having two councillors run in the same by-election is unusual and many at city hall were surprised by the decision.
"But the good part about this is that it's likely someone from Toronto council will be going to Queen's Park."