For the past 20 years, municipal elections in York West have been foregone conclusions, but with an embattled incumbent and a changing ward, 2014 is shaping up to be different.
Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti has represented the area for the past 24 years, first as an MPP in the Bob Rae government, and then as a councillor since before amalgamation in Toronto.
Mr. Mammoliti took on one of the most prominent roles in Mayor Rob Ford's inner circle. As a member of the cabinet-like executive committee, the Ward 7 councillor would give mayoral allies the thumbs up or down on key motions at council. Much like Councillor Doug Ford, he also attacked the mayor's opponents or defended the agenda as needed.
Despite his long tenure and high profile, Mr. Mammoliti's most memorable City Hall moments have little to do with the ward he represents. Remember the pitch to create a red-light district on Toronto Island?
More recently, the councillor became the subject of a police investigation related to an $80,000 fundraiser the city's Integrity Commissioner deemed to have violated council's code of conduct. Lobbyists, developers and contractors paid $500 each to attend the red carpet affair. Mr. Mammoliti also received $275,000 in loans from developers, which he argues are of a personal nature and have no bearing on his conduct as a councillor. He faces five non-criminal charges in an ongoing court case related to his 2010 campaign finances.
Mr. Mammoliti dismissed the concerns in an interview. "I don't have anything to worry [about] with my integrity," he said, adding that he is limited in what he can say about the allegations that are before the courts.
He referred to the investigations and legal challenges as a "well-orchestrated manoeuvre by many organizations and professionals" who disagree with what he is doing at City Hall.
The incumbent is running on a platform of lower taxes, stopping the Finch LRT to pursue a subway, and advocating for seniors.
After a night of canvassing, he expressed characteristic confidence about his election chances.
"It's going really well. I would actually say it's going better than 2010," he said.
Throughout it all, Mr. Mammoliti has defied his critics, and consistently denied wrongdoing for his alleged indiscretions.
The barrage of controversies creates an opportunity for the seven candidates challenging the councillor. Recent polls, albeit with small sample sizes and large margins of error, suggest the race could be more competitive than 2010. Challenger Nick Di Nizio, who finished second in the previous council race, is in a statistical tie with Mr. Mammoliti, according to two polls. This is significant given that, over the past three elections, incumbents won more than 90 per cent of the time. Mr. Mammoliti won in 2006 by 33 percentage points, and in 2010 by 14.
"The ward needs change," Mr. Di Nizio said.
Driving through the ward, the candidate pointed to flower pots placed in an industrial area by the Emery Village BIA as wasteful spending.
"Someone has to water those," he said, calling it a sign of misplaced priorities.
Among his top issues, Mr. Di Nizio said the ward needs more services for a growing population of seniors, and that a shortage of grocery stores is a concern.
"We don't have any grocery stores here," save for one No Frills, a Food Basics, and a Centra Foods. "We've got seniors who can't drive, they have to get a ride from a friend," he said.
Bordered by Humber Valley to the west, Jane Street to the east, and the 401 to the south, Ward 7 saw a lot of development in the 1960s and early 1970s as Italian families moved to newly built semi-detached homes and high-rises.
Now, while Italian is the most common language after English, many residents speak Spanish, Vietnamese and Punjabi at home. It indicates a changing community – 62 per cent of residents are from outside Canada – that comes with its own set of challenges.
Household income is 28-per-cent lower than the city average, and residents are 34-per-cent less likely to have a postsecondary degree. In the most recently available census data, unemployment was one third higher than the city average. Accessibility is a concern too: While two highways go through the ward, the area is poorly served by transit.
Bus service standards and crowding were made worse in the 2012 budget. As council candidate Keegan Henry-Mathieu rides the Finch bus at 3:30 p.m., riders are packed like sardines, and for Mr. Henry-Mathieu, the Finch LRT cannot come soon enough.
Walking through the Chalkfarm towers, which house many low-income tenants, Mr. Henry-Mathieu's campaign manager, Claire McWatt, pointed out the number of balconies on which the front wheel of a bicycle pops over the ledge. She explained that although the community was built for cars, a lot of residents cannot afford one. This is made worse by a lack of bike infrastructure, both bike lanes to get around, and secure places to store them.
Mr. Henry-Mathieu, who secured the Labour Council endorsement, is a long shot to win the ward, and polls around 10 per cent. But he hopes change will come soon. Walking through a playground, he pointed out basketball backboards with missing hoops. He explained that Mr. Mammoliti had them taken down for fear that they would attract drug dealers.
"Some kind of sports just need a bit of supervision, and I think basketball is one of them," the councillor said.
"For one reason or another, [basketball hoops] seem to attract the wrong crowd outside," Mr. Mammoliti said in a telephone interview.
"What I've heard loud and clear is that nobody is playing outdoor basketball any more, they seem to be selling drugs," Mr. Mammoliti said – a claim, he added, that he heard from the local police division.
He said that at least one of the basketball courts has been replaced with outdoor ball hockey, which has made it safer for families.
Mr. Henry-Mathieu contends that the community – which has produced some of Canada's best basketball players – needs a diversity of sports and places for kids to play. He explained that local kids find a way to make use of the backboard, creating their own game in which hitting parts of the backboard get different point values.
"They make do with what they have."