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Bonnie Crombie and Steve Mahoney are running for Mississauga mayor.

J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

Mayoral election lawn signs are a strange sight in Mississauga, a city that hasn't had a real mayoral election in 36 years. If you're driving above the speed limit on Mississauga Road, where it seems every other house has a sign staked into the grass for either Bonnie Crombie or Steve Mahoney, it's hard to tell who's winning. Signs for both the front-runners are royal blue with white text – they look like they're of the same brand. To many observers, Ms. Crombie and Mr. Mahoney seem like they are, too.

In a city where incumbent Mayor Hazel McCallion was re-elected again and again for nearly four decades, most residents stopped paying attention to local politics, assuming their city was safe in the hands of the same woman who had always governed it.

"I've run into people who've said, 'Oh, I'm voting for Hazel,' who don't realize she's not running again," Mr. Mahoney said.

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When Ms. McCallion was first elected in 1978, greenfields seemed like a plentiful, inexhaustible resource; as they were sold off to developers, they fed the city's coffers, which funded infrastructure projects and allowed taxes to remain low for decades. But now the municipality of 752,000 is almost entirely built out and reserves have dried up. The city went into debt for the first time in 2011 and the public infrastructure deficit has mounted. Mississaugans are in need of a capable leader now, more than ever before. But the two serious candidates they have are so similar, they've struggled to differentiate themselves from each other.

Both are former Liberal MPs. Their platforms echo each other in so many ways that Mr. Mahoney accused Ms. Crombie of cribbing from his when she released hers.

"They're sort of centre-left politicians with almost identical policies," said Councillor George Carlson, explaining why he's chosen to stay neutral during the race. Mr. Mahoney and Ms. Crombie have pledged to keep property taxes at the rate of inflation or lower, to cut the red tape at city hall, to improve city services for new immigrants. And so while both come from similar places on the political spectrum, they've tried to differentiate themselves by pitching what sort of mayor they would be.

While one candidate has cast the job as that of a consensus builder who will give the city a stronger voice in the region and put it on a bigger stage, the other sees it as a chance to be chief executive of an enormous enterprise, one that can move past its recent challenges.

Steve Mahoney had just spent an hour schmoozing with about 20 seniors over a coffee meet-and-greet hosted by the widow of a former Liberal MP in her Erin Mills condominium. He laughed at their jokes, made small-talk about golfing, forced down a sugary pastry or two instead of one of the calorie-controlled Jenny Craig breakfasts he usually eats in the morning.

It's been a while since the 67-year-old campaigned like this – Mr. Mahoney hasn't represented Mississauga politically since 2003, when he was a Liberal MP, and hasn't been in municipal politics since 1987.

He touts his connections within the provincial and federal governments as his secret weapon.

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After serving as a councillor for nine years, Mr. Mahoney left municipal politics in 1987 and went on to become an MPP for eight years, then an MP for six and briefly sat on Jean Chrétien's cabinet as secretary of state for Crown corporations in 2003 before he was kicked to the backbench again after Paul Martin became leader. After riding redistribution that year, he lost a nomination bid to Liberal rival Carolyn Parrish and stepped away from politics.

"Mr. Mahoney's wife, Katie, has represented Ward 8 for 22 years. She is not seeking re-election, but the couple's son, Matt, is hoping to replace her.

Bonnie's got a profile, no question, but she doesn't have one that goes back 30 years," Mr. Mahoney said. He points out that no current members of council have rallied behind his opponent, but five (his wife, Katie, among them) have endorsed him.

While Ms. McCallion has repeatedly made the pitch in her last term for the provincial government to give Mississauga the power to introduce new revenue tools, Mr. Mahoney hasn't yet given up on his city's potential to bring in development dollars. He believes it can attract more Fortune 500 companies, build more office towers and increase its density with infill development.

His transit policy calls for expanded two-way all-day GO Transit service, but he has an even more ambitious long-term vision for what the city deserves.

"I ultimately think we should have a subway come out to City Centre [the transit hub beside Square One Shopping Centre]. Why should we sit back as a poor cousin while Scarborough gets $600-million from Ottawa to build a three-stop subway?"

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Though Mr. Mahoney moved away from politics formally after losing his federal seat, he still remained in the political fray for years after as he served as chair of Ontario's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. While there, he earned the scorn of both provincial opposition parties for claiming more than $140,000 in per diem in 2008, which was called extravagant and excessive at a time when the Liberal Party was already embroiled in other scandals. Ultimately, the labour minister said the expenses did not breach policy at the time.

While at the WSIB, Mr. Mahoney also sparred with union leaders, but he was always willing to work through differences, even when they seemed insurmountable, says Wayne Samuelson, former president of the Ontario Federation of Labour. He once called for Mr. Mahoney to be fired but now, six years later, says he supports his former foe's mayoral bid.

He recalls a time he was at odds with Mr. Mahoney on an issue and Mr. Mahoney invited him to his office to hash it out. "He just sat me down in a chair and asked, 'How do we move past this?' " Mr. Samuelson said – an approach he said he rarely came across. "He just listened to me rant at him and he was really respectful."

The forecast called for rain on a Saturday afternoon in late September, but it's unexpectedly sunny and Bonnie Crombie, 54, is overheating in her black pantsuit as she stops in to the shops along Lakeshore Road East in Port Credit to introduce herself to business owners. Her team prefers this look on her – it apparently sends more of a Hillary Rodham Clinton vibe, she says.

"I hope you can do half a good a job as Hazel did," one resident calls after her.

While she doesn't have her formal endorsement, Ms. Crombie has long been thought to have won the tacit approval of Ms. McCallion. The two are often seen together at events and are known to have a close friendship.

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In 2011, she was tapped to run in a Ward 5 by-election by Ms. McCallion herself, who attended Ms. Crombie's defeat party on the night of that year's federal election, when she lost the seat she'd held since 2008.

"She was depressed, she was defeated, she took it very personally. To have someone of the calibre of the mayor encourage her to run … that was great news," Ms. Crombie's husband, Brian, recalls.

In this campaign, she has positioned herself against Mr. Mahoney as the businesswoman who will be the chief executive officer of a city, rather than merely its mayor.

Her transit plan, just like Mr. Mahoney's, is centred around all-day, two-way GO Transit service. But she makes a business case for the need for improved transit: transporting people and goods more effectively translates into greater economic health for the city. She has proposed creating a downtown development task force – a consortium of developers, businesses, residents and city staff – to steer business and residential growth in the city's core.

Ms. Crombie's foes have led a quiet campaign online to discredit her business record by shining a light on her husband's. Mr. Crombie served as chief financial officer for Biovail Corp., once the country's largest publicly traded pharmaceutical company, which was sued by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in 2008 for allegedly misleading investors and preparing fraudulent accounts. The Ontario Securities Commission brought similar charges against the firm. Biovail settled for several million dollars in both cases and Mr. Crombie personally paid the SEC $100,000 (U.S.), though he said the settlement did not come with an admission of guilt. He was also ordered to pay $300,000 (Canadian) to the OSC.

But he says his past should not be what Mississaugans consider on election day.

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"Bonnie's name is the one on the ballot and people are smart enough to make a decision based on Bonnie's name or her reputation," Mr. Crombie said.

Ms. Crombie's first few jobs were as a marketing manager for McDonald's and Disney Corp. Later, after completing her MBA at the Schulich School of Business, she says she co-founded the company Cargo Cosmetics in the late-nineties with classmate Hana Zalzal. Representatives at Cargo were unable to confirm Ms. Crombie's role at their companies. Ms. Zalzal did not return several requests for comment. Ms. Crombie later went on to work as manager of government relations for the Insurance Bureau of Canada and took on volunteer appointments on the boards of various non-profits and charities.

"I'm a businesswoman first, a community activist and then a politician," she says. "I haven't been the career politician."

Councillor Ron Starr, who endorsed Mr. Mahoney, said he respects Ms. Crombie and hasn't had any trouble working with her on council, but he questions her credentials.

"I keep hearing about the business background, but I'm not sure of the business background. Has she ever made a payroll?" he asked.

Ms. Crombie said she managed marketing budgets at McDonald's and Disney. "I didn't have payroll there, but at Cargo we [the three founding partners] all had responsibilities for everything," she said.

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Former Toronto mayor, now Senator Art Eggleton, who came to know Ms. Crombie when she was an MP in Ottawa, sees her as a confident executive type.

"She's always had at least two BlackBerrys going at the same time, engaging in conversations with people," he said. "She was always getting around the room in a hurry to connect with people, to get the agendas organized."

Editor's Note: The original Saturday Globe T.O. version of this story and an earlier online version referred to candidate Bonnie Crombie's jobs as a manager for McDonald's and Disney Corp. The earlier versions said representatives from those companies were unable to confirm her role at the two companies. However, The Globe's enquiries were based on her married name and not her maiden name. Ms. Crombie has provided documentation that she did in fact work for those companies under her maiden name Bonnie Sawarna. That clarification has been added to this online version of the story.

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