Jennifer Hollett was a candidate for city councillor in the 47-ward Toronto election, and is the former head of news and government for Twitter Canada.
I’ve been told a woman is asked seven times before she runs for office.
Making that decision isn’t easy, as running for office involves things that most of us would rather not do. Knocking on strangers’ doors, talking to people about their political views, asking dear friends and family for money. And that’s just the entry point.
I know this because I was, until last week, running for Toronto City Council – until Doug Ford slashed city council in half, two-thirds of the way into the citywide election.
I have spent the past two months on the front lines of a municipal, provincial and national fight for democracy and Charter rights. My days have been spent collecting petitions, attending rallies, speaking to the media and appearing in court. At the best and worst of times, it’s felt like an unfolding Heritage Minute.
To run for office and win, I’ve learned you have to be strategic: You have to identify an opportunity with a path to victory, and have the resources to get you there. And you have to be fully committed, clearing your work and personal schedule to canvass day and night, and have the savings to cover the costs of living during that time. For parents, it becomes a third full-time job on top of kids and career.
You also have to be able to put yourself out there, physically and virtually. Always on, upbeat and positive, despite anything and everything others will say. To quote a recent troll of mine on Twitter: “I checked out your election site and noted you have the same heavy thigh and glute areas as fat Hillary Clinton. Perhaps it’s time to consider a wardrobe of colorful pantsuits.” This is on top of continued unsolicited advice on how to run your campaign, as well as friends of opponents suggesting you shouldn’t run at all.
At present, 32 per cent of Toronto’s city council is made up of women. The numbers drop significantly when we look at women of colour and/or LGBTQ councillors. There are also many systemic class barriers to elections. This is one of the reasons why a diverse range of new candidates entered the 47-ward city-council race. It was an opportunity to elect a new cohort of councillors who truly reflect the people of Toronto. Municipal elections, especially races in new wards or wards without incumbents, are an entry point for many into political life.
Now, in the 25-ward scenario, the majority of the ward I intended to run in becomes a megaward made up of four others, with two city councillors in the race. As I outlined in my affidavit in the court challenge to Bill 5, I would never have quit my job and made the decision to enter that race. I have no interest in running against Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, a progressive, a friend and a mentor to many women interested in city politics. She’s also the only woman of colour on city council, and the only out queer councillor. A true city leader.
Ausma Malik, the first hijab-wearing Muslim woman to be elected to public office in Canada as school board trustee, is also no longer running for city council now that it is a 25-ward race. A big loss for the city. We both know many women who are continuing to run, even though they face much tougher and bigger races. Pollsters and journalists are already looking at the new map and making predictions at who will likely win. My friends and I did the same recently, on the back of a restaurant receipt. Based on the incumbent advantage, breakthroughs for new candidates are unlikely.
A radio journalist asked me recently if I had any regrets. I’ve thought about this a lot. Running for office requires a leap of faith – I know this because I’ve run before federally. But this time, it felt like a cartoon: I leaped and out of nowhere, landed flat on concrete. Splat.
But all of this is because it really matters. Mr. Ford is threatened by our power. And there was power in the 47-ward system, power in the organizing taking place across our city, power in new and effective representation. And that is why Mr. Ford did everything he could to suppress candidates. And that is why women and under represented groups will continue to run for office, despite everything and everyone telling us not to.