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Jennifer Keesmaat poses a challenge to John Tory, and that’s good for Toronto’s democracy

Jennifer Keesmaat became Toronto’s chief planner in 2012. It was clear right from the start that she was an unusual kind of bureaucrat. Engaging, outspoken, telegenic, she often seemed less an official than a politician. Now she is one.

By filing her papers to run for mayor, she has transformed what was looking like the dullest municipal campaign in years into a straight up horse race. John Tory, the less-than-scintillating incumbent, has reason to be afraid – very afraid. It looked as if he was all set to saunter into a second term, complete it and leave voluntarily after eight years in office, his reputation as a promising failure erased and his place in local history secure. All that is now in serious doubt.

Although this will be her first run for political office, Ms. Keesmaat is a formidable candidate. She is articulate and forceful. She is not afraid of a fight: She shed the bureaucrat’s traditional deference more than once to challenge ideas she opposed. She is a woman in a city that has not had one in the mayor’s chair since it became an amalgamated city − downtown and suburbs combined − in 1998. She is a progressive voice in a city that tends to alternate between left and right and where the past two mayors − Mr. Tory and Rob Ford − have been from the right side of the spectrum.

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The well-organized forces of the city’s NDP-oriented left seem willing to rally behind her. Until Friday, it looked as if they had all but conceded the Oct. 22 election to the steady Mr. Tory. No one had emerged from city council’s left to take him on and no one of note from outside council had stepped forward either. Now, stalwart lefties such as Kristyn Wong-Tam, downtown councillor, are calling Ms. Keesmaat a natural leader.

Ms. Keesmaat has another advantage: a hot issue to run on. Doug Ford’s sudden and undemocratic decision to slash the number of city councillors to 25 without consulting the city or allowing time for debate has galvanized the left in the same way that former premier, Mike Harris, did when he forced amalgamation on a reluctant city in 1998. It’s to the barricades again, with Ms. Keesmaat waving the resistance flag.

People opposed to Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s plan to cut Toronto’s city council by almost half came out to a rally on Friday outside City Hall. The Canadian Press

Ms. Keesmaat is so exercised about the Ford outrage that she suggested on Twitter that Toronto should secede from Ontario. It’s a goofy idea: Like it or not, the city government is the creature of the provincial one, and it couldn’t simply break away, even if it wanted to. But it showed some fire, and that may be what many voters want. Although Mr. Tory has also come out hard against the council slashing, the always temperate mayor risks appearing underwhelming by comparison.

Of course, none of this makes Ms. Keesmaat a sure thing. She is inexperienced and could easily trip up. She can be prickly under fire. Although she had a high profile in her five years at city hall, she is far from a household name. Many voters have never heard of her. No non-politician has ascended to the mayoralty in memory.

But, then, outsiders and no-hopers have done well elsewhere. Naheed Nenshi was a little known urban-affairs geek when he came out of nowhere to become mayor of Calgary. Valérie Plante was given little chance of unseating the veteran political operator, Denis Coderre, in Montreal’s election last fall − but she did, winning the vote and becoming the city’s first female mayor on the strength of her energy and relative youth. Ms. Keesmaat is promising to bring the same sort of “bold leadership” and fresh ideas to the table.

She has already made it clear that she differs with Mr. Tory on two big issues. When Mr. Tory decided to rebuild the east end of the Gardiner Expressway, the elevated highway that runs across the foot of downtown Toronto, she was against the idea, a rare public dissent by a bureaucrat that earned her a dressing down from the mayor. She wanted a broad surface boulevard instead. She was against the expensive Scarborough subway project and used her influence to have it scaled back – another unusual intervention.

Pedestrian safety, too, is an issue that she could use to her advantage. Mr. Tory has come under attack, a little unfairly, for moving too slowly to take action after a wave of pedestrian deaths. Ms. Keesmaat is a well-known champion of shared streets that are safe for those on foot and on bicycles.

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So there is plenty for these two former collaborators to argue over. However it turns out, it’s going to be an interesting race instead of a cakewalk − and that’s a good thing for democracy in Toronto.

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