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Highly competitive Toronto campaign emerges in light of province's victory

City of Toronto Mayor John Tory arrives at a press conference regarding the court's stay of an earlier court ruling, returning Toronto's election to a 25-ward race, in Toronto on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018.

TORONTO - As Toronto prepared for a leaner local government following Ontario's legal victory over the size of the city's council, longtime politicians were being pitted against one another and newcomers worried about being heard in what's now a highly competitive municipal election campaign.

A day after the province's top court established a 25-ward race for October's vote, incumbents and first-time candidates expressed apprehension about the new electoral landscape in Canada's most populous city.

"The voters are confused, the staff aren't sure what they're doing, and I must say, the people in Toronto that I'm talking to are very upset," said Coun. Paula Fletcher, who was among many registering as candidates at city hall on Thursday.

Toronto's election campaign has been at the centre of a political storm for nearly two months, ever since Premier Doug Ford announced his plan to slash the city's council from 47 seats to 25.

A judge initially found the plan unconstitutional, but the province's top court sided with the government on Wednesday, suspending the earlier ruling and making clear that the city would elect 25 councillors on Oct. 22.

For Fletcher, a municipal veteran, fewer seats mean she's now running against fellow Coun. Mary Fragedakis — a situation that's playing out among several incumbents.

"Mary and I are friends, we have worked on a lot of issues together," said Fletcher. "It's hard ... The voters will decide which one of us they want to send back."

Coun. John Campbell, a conservative councillor from a west-Toronto ward, will also be pitted against a colleague, one-term incumbent Stephen Holyday.

Campbell said Holyday has the benefit of name-recognition as the son of Doug Holyday, the former mayor of what was then the municipality of Etobicoke. But Campbell said he plans to stress his own approach to city issues when canvassing in the now-expanded ward.

"It's very strange," he said. "When I'm at the door I tell people, 'listen, I know him and I like him,' and then I point out a couple of points of difference."

The council cut — which means there will be one councillor per approximately 109,000 residents — is likely to create extra work for those elected, Campbell said, noting councillors will have to sit on more boards and oversee more local agencies than before.

"I'm willing to do the work, but it's going to make running the city a lot more problematic," he said. "My fear is the bureaucracy will be running the show down here."

Coun. Mike Layton added that the council cut will also make it harder for residents to have direct access to elected officials.

"By doubling the workload of city councillors — both the legislative side and the workload within the constituency — the one-on-one interactions will suffer," he said, adding that the situation could also have an impact on how people perceive municipal politics.

For first-time candidates, a race crowded with seasoned councillors means a tougher fight.

Tiffany Ford, a school trustee running against two incumbents and a slew of others, said she's been campaigning based on both the 47-ward and the 25-ward model but still has a lot of ground to cover.

While confident she can rally support by drawing on her experience running for trustee in the same area, other newcomers may be squeezed out entirely, she said.

"I definitely think it has shut out a lot of people," said Ford, who is not related to the premier.

"There's so many individuals that are new, or up-and-coming, young, racialized, diverse candidates that we need at city hall…what has transpired definitely does not help at all."

Jennifer Hollett, who had planned to run in the 47-ward election, has now decided to drop out altogether.

"It feels like candidate suppression," she said. "There was a lot of energy and excitement around this new cohort of candidates running, which I was a part of, and included women and racialized candidates and younger candidates, just new people and ideas."

Myer Siemiatycki, a professor of politics at Toronto's Ryerson University, said the switch back to 25 wards has set off a "frantic game of political musical chairs" that will likely shut out an entire new generation of leadership.

"This was going to be an election in 2018 of significant makeover of the composition of Toronto city council because out of the 47 there were an unprecedentedly large number of vacancies and that meant newcomers were going to have a chance," he said.

"There had been all kinds of efforts being put into especially promoting candidates from traditionally underrepresented groups ... so a whole number of candidates and communities were poised for political breakthrough."

Fewer council seats now mean nearly all wards have at least one current councillor seeking re-election, Siemiatycki said, noting that incumbents typically have a leg up. That advantage is exacerbated by the compressed campaign, which doesn't leave new candidates much time to make an impression, he said.

But the recent tumult, combined with the "desperate, no-holds-barred" campaigns expected to play out, could boost public engagement and lead to historically high voter turnout, the professor said, noting competitive races tend to bring more people out on election day.

Ford, a one-time councillor and failed mayoral candidate, has argued a smaller council will make local government more efficient.

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