An urban planner loses her bid for mayor but the progressive vote at council, which Ontario Premier Doug Ford seemed interested in weakening, remains largely unchanged.
After a topsy-turvy election, Toronto ultimately opted to stick with the plain old status quo.
Incumbent Mayor John Tory won a near historic landslide victory over his main rival Jennifer Keesmaat Monday night, taking more than 63 percent of the vote. Keesmaat, the city’s chief planner from 2012 to 2017 and a favorite among many urban progressives, finished a distant second.
By re-electing Tory, Toronto's voters have opted for more uncontroversial, small-c conservative leadership while also issuing an endorsement of the decisions of the last four years.
Tory's pledge to rehabilitate an under-used section of elevated downtown expressway: likely staying put. Tory's heavily-criticized commitment to spend billions extending the subway system by a single stop: also (probably) staying.
It could all have been very different. The 2018 election became emotionally charged in July when Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced his government planned to slash the size of Toronto city council from 47 to 25 wards, mirroring the number of provincial and federal electoral districts in the city.
Ford called it a cost-saving measure, but it appeared more of a naked attempt to create a more conservative city government. Several city wards were merged, pitting incumbents against each other and driving out many new candidates who suddenly found themselves unable to compete.
There were large protests outside the provincial legislature and even (perhaps not entirely serious) talk of seceding from Ontario and forming a new province.
Despite those early fireworks and significant voter anger, both Tory and Keesmaat led unflashy, unemotional campaigns. The mayor offered few bold ideas, preferring instead to rely on his existing long-term plans, while Keesmaat presented a reasonable, achievable vision for a city with better transit and affordable housing and lower crime.
On transit, Tory pledged to continue with his ever-evolving SmartTrack plan, which he first unveiled during the 2014 campaign and in its present form involves adding six new stations and renovating several others on the existing GO Train commuter rail network.
Four years ago, Tory pledged 14 new stations within seven years, but that number has been gradually revised downward over the last term of office and none are currently under construction.
Also under Tory’s SmartTrack brand is an east and west extension of the Line 5 Eglinton light rail, the first phase of which is due to be complete in 2021, a year ahead of the next election. The start of work on the extensions are unlikely to come any sooner than that.
Keesmaat’s transit plan, on the other hand, included an expedited Relief Line, a new east-west subway out of downtown to take pressure of the existing network, and a commitment to improve the bus network and build several planned but unfunded light rail lines, including one that would serve Sidewalk Labs’s Quayside development area.
Tory ruled out none of those transit projects, but they were not part of his campaign.
How Tory will get his ideas funded with Doug Ford guarding the provincial purse is a different matter. The pair have an acrimonious history: Tory beat Ford to the mayor's office in 2014 and they have butted heads ever since.
Ford has shown himself to be fixated with the city that twice rejected him at the polls (Toronto favored his rival, Andrea Horwath, during the provincial election) and Tory doesn’t have much of an arsenal to mount a response. In Canada, the provinces have significant control over even large cities like Toronto.
Without Ontario as a willing funding partner, Toronto may find itself having to defer or pay a larger share of the costs of its big projects. That doesn’t fit with Tory’s steadfast commitment to keep tax increases at or below the rate of inflation, a policy that he has been repeatedly warned about by city bureaucrats.
Simply, Toronto isn’t generating enough money to cover it’s existing long-term commitments, let alone new ones, and it cannot keep relying on reserves and one-time windfalls, experts say.
Tory says that raising taxes would make Toronto even more unaffordable than it already is. The cost of living continues to climb compared to the rest of the province and, despite an unprecedented building boom, truly affordable housing units are few and far between.
Keesmaat pledged to build 100,000 new affordable units in 10 years by developing city-owned land such as parking lots and surplus land owned by the transit operator, the Toronto Transit Commission.
Tory offered few specifics about housing during the campaign. He pledged 40,000 new units in 12 years as part of his existing Open Door program, which provides developers with incentives to provide affordable units in their buildings, but has so far has failed to perform as expected.
Whether Tory has the ability to get his modest ideas through the new, smaller council remains to be seen. In Toronto, councillors are not members of any political party (though their personal ideologies often align with one) and the mayor represents just one of the 14 votes needed to pass a bill.
The new council appears not to be dominated by the right or left and there are a small number of new councillors who remain unknowns. The progressive vote at council, which Doug Ford seemed interested in weakening, remains largely unchanged—perhaps even slightly strengthened.
According to journalist and fastidious city council analyst Matt Elliott, Tory can expect a solid chunk of council to vote with him (about 11 councillors), but he will need to win over some of the swing councillors who don’t always agree with him.
Several familiar Tory allies are now gone. Rob Ford’s former deputy mayor and one-time Twitter celebrity, Norm Kelly, who had a brief bromance with rapper Drake and started a charity clothing line called 6ix Dad, lost to fellow incumbent, Jim Karygiannis. Christin Carmichael Greb was trounced by Mike Colle, the father of outgoing councillor, Josh Colle.
To the delight of many, the controversial and erratic Ford ally Giorgio Mammoliti was unseated by a rival incumbent, the left-leaning Anthony Perruzza.
However, the nephew of Premier Doug Ford and the late Rob Ford, Michael Ford, was returned to council in an area that once contained his uncles' old ward. Staunch Tory allies Frances Nunziata, Gary Crawford, and Denzil Minnan-Wong were also re-elected.
Despite the shake-up and the various comings and goings, the 25-ward council is remarkably like the 47-ward version: mostly white, mostly male, and hardly reflective of the city’s celebrated diversity.
In Toronto, even when things change, they really don’t much.