Toronto’s Mayoral Election Just Delivered a Surprise Rebuke to the Right

Mere months ago, the Right looked to have secured a political stranglehold on Canada’s largest city for the foreseeable future. Last night, Olivia Chow beat the odds and proved that a social democratic message can win at the municipal level.

Toronto mayoral elect Olivia Chow delivers a speech after winning the mayoral by-election at the Great Hall in Toronto, Ontario on June 26, 2023. (Mert Alper Dervis / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

From its outset, Toronto’s mayoral election has been full of surprises — the first of them being that it happened at all. Last October, as turnout plummeted to a record low, incumbent mayor John Tory was reelected with a whopping 62 percent of the vote. An ally of conservative premier Doug Ford, who had just gifted him with tailor-made strong mayor powers, Tory looked poised to govern the city for as long as he wanted, effectively consolidating a right-wing stranglehold on Canada’s largest city for the foreseeable future.

When Tory suddenly resigned after admitting to an affair with a younger staffer just four months later, there was no particular reason to think that the underlying dynamic would shift. Both former police chief Mark Saunders and Tory ally Ana Bailão evidently assumed as much and undertook developer-friendly, anti-tax campaigns firmly anchored on the Right. For all the spin that former New Democratic Party MP Olivia Chow’s polling amounted to name recognition and little else, her victory last night represented the triumph of municipal progressivism over these assumptions.

Having finished third in the 2014 mayoral race, Chow began the campaign with numbers in the low twenties and finished with a vote share in the high thirties. Chow’s message, reinforced by personal authenticity and disciplined debate performances, successfully punched through despite a near ceaseless pile-on from virtually every other major candidate. On housing, homelessness, transit, taxes, and crime, right-wing candidates mounted all of the familiar arguments and lost. Even as the local Liberal and Conservative machines went into overdrive with the singular goal of preventing such an outcome, the alternative won.

In a city with crumbling infrastructure and soaring rents, Chow successfully made the case for both a vacant homes and a mansion tax — pledging to direct the revenues into new public housing construction. Her campaign also emphasized the plight of renters and Toronto’s more than ten thousand homeless, promising a rent supplement and new shelter space. Coupled with more funding for libraries, public services, and transit in underserviced areas, her campaign embraced a social democratic message and, against the odds, has broken the pattern of right-wing rule that has predominated since Rob Ford’s election some thirteen years ago. Aside from David Miller (mayor between 2003 and 2010), Chow will be the only nonconservative who has governed Toronto since its amalgamation into a unified city in 1998. Born in Hong Kong and raised from age thirteen in the working-class neighborhood of St James Town, her victory also marks a long-overdue development in one of the world’s most diverse metropoles.

As the old cliche goes, the real battle begins now. Chow, who has pledged not to use strong mayor powers, will need to be bold and aggressive in pursuit of her agenda, and the Right will be no less devious in resisting it than it was in opposing her candidacy. Nonetheless, that conservatives have been handed such a significant and unexpected defeat is worth celebrating in and of itself.

While elite consolidation around Bailão succeeded in giving her a last minute boost, other right-wing candidates — notably Toronto’s onetime police chief Saunders — got rinsed. Anthony Furey, best known as a columnist for the Toronto Sun tabloid, went all-in on anti-homeless rhetoric and placed a distant fourth with less than 5 percent of the vote — despite the endorsements of Jordan Peterson and two senior former federal cabinet ministers. Brad Bradford, a sitting city councilor who incessantly averred against public sector “bureaucracy” and was initially viewed as a serious contender, received less than ten thousand votes out of the more than seven hundred thousand cast (1.28 percent).

In light of all this, Chow’s victory, much like Brandon Johnson’s in Chicago, points to a wider shift in North America’s municipal political terrain. The Right’s standard political arsenal was deployed in the usual, nakedly cynical form, and a social democrat was elected instead. However conservatives may attempt to spin this result, it represents both a mandate for change and a welcome repudiation of the austerity politics that have dominated Toronto since 2010. Who knows? Perhaps the fever of neoliberalism is finally beginning to break.