Polls showed he had a chance of defeating a sitting councilor in the last election. Then the mayor of Toronto intervened

Amber Morley is once again knocking on doors in Etobicoke-Lakeshore working to replace Mark Grimes, the longtime city councilman who beat out Morley in 2018 with a big push from Mayor John Tory.

But knowing the huge advantage incumbent politicians enjoy, Morley keeps his expectations in check as he does everything he can to win the seat on October 24.

“I was in a dark place after the (2018) election,” the young black community health advocate said, recalling Prime Minister Doug Ford’s mid-election decision to reduce the number of districts, then the decision to Tory’s late campaign to endorse Grimes after polls suggested she could beat him in the new room.

“After years of community work and fighting the advantage of a well-resourced incumbent, to have the most powerful politician in Ontario step in and then the most powerful politician in our city, it was disheartening and disappointing,” he said.

Political scientists who have studied the electoral advantage enjoyed by incumbent politicians in Toronto and beyond say it is real and powerful. Some of the benefit is due to the attributes of the incumbents, they say, but much of it stems from simply being in office.

In the 2018 elections, after the council was reduced to 25 seats, only two candidates beat the incumbent councillors. In 2014, two of the 44 races saw starters lose. In the previous three contests, the starters beat all challengers in 90 percent of the races.

One consequence is less new blood in a city council that remains much older, whiter, and more masculine than the city it represents, guides, and shapes.

Morley, a progressive, received a double dose of advantage from the incumbent: fighting an opponent who had been on the council for 15 years, plus a popular mayor who urged Etobicoke-Lakeshore voters to back his ally on the council. , Grimes.

Grimes has not yet registered for re-election in District 3, but appears poised to do so before the August 19 deadline. He declined to comment for this story. Tory, who was recently asked if his re-election campaign will again be involved in multiple district races, said he hadn’t thought much about it yet.

“I will spend some time campaigning with colleagues because they are people I have come to work with and want to continue working with if I can,” the mayor said.

Nick Kouvalis, a pollster and political strategist who helped guide the Tory campaign in 2018 and is back for 2022, said an autopsy of the 2018 elections how the mayoral campaign team mobilized to save Grimes’ seat.

“We wanted to choose the best possible council that would support John Tory in implementing his mandate. That’s just code because we didn’t want as many lefties as we normally have,” Kouvalis said.

When her polls triggered “panic mode” for Grimes days before the vote, Tory announced an endorsement and recorded a robocall that flooded voter phone lines in the district, which also saw an influx of Tory campaign workers.

Kouvalis said he moved to Etobicoke to help Grimes, who got 40.9 percent of the vote. Morley trailed behind with 27.19 percent.

Incumbent success rates in Canadian cities, including Toronto, are “extremely high,” with more than 90 percent of incumbent politicians regularly re-elected, said Jack Lucas, an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary who researches urban democracy in Canada.

“That success rate for incumbents is much higher than in provincial and federal politics in Canada,” and comparable to the “notoriously high” re-election rate for the US Congress, he added.

Lucas and his colleagues’ research explains why having the job is already an escalator to success, while most outsiders have a high wall to climb.

One is the fixed characteristics of the candidates: an incumbent had positive attributes that attracted voters to get elected in the first place. They tend to retain attributes in subsequent elections, so few are surprised when they are re-elected.

But the incumbent advantage is the electoral benefit candidates get from holding office, including name recognition and the relationship built by working with constituents.

In recent months, Tory has followed the lead of several councilmembers by launching an email newsletter that informs residents of city and local issues, often highlighting their own good deeds with billboards and photos. Some councilmembers augment that with city-funded ads in local publications.

The councilors draw large crowds to the parks for district-based “Environment Days,” many with signs and tents bearing the councilmembers’ names, where residents drop off electronic recyclables and receive free bags of city compost.

Under election year rulescouncilors had to suspend newsletters and organizing events on August 1, meaning they were allowed for three months after the start of the campaign on May 2.

Many council members use social media to connect with residents. The integrity commissioner advises them to set up separate campaign accounts that do not use the city logo or other trappings of elected officials.

Tory did, but both accounts show the mayor promoting new jobs, attending events like a Sikh community picnic in Scarborough, and saluting vaccination efforts with the boast “This is the Toronto team in action.”

Council members who stick to an account are supposed to make sure during the election period that they don’t show their trappings of office. But a Star review of the councilmembers’ accounts found lax compliance, with several tweeted photos of themselves identified as councilmembers at community events.

“You build a reputation and a relationship that you might not otherwise be able to build with your constituents,” Lucas said. “We call that the personal vote.”

Another advantage has been called “scaring”: Potential candidates decide not to run, thinking it’s futile to go up against a high-profile candidate. Lucas said “self-perpetuating logic” steals elections from worthy challengers who, even if they don’t win, come up with fresh ideas and challenge incumbents.

In her bid for a third term, Tory does not face any high-profile rivals. Gil Peñalosa, a prominent city planner, joined the mayoral race after it became clear that the city’s progressive establishment did not have a standard-bearer.

“I am working with residents to present a more affordable, equitable and sustainable vision of Toronto than the status quo,” Peñalosa said. “New ideas can have more power than old money.”

Without official political parties on the city council, voters don’t have the cradle over a candidate’s views on issues like they do in provincial and federal campaigns. And unlike those other campaigns, where governments dissolve after the injunction falls, council members continue to rule in public view.

Lucas estimates that about two-thirds of the success of headlines is attributed to advantages that go beyond individual politicians’ efforts and attributes. It’s hard to analyze, he said, but “we know that the starting advantage is a really big part of why the starters keep winning.”

Siri Agrell, a former journalist and political staffer who hoped to unseat Gord Perks in Ward 4 Parkdale-High Park, said: “The narrative that no one can be beaten, that people’s votes don’t count, is dangerous: it’s a problem that people say is a problem.”

Challengers must be smart, creative, inspiring, get media coverage and show residents they have a credible path to victory, he said.

April Engelberg, who came second to Joe Cressy at Spadina—Fort York in 2018 and is running again after Cressy left the council, said well-connected incumbents have an advantage when soliciting campaign donations and hitting a cap. fundraising campaign that jumped when Prime Minister Doug Ford’s government made neighborhoods bigger in 2018.

“We should reward candidates for spending less, not more, and it’s a huge barrier for new candidates,” he said.

Mary-Margaret McMahon beat incumbent Sandra Bussin at Beaches—East York in 2010, leaving after two terms in line with her desire for term limits. She said her 2010 team “worked her butt off” and got a boost when Tory searched with her.

McMahon, now a liberal MPP, noted that Bussin had political background, including support for the unpopular Tuggs restaurant lease with the city in Ashbridges Bay.

“You need something like that,” to help, McMahon said, “and we covered the room several times knocking on doors, which is how you can win in my opinion.”

Term limits are touted as a way to limit the advantage incumbents have, but few politicians want to give themselves an expiration date. City councilors could, in campaign years, extend the period in which they are not allowed to use their office for profiling, but that, too, is a hard sell.

Parthi Kandavel, trustee of the Toronto District School Board who defies the Earl. Gary Crawford at Ward 20 Scarborough Southwest said the council should pause official activities to help level the playing field during the campaign period.

“I think the city can run for four months without the city council making any decisions — people want to kick the tires and look at the engine” of all the candidates, he said. “You yourself are a party in this municipal system.”

Advocates of ranked-ballot elections say such a system, in which voters rank multiple candidates in order of preference, could reduce the polarization of winner-take-all campaigns and open councils to more voices. and ideas. But the Ford government in 2020 banned municipalities from using classified ballots.

No change can come fast enough to change the political realities of 2022 for Morley. She said she just hopes Tory sticks to her mayoral campaign this time and doesn’t use campaign funds and his incumbent advantage to turn challengers’ uphill battles into unclimbable mountains.

“Don’t be afraid to work with me,” he said with a smile.

“I’m not going to try to burn the thing down. I want to improve our systems and I want to serve the residents. I don’t see why anyone would work against me if that is my true intention.”

David Rider is the Star’s town hall bureau chief and a reporter who covers town hall and town politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider


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