Toronto is facing a political drought: a drastic reduction in the pool of residents willing to run for a seat on the city council.
On Wednesday, with two days left to register, 116 people were running for a council seat and 19 for mayor, less than half the total from the last election. Many incumbent councilors face only one or two challengers.
Possible factors include the political disconnect caused by the pandemic, the extra workload in large halls that is sending some councilors out the door, and a hostile political environment that includes death threats.
The detachment of elections for the government closest to residents, but which traditionally garners lower voter turnout than provincial or federal votes, is a cause for great concern, said political scientist Myer Siemiatycki.
“Maybe they’ll call it the great municipal resignation,” said the Metropolitan University of Toronto professor emeritus, who predicts voter turnout in the Oct. 24 civic election will drop below a historically low 41 percent in 2018.
“We are intensifying the disconnect between our government institutions, politicians and the people they serve,” he said, as far-right anti-government protests grow stronger.
“If the public gives up on the election, that creates a huge void that will be filled, and in most cases it will be filled with something that could be dangerous.”
The 116 council candidates so far compare with the 242 who fought for the 25 seats in the 2018 election. Under the old 44-ward system, there were 358 council candidates in 2014 and 279 in 2010.
Mayor John Tory had, as of Wednesday night, 18 rivals hoping to unseat him, up from 34 in the last election.
John Campbell, who represented an Etobicoke district from 2014 to 2018 when he lost to a colleague after Premier Doug Ford reduced the number of districts, was not serious about trying to come back.
“The workload has become too onerous and all councilmembers will tell you they can’t connect with constituents like they used to,” before districts nearly doubled in size to about 110,000 residents each, he said.
“Basically, work is no longer fun,” Campbell said, adding that colleagues tell him that instead of personally fixing local problems, they should send staff members out so they have time to read reports and attend countless meetings. .
Getting elected in a huge district is equally difficult for challengers without a party system to back them up, he said, calling it a “Herculean task” to knock on all the doors, assemble a team of volunteers and solicit campaign donations.
Seven councilors are not seeking re-election and several, including Joe Cressy, Mike Layton and Ana Bailão, cited the cost of long working hours at home and family life as the main reason for leaving the city council.
There is no rush of candidates to replace them. When asked about the issue, Tory told CP24 that he thinks the political climate is scaring people.
“There’s polarization, a lot of hostility… I think it’s scaring people away and you see less interest, like you see in some of these numbers,” Tory said.
While the winter protests that clogged Ottawa and Toronto’s truck border crossings and anti-vaccine demonstrations were primarily directed at federal and provincial officials, city officials also felt the wrath of the far right.
“I get more threats than at any time in the past,” said one veteran councilman, who came under fire for one particular motion and requested anonymity to avoid sparking a new wave of hate.
“In the last year I have received 60 or 70 threats of one kind or another and about a dozen death threats, one of them so serious that I had to refer it to the police,” the councilman said.
Siemiatycki also sees an “overlay” of “pandemic political fatigue, disconnection from electoral politics, playing out in the country,” including record turnout in June’s provincial elections.
Toronto’s field of candidates, he said, indicates “this election will be business as usual, without a revitalized agenda for local government.”
Still, there are plenty of Torontonians eager and excited to run for city council, and they’re working hard to get a pass to City Hall.
Malik Ahmad, competing against the Count. Gary Crawford and six others in the 20th Scarborough Southwest district said they want to help make the city council more racially diverse and increase political responsiveness in the district.
“When you knock on the door, they thank you and tell you to put down your literature and say ‘I’ll think about it,’” Ahmad said.
“But they are happy that someone has knocked on their door.”
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