Olivia Chow has been elected mayor of Toronto, CP24 declares, ending almost 13 years of right-leaning rule at Toronto City Hall and becoming the first woman and the first visible minority person to lead the city since amalgamation.
CP24 made the call at 9 p.m., with Chow appearing to have secured 37.2 per cent of the vote.
Chow, 66, was the favourite to win the race from the moment she entered and managed to command a decisive lead in the polls, though the race on election night ended up being a photo finish between her and Ana Bailão.
Running on a campaign to “build a caring city where everyone belongs,” she seemed often to float above the fray in a crowded field of candidates who desperately tried to present her as someone who would unnecessarily hike property taxes.
The second time turned out to be the charm for Chow, who ran for mayor and lost to John Tory in 2014.
It was Tory’s surprise resignation in February after admitting to an affair with a staffer that gave her a second shot at a win.
Running in a race which attracted 101 other candidates, Chow’s name recognition gave her an edge.
She cut her teeth as a school board trustee in the 1980s before going on to win a council seat in Toronto in 1992. She continued on council through amalgamation until 2005 when she ran for and won a seat as a federal MP.
An immigrant who came to Toronto from Hong Kong with her parents at the age of 13, Chow talked about their struggles to adapt to a new country under difficult circumstances. She started sewing buttons onto jeans as a teen to help her family, with her mother cleaning homes and her father taking various jobs.
Toronto mayoral candidate Olivia Chow is photographed after a mayoral debate in Toronto, on Wednesday , May 24, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Chow is also the widow of the late NDP leader Jack Layton, who himself came to federal politics from Toronto City Council and led their party to unprecedented opposition status in 2011 in the so-called “orange crush” before his sudden death from cancer the same year.
Chow’s stepson Mike Layton served as a city councillor before stepping away from the role last year and was involved in her get-out-the vote efforts on Monday.
Late in the race, polls showed former city councillor Ana Bailão gaining ground, buoyed by a last-minute endorsement by Tory. But despite the endorsement — and the backing of almost half of council — she wasn’t able to catch up.
Chow also managed to win despite a fierce offensive by former police chief Mark Saunders, who ran on a law-and-order platform and styled his campaign as a mission to stop Chow from getting elected at all costs. Saunders had Premier Doug Ford backing him, with Ford publicly stating that a Chow win would be a “disaster.”
But while her rivals tried to paint her as a partisan who would act as unofficial opposition to Queens Park, Chow has said the beauty of municipal politics is that you are able to work with anyone to get things done, and that she would proceed accordingly.
She cited her work with right-leaning members of council to get a dental program for low-income kids and seniors, as well as work with federal Conservatives to get a share of the gas tax for transit when she was in parliament.
While the other candidates tried hard to take her down, Chow seemed unnerved by their attacks most of the time.
While other candidates billed crime and safety as the top issue facing the city, Chow’s message on affordability and helping those who are struggling ultimately gelled with voters.
Toronto mayoral candidate Olivia Chow walks in the Toronto Pride Parade, on Sunday June 25, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Early on she said she would run a different campaign than she had last time, focusing more on having fun and being herself rather than trying to sound polished. She was true to her word and it was not uncommon to see her dancing at campaign announcements.
“People know who I am, people know my values,” she told CP24.com in an interview during the campaign.
Her many years of experience and ongoing engagement with people in the city over the past few years, Chow said, allowed her to speak knowledgeably without worrying too much about how she comes off.
WHAT COMES NEXT
While Chow was a councillor for many years, she will be returning to a council that is much changed. Ford used his majority at Queen’s Park in 2018 to slash council in half and last year he bestowed strong mayor powers on Toronto.
Those new powers include a provision allowing the mayor to override a majority vote on council, though Chow has said she would not use that power, and will instead seek to make consensus with council. She’ll be helped in that regard by the six left-leaning councillors who supported her run.
While she will have more control over the city’s agenda as mayor, Chow will also inherit a city plagued by serious financial problems, namely a $1.5 billion deficit for fiscal 2022 and 2023 and the provincially-mandated loss of some development charges.
Chow has said she thinks she can negotiate a better deal with the higher levels of government by engaging the people of the city in a transparent negotiation and budgeting process. But if she can’t, she will almost certainly have to raise taxes or slash services.
Chow has said repeatedly that she would not set an upper limit for property tax increases before first assessing the city’s needs. Her fellow candidates hammered her over the issue on the campaign trail, but she refused to back down on the point.
Chow has also said that she would save the city hundreds of millions of dollars by turning the eastern portion of the Gardiner Expressway into a boulevard instead of rebuilding it. That promise could potentially open old wounds on a contentious decision that was made by council seven years ago if she decides to hold firm on the commitment.
But Chow vowed during the campaign, recognizing the “immense” challenges the city faces, that she would do her best to bring people together, saying “Election Day is just the beginning.”