Mayoral candidate Olivia Chow won’t be forced to run on Rob Ford’s terms

Toronto mayoral hopeful Olivia Chow formally launched her campaign Thursday in a downtown church, just blocks from where she grew up as a child. It was an apt location, not for its religious connotations, but for its connection to her youth. Although some surely noted a "second coming" parable.

Much of Chow's campaign will be about contrasting herself with Ford, specifically her upbringing as the daughter of a low-income immigrant family and the work she put in to build her career as a city councillor-turned-Member of Parliament.

But at the centre of her message on Thursday was childhood. Not just her childhood, but childhood on a grander scale. Toronto's youths, and its families. And how the city is failing them.

"All over our city, families are struggling. There are kids in Lawrence Heights and Westminster-Branson that are going to school hungry. Parents in Agincourt and Rexdale are often working at two jobs, and they can't get to them on time because of gridlock,” Chow told the packed crowd.

“And from High Park to Kennedy Park, families are worried about their kids' future. Our city's future. And the current mayor's disappointing leadership has let us down over and over again."

With that, Chow did something few candidates before her were willing to do with the first comments of their mayoral campaign. She painted a target on Mayor Rob Ford and his troubled history.

Ford, the focus of a police investigation, has confessed to smoking crack cocaine and lying about it for months. He's admitted to having issues with alcohol, but says he no longer drinks to excess. He has survived scandal after scandal but remains in position to be re-elected on Oct. 27.

"I wasn't elected to be perfect, I was elected to straighten out the city," Ford repeated in a CP24 interview on Thursday.

[ Related: Scandal-riven Rob Ford faces left-wing challenge as Olivia Chow enters race ]

Ford says he will campaign on his track record, and has painted those who might address his personal faults as bullies and distractionists. And that threat has probably meant more to the previous mayoral candidates, those who come from a conservative background and need to appeal to his base of support.

Until Thursday, the tone of the Toronto mayoral campaign has been set by Ford. His scandals have garnered more headlines than anything his opponents can muster, and his claims to spendthrift conservativism have forced his key opponents to use his measuring stick.

Toronto mayoral candidate Olivia Chow, holds her granddaughter Solace Campbell, 2.

Yes, former Ontario PC leader John Tory has promised a more liveable city, and Coun. Karen Stintz has taken pains to show the electorate she’s a regular person, but the heart of their appeal has come from their conservative credentials.

They hold the potential of a candidate who can accomplish things that Ford has promised, by doing it in a way he couldn’t and without the embarrassment he has brought to the city. Both have promised to keep taxes low, just like Ford. Both have promised to back Ford’s Scarborough subway. Much of their appeal comes from, simply, being like Rob Ford without … being like Rob Ford.

Chow, however, is not entering the race with a need to contrast herself from Ford. Everyone following Toronto politics knows she is not Rob Ford. That will present some distinct disadvantages, of course, such as appealing to the suburbs. But it also allows her to run her campaign on her own terms, and in her own words.

[ Related: New website showcases Quebec’s vandalized election posters ]

In response to being called a “tax-and-spend socialist,” Chow said Thursday that she would aim to keep tax increases in line with inflation. When discussing Toronto’s transit future, she was critical of the three-stop Scarborough subway plan Ford had muscled into place. Instead, she backed previous plans to build an above-ground LRT in Scarborough, which can be completed sooner, less expensively, more expansively and without the same increase to property taxes.

We are one big city, we need to come together neighbourhood by neighbourhood. It doesn't matter where you live, if you can get home faster it means more time with your kids."
— Toronto mayoral candidate Olivia Chow

"I think it is important we respect the people of Scarborough ... You are talking about 30 years of tax increases (to fund the subway line) whereas the above ground is four years faster, four more stops, just as many people," she told Newstalk 1010 this morning.

As for her attack on Ford, Chow was unrepentant, calling him a bad role model for her grandchildren. But she didn't end there. "It is not just the scandal, it is really the failed policy of the past that has hurt children and families and that are not creating jobs," Chow said.

Previous polls have suggested Chow’s inclusion in the race would cut deeply into the support bases of Tory and Stintz, without greatly affecting Ford’s numbers. But anything can happen during an election campaign. And Chow seems set on taking her message to the doorstep of Ford’s suburban support base.

"We are one big city, we need to come together neighbourhood by neighbourhood. It doesn't matter where you live, if you can get home faster it means more time with your kids," said Chow.

After years of being considered merely taxpayers, it’s nice to hear Toronto residents be refered to as people and families as well. As long as the next mayor respects both of those roles.

(Photo courtesy The Canadian Press)

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