Toronto’s first televised 2014 mayoral debate resolved very little on Wednesday evening as Mayor Rob Ford and his four top opponents shouted and scratched at one another while repeating reheated talking points and, occasionally, reminding the public of the laughingstock Ford had become.
But there was too much of the former, very little of the latter and not enough actual substance to drastically change the direction of a tight mayoral campaign, still seven months away from Election Day.
In a one-and-a-half-hour debate on CityNews on Wednesday, Ford joined candidates Olivia Chow, John Tory, Karen Stintz and David Soknacki in a debate focused on three key issues: transit, finance and leadership.
But the real question at the centre of the debate was the series of scandals that have followed Ford for the past two years, plaguing his term as mayor and leaving him without power or allies in city hall.
And on that front, only Olivia Chow seemed prepared to address the elephant in the room.
"It is time to take down the circus tent at city hall," Chow said while discussing leadership at city hall. “Rob Ford has made Toronto an international embarrassment. It is time for change. It is time for a new mayor, with new ideas and new priorities. After some of the darkest days we have seen from our city government it is time to return to our best traditions.”
Ford has admitted to smoking crack cocaine after lying about it for months, and also confessed to buying illegal drugs during his term as mayor. He is also the subject of a police investigation into possible connections to an Etobicoke street gang.
The issue hung over the debate, with candidates hinting at Ford’s ethical failings without forcing him to address them. It wasn’t until the final moments of the debate, during a question and answer session with reporters, when Ford was asked directly about the scandal.
He did not take the bait.
“People have heard the story. It is rewind, rewind, rewind,” Ford said.
“People know my track record. They know they can go to sleep at night knowing their tax dollars are being watched.
“You can carry on about someone's personal life, and I'm the first person to say I'm not perfect. Maybe these people are and everyone else is. I have a proven track record of success watching taxpayer's money. That is what I was elected to do.”
This was the first of three already-scheduled televised mayoral debates ahead of the October 27 election. With still seven months remaining before Toronto goes to the polls, it may be too early to get excited about a single debate. But already several wedge issues have cropped up that have divided the major candidates.
Most notably, the issue of Toronto's transit future is again poised to play a major role in who is selected to run the city. Mayor Ford maintains that he stands alone as the only candidate supporting subways, but that couldn't be further from the truth.
Tory has backed to current plan to build a Scarborough subway line and has vowed to build a Yonge Street Relief Line as well. During the debate on Wednesday, he promised to release his plan to pay for the project at some point during the campaign.
Stinz similarly supports the Scarborough subway line, though she previously worked to replace it with a LRT line. She also plans to build a downtown relief subway line, and says she would partially fund construction by selling half of the city's stake in Toronto Hydro.
Chow has spoken against the Scarborough subway, vowing to replace it with a previous plan to build a longer, more efficient LRT line for less money. She also supports, but has not prioritized, a downtown relief subway line and promised to expand bus service during rush hour.
Soknacki similarly plans to revert to the Scarborough transit plan to an LRT line.
"The people of Scarborough want transit that serves more people, four years sooner," Soknacki said early in the debate.
Much of the transit debate on Wednesday focused on the cost of building the Scarborough subway, which included a tax increase directly tied to the project. Several candidates referred to the tax as “Rob Ford’s billion-dollar tax increase.”
Ford, meantime, repeated a claim that he has saved the city $1 billion.