The Toronto mayoral debate Wednesday night featured more fidgeting than fireworks, more campaign slogans than strong campaign platforms.
Mayor Rob Ford defended himself against four of the top contenders for his job — Karen Stintz, John Tory, Olivia Chow and David Soknacki in a debate televised on CityNews.
How did Ford perform in his first debate since the infamous crack scandal that limited his powers in city hall and made him a running punchline on late-night talk shows?
Our old Pulse of Canada panel reunited to weigh in on the first televised debate in the Toronto municipal election.
So, was there a clear winner in the first Toronto mayoral debate?
Thomas Bink: Meh, I don’t think so. John Tory was particularly disappointing in not revealing much of his platform beyond slogans. Chow took a couple of surprisingly personal swipes that I think fell flat. Karen Stintz and David Soknacki were little more than noise. If anything, Rob Ford did well pounding forward with his talking points and defending himself against the other candidates’ feeble attacks. The bully still runs the schoolyard.
Matthew Coutts: If we have to crown a winner, it has to be Rob Ford. No one backed him into a corner and he was set free to shout and sneer and repeat untruthful talking points. The debate structure essentially forced candidates to shout over one another, meaning Ford could have his say and slip into the background without offering a decent rebuttal. The other candidates are at fault as well. Tory and Stintz seemed determined not to go after Ford and Soknacki tried to reason with him, which never works. Only Chow took any real punches. She landed a few, but I don’t think they were enough.
Andy Radia: I agree with Matt about Rob Ford being the winner. But let's give him a little more credit, shall we? He was prepared, he was focused, he stayed calm and was the only one who stayed on-message throughout — the message being that he's the only one with a "proven track record of success" and that he saved the city $1 billion. I think it was huge for him to be able to successfully present himself as 'mayoral' after months of images on our television screens of him looking and sounding like a buffoon. Tory and Chow need to pick up their respective games in the next debate if they hope to win.
Were there any knockout blows?
Bink: Not in my eyes. I was a little shocked at Olivia Chow calling Ford a “international embarrassment” and telling John Tory that she didn’t need lessons from him because “we’re not on the golf course,” but no, there were no Lloyd Bentsen moments here. I’m pretty disappointed no one really went after Ford on the crack scandal, which really is where every discussion about the election should start and end. Ford flicked every punch aside as if they were pesky mosquitoes.
Coutts: Yes, the golf course slight from Chow, regarding a previous comment made by Tory, was an underrated moment. You could see the rivalry between those two heat up over the course of the debate, and that comment was about as ugly as Chow, or any candidate, really got. I will say that Chow seemed determined to leave some quotables out there for people to remember. Her claim that it was “time to remove the circus tents from city hall” stands out more than anything else. But even that did nothing to shake Ford.
Radia: Some good one-liners (like Olivia Chow on how the Ford "gravy train turned into a train wreck") but no knock-out punches. I am also surprised that Tory and Chow didn't go after Ford about the crack charges and his drinking. The duo made some veiled comments about Ford as a 'role model' but I think they need to be aggressive on that front. They need to put Ford on the defensive and get him off his talking points.
What’s the key issue going forward?
Bink: Oh sure, we could focus on transit, or taxes, or privatizing garbage, but the elephant in the room – if you pardon the pun – is crack. Until someone legitimately puts Ford on the defensive about what he’s put the city through, he’s still dictating the agenda. Which is amazing.
Radia: Interesting question. I think Ford wants it to be finances. Whether or not you believe him, Matt — Ford has a believable 'story' when it comes to how he's handled the public purse. Ultimately, however, I think the ballot box question will be leadership. Again, that's why I think Tory and Chow need to do a better job at framing all future debates with a 'Ford not fit to be mayor' theme.
Coutts: Well, I will concede that he is believed more on finances than most other issues. But I digress. Unless we see a major strategy shift from Chow and Tory, the drug scandal will remain on the fringes. Let's be honest, after tonight's performance a strategy shift is likely. But I suspect it will be left to those outside the race to force that issue. If that is the case, I would bet transit remains the key issue. You've seen every candidate use transit as a key plank in his or her platform. And almost everyone seems to have dug their own foxhole. It’s a very tangible, emotional issue. Everyone is affected by Toronto’s transit problems, and everyone has an opinion.
Mayoral prediction after the first televised debate?
Bink: Sadly, this debate didn’t give Toronto voters any bandwagons to jump on or any new visions to believe in, so it’s the same old divisions dictating the vote. If you’re left you’re with Chow, if you’re right you’re with Ford or maybe Tory if he actually says something of substance in the coming months. Thus it’s still Rob Ford’s election to lose. God help us all.
Radia: Did you guys check-out the CityNews polls? I know it wasn't scientific at all, but more viewers supported Ford when it came to leadership and finances while Chow beat out Ford on transit. After the first debate, I think it's going to be a race between Ford and Chow. With Tory splitting the anti-Ford vote, I think – at this point in time – Ford is the man to beat.
Coutts: Yeah, if you are with Ford nothing happened at this debate that would shake that. And Stintz and Soknacki didn't expand their slices of the pie, either. That leaves the battle between Chow and Tory. If Chow was able to shake a few Tory supporters to her side of the aisle, it would tip things in her favour. Considering Chow hit a few marks and Tory didn't seem to fare very well overall, I'd say Chow succeeded in that goal. I'll give her a sliver-sized advantage coming out of the first debate.
Matthew Coutts is a national affairs writer for Yahoo Canada and Andy Radia is Yahoo Canada's politics expert. Thomas Bink is the Managing Editor for Yahoo Canada News.