Keesmaat vows to bring new brand of leadership to Canada's most populous city

Keesmaat vows to bring new brand of leadership to Canada's most populous city

TORONTO — An urban planner venturing into politics for the first time in an effort to unseat Toronto's mayor is painting herself as the antidote to political apathy and vowing to bring a new brand of leadership to Canada's most populous city.

Jennifer Keesmaat, a former bureaucrat turned mayoral candidate, is hoping to tap into what she sees as public frustration with the status quo with a campaign she said centres on restoring hope.

A few days before voters cast their ballots in Monday's municipal election, Keesmaat, 48, appeared as the main challenger to Mayor John Tory but nonetheless lagged behind the veteran politician in the polls. She said she embraced her underdog status.

"I knew going into this that this was a David and Goliath situation," she told The Canadian Press in a recent interview.  

"That's really been the heart of this campaign, making that contrast really stark between someone who is a politician for a politician's sake...versus someone who's about city building."

Keesmaat, who often clashed with the mayor and councillors in her five years as the city's chief planner, has made headlines with proposals to replace part of the Gardiner Expressway with a boulevard, build affordable housing on city-owned land and launch a rent-to-own housing program financed by a surcharge on luxury properties.

Supporters have praised her vision for the city, while critics have panned her policies as unrealistic. Keesmaat, meanwhile, said solving most of the city's key problems comes down to political will.

"The narrative of the incumbent has been, 'Oh well there's really nothing more we can do and things are fine the way they are,' and Torontonians know that isn't true," she said.

"They know things aren't fine the way they are, they know their commutes are too long and housing costs too much and the worst case scenario is that people feel that they can't make their city better."

Keesmaat has also promised to assign a dedicated team to fast-track work on a "relief line" subway and expand green infrastructure projects. She's further promised to transform city policing through a "neighbourhood-centred" approach and provide more opportunities for at-risk youth.

While some voters have rallied around Keesmaat and her plan for Toronto, the urban planner has failed to draw the broad support that could propel her to the mayor's seat, said Zachary Taylor, a political science professor at Western University and director of the Centre for Urban Policy and Local Governance.

He compared her campaign to Olivia Chow's unsuccessful run for the mayoralty in 2014, noting the former federal MP lost in part because she appealed largely to a downtown audience.

"While she's trying to ignite a populism from the left, she hasn't yet been able to kind of capture the hearts and minds of people in more suburban areas," he said.

However, her response to the provincial government cutting the size of Toronto's city council in the middle of the municipal election campaign may end up trumping her ideas when it comes to winning or losing votes, Taylor said.

Keesmaat has openly criticized Tory's actions following Ontario Premier Doug Ford's move to slash city council to 25 seats from 47, saying the city needs someone who can more aggressively stand up to the province. She cited Tory's response to Ford's plan as her reason for joining the mayoral race. Tory, meanwhile, has stressed the need for diplomacy in pushing back against the move.

"I think that is sort of what the ballot question may be becoming rather than specific policy issues at this point," Taylor said.

The upheaval caused by the province's decision, and the legal challenge that followed, may have further hampered Keesmaat, who has otherwise shown herself to be a "credible, articulate voice for a different direction on several significant policy files," said Myer Siemiatycki, a political science professor at Ryerson University.

"It did not serve her that this ended up being such an abbreviated campaign," he said. "Typically, municipal election campaigns ramp into gear after Labour Day. We basically waited a month for that to happen while we awaited court rulings on exactly what kind of election we'd be having."

"A challenger needs more runway in order to project themselves, in order to become known by residents," Siemiatycki said. "The incumbent factor in municipal politics is overwhelmingly significant."

Before plunging into politics, Keesmaat has most recently been CEO of a national non-profit group that aims to build affordable rental housing.

Her chief rival, Tory, a former corporate executive and former leader of the Progressive Conservatives, took the reins of the city after beating out Ford for the job four years ago.

Ford entered that race late when his brother, then-mayor Rob Ford, withdrew because of the cancer that went on to kill him. Tory promised to return civility to the mayoral office after Rob Ford's tumultuous tenure garnered international headlines amid, among other things, his admission that he had smoked crack cocaine.

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press