By now, the mayor of my beloved hometown, Toronto, needs no introduction: His name is Rob Ford.
He’s the guy who gets belligerent at sporting events, sometimes speaks with a faux Jamaican accent, coached a kids’ football team (but can’t catch a football) and, oh yeah, occasionally smokes crack while “in a drunken stupor.”
Ring a bell?
You may know that, until recently, Ford was running for a second term as mayor—and was still convinced, despite the aforementioned crack-smoking problem, that he was the best person for the job. He was unfortunately diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in September and had to withdraw from the race, (though he’s still expected to win back his city council seat).
What you might not know, however, is that before the diagnosis—back when every Torontonian was crossing their fingers, toes, arms and legs hoping Ford wouldn’t be reelected—a woman candidate threw her hat into the mayoral election ring and was highly favored to win.
That woman is Olivia Chow, and she’s one of my personal heroes.
Let me back up a little bit and explain a few things: First of all, I’m a huge nerd for Toronto politics (shout out to the #TOpoli Twitter hashtag!) Second, Toronto has a history of electing badass women mayors, so when Chow joined the race I was glued to the campaign coverage.
When I was growing up in the ’90s, Barbara Hall was mayor of Toronto—and she was a total rock star. Before becoming a lawyer and later a politician, she dropped out of post-secondary school two credits shy of a degree to work with rural black families in small-town Nova Scotia. Needless to say, social justice and community uplift were at the crux of every policy decision she made, and she was beloved by Toronto’s largely progressive population.
As a curious and social-justice-minded young woman, Hall represented so many things I aspired to achieve: a position of some influence; the opportunity to work with smart, dedicated collaborators who shared similar goals; and the ability to make real and impactful change. You won’t be surprised to learn that I dreamt of someday becoming Toronto’s mayor myself.
Around the time of Hall’s mayorship, I came into contact with a feisty city counselor named Olivia Chow. Chow, who immigrated to Toronto from Hong Kong as a teenager, rode a colorful bike—covered in flowers, no less!—to City Hall every day and fought for public transit, affordable housing and other programs that benefited Toronto’s working-class communities. I attended a lot of programs at my local community center as a kid, and Chow visited once, sitting with me during a workshop. I remember that she was super engaged with me, and that she spoke to me like a grownup (which I appreciated as a precocious youngster). Chow was committed, energetic and said exactly what was her mind—unlike pretty much every other politician I’d seen in action.
Fast-forward 20-odd years to May 2013: Toronto is imploding as our mayor’s downward-spiraling personal life overtakes matters of municipal importance. City council meetings have devolved into chaotic media circuses and screaming matches. Ford has even declared “outright war” on fellow council members who voted to strip him of his mayoral powers. And who should ride in to rescue our fair city? None other than Olivia Chow.
Chow had spent the previous decade as a federal member of parliament (akin to being a U.S. member of Congress), but when she saw the disaster unfolding in Toronto, she knew what she had to do: go home. In a speech announcing her candidacy, she said,
The current mayor is failing at his job. … We deserve better. I spent years at City Hall, I know City Hall can work. … I have the experience, I have a proven track record. I know how to work with others. And that’s why I want to be your mayor.
Just like that, she was off to a roaring start. She released upbeat campaign videos, secured important endorsements and polls showed her capturing more than 35 percent of the popular vote, with her closest competitor at 28 percent.
But as the campaign wore on, things took a turn for the worse. Some said Chow’s far-left policy initiatives—increasing land-transfer taxes to fund a school lunch program for poor kids, for example—were alienating centrist voters. Others claimed she was underperforming in debates, seeming aggressive rather than positive relative to her always-smiling conservative competitor, John Tory.
She also faced racism from her opponents’ supporters, with some telling her to “go back to China” or questioning her qualifications to lead a city in which she wasn’t born (though she’s lived there since age 13). She was even called a “major league biatch” by a former member of provincial parliament. Perhaps it’s no wonder she seemed unsteady on the campaign trail.
Last week, though, it was women—and women’s issues—that began to turn the tide marginally back in Chow’s favor.
In a statement, the women wrote:
Olivia Chow’s entire platform is based on a profound understanding of issues of concern to women—and that “women’s issues” such as accessible, affordable child care are equality issues, economic issues and should be election issues. Olivia Chow is the only candidate addressing these issues and proposing meaningful, practical policies and plans to move forward.
A column in The Toronto Star affirmed that notion, pointing to Chow’s position on so-called “urban issues”—such as lack of access to affordable housing, which disproportionately affects women—as evidence of her strength as a feminist candidate and someone deserving Toronto’s vote:
Despite 40 years of women’s marches and campaigns, child care still falls mostly on [women’s] shoulders, and we make up 58 per cent of the tenants in [government-subsidized] Toronto Community Housing. We are poorer than men. We earn on average $16,100—or 31.3 per cent—less than men do every year in Toronto, and that’s getting worse, not better. … Chow’s not just the only female frontrunner in the race. She’s the only frontrunner campaigning on women’s issues. Her webpage is full of promises, price tags affixed.
Chow also secured the endorsement of Federal Green Party Leader Elizabeth May on Tuesday, who lauded the mayoral candidate for her commitment to affordable child care.
Summertime polls showed that Tory, one of Chow’s main rivals, had begun leading with women voters—Chow had been ahead for months—but change seems to be in the air. Perhaps it’s just my wishful thinking, but I believe that a group of powerful feminists, like those standing behind Chow, can make a serious difference. And if the TV ad Chow released on Tuesday is any indication—it features her fiery response to a racist question from an opponent’s supporter—it’s clear that she’s still swinging and won’t back down.
I’m a long, long way from home now and can’t vote in the Oct. 27 mayoral election, but if there’s one thing I can do it’s call on everyone with an appetite for change to vote for Olivia Chow. She’s been a champion of progressive politics throughout her impressive career, she sticks to her promises and gets things done—and I think she can bring Toronto back to life. Plus she still rides a flower-decorated bicycle (see photo above). Who wouldn’t want to see that parked outside City Hall?