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Mayoral Race 2010 – Are we overlooking good potential mayors by just focusing on a few old white guys?

Wednesday 6 October 2010 No Comment


BY Chris Bilton
October 06, 2010 11:10 EYE WEEKLY

“Fringe” candidate may be the F-word of the mayoral race. In a municipal election where anyone with $200 can get their name on the ballot, and where voters will have twoscore names to choose from, it’s inevitable that some of the mayoral candidates are going to be operating under the radar. There’s probably a good reason that we don’t hear much about some of the candidates, but there are more than a few occasions where good ideas, and possibly even a good mayor, are overlooked.

Even when second-tier candidates have potential to break into the mainstream, and their policies and ideas become central to the race via the front-runners, it’s nearly impossible to shake the fringe stigma. During a panel discussion at The Word on the Street two weeks ago, Toronto Star writer Vanessa Lu explained that their editorial board decided to elevate Sarah Thomson from fringe status to ensure that there was at least one woman candidate taking part in the debates. Thomson’s presence eventually began to resemble that of a serious contender and at one point saw her polling higher than the deputy mayor. In this way, the media plays the role of kingmaker — but it can also play jestermaker. We should look to promote more of these candidates in order to advance the conversation and introduce more ideas and more diversity (our strength, remember) into mayoral politics.

Does popularity alone dictate whether or not we hear about Rocco Rossi over Rocco Achampong, or is there a certain level of political cachet required for anyone to be taken seriously as the potential leader of a multi-billion dollar corporation like the City of Toronto? Moreover, is the absence of folks like Achampong and Himy Syed from the mainstream coverage really only cheating voters of better mayoral options?

Himy Syed is probably too smart to be an effective candidate. His campaign platform has over 70 single-sentence ideas, most of which are far more nuanced than Ford’s mantras about wasted tax dollars. An Islamic banker and entrepreneur, Himy Syed is also a prolific Tweeter, and his commentary is incisive. It’s also been said that Syed knows as much about the inner workings of city hall as his fellow candidate, 30-year council veteran Joe Pantalone. You might ask why we haven’t heard more about him.

Syed is very clear in his opinion of the choices made by Toronto media when it comes to coverage: “Every time the mainstream media behaves in such a way by excluding me, with all the work I’ve been doing, I just have to share that with people.” If Ford can channel the anger directed at city hall into voter support, Syed might be able to harness the indignation felt by voters when it comes to neglected candidates. “I have allowed my competitors and the mainstream media, by their actions, to subsidize my campaign,” he says “[The people I talk to] are mad at the media. They ask, ‘Why are they only showing five, now four, white people? Now that there are only four, why don’t they give you the fifth chair?’” It’s a good question, and Syed and his supporters aren’t the only ones asking it.

At the beginning of the election, we explored the inherent problems with Toronto’s election process and spoke with the folks behind the Better Ballots campaign. Back in June, Better Ballots hosted a debate where they invited all mayoral candidates to make speeches and also expanded the “front-runner” debate to include two outside candidates for a total of eight(!) debaters. One of those additional candidates was Rocco Achampong (pictured at right). At the time, the Ghana-born lawyer had also attracted the attention of Star reporter Robyn Doolittle, who wrote a lengthy profile detailing his frustrations with the system. Achampong agrees that, at the time, it was a glimmer of hope in his campaign. At this late stage in the election, he’s still frustrated.

Achampong argues that, because certain personalities automatically gain favour, it puts them automatically above and beyond everybody else’s candidacy. Using the early “front-runner” status of George Smitherman as an example, Achampong explains, “To the extent that you are prepared to exalt one individual and put him out there in the societal consciousness, whether people gravitate to him or not, he will always have some level of traction.”

While this is true to a certain extent, the argument also puts the cart before the horse. Smitherman had political traction before he even spent his $200 — he was deputy premier of the province, after all. His candidacy is legitimized by his political track record, even if in his case this political track record has served him quite poorly at times. Smitherman is elevated because he is newsworthy, but his many faults are also held under more intense scrutiny.

You might not recognize Achampong or Syed by name, but some of their policies are likely familiar. Achampong was talking about revisiting the city’s fair-wage policy long before Rob Ford cited it as one of his methods of stopping the gravy train at City Hall. Among Syed’s many intelligent campaign ideas is a bike-lane network that is strikingly similar to the one we so loved that was presented by Sarah Thomson. Both Achampong and Syed have shown remarkable potential as candidates; arguably, they are no more fringey than Sarah Thomson or Rocco Rossi.

Our two-term mayor, David Miller, is one of the most famous cases of an underdog candidate. Even the current election’s long-standing poll-topper, Rob Ford, was greeted with little more than amused condescension by pretty much every media outlet (this one included). Although both Miller’s and Ford’s successes, whether for good or ill, are the very definition of unlikely, neither candidate was ever officially considered fringe.

It would be impossible for any media outlet to dedicate enough space to ensure that each of the 40 mayoral candidates get equal coverage, and it’s doubtful that many people would even feign interest. But when the election runs for the better part of a year, there’s no reason why the coverage, even televised debates, can’t cast their nets a little wider and bring a few more viable candidates to the surface. There’s probably another David Miller out there.

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