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Few early challengers emerge to take on Tory in Toronto’s 2018 mayoral election

City Councillor Doug Ford, left, may have lost to current Mayor John Tory in the last election, but that won’t necessarily prevent him from staging another electoral challenge.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

The starter's pistol for Toronto's 2018 mayoral race doesn't officially fire until next May. But to mount a serious, $1.5-million campaign with a chance of knocking off an incumbent such as John Tory, any real challenger needs to be lacing up their running shoes now.

And while Doug Ford, who lost to Mr. Tory in 2014, has repeatedly threatened – but not yet committed – to rile up his suburban Ford Nation base and run again from Mr. Tory's right, no progressive champion has emerged. Yet.

Traditionally, first-term mayors do not face strong opposition: Mel Lastman handily beat left-wing environmental activist Tooker Gomberg in 2000, while David Miller easily fended off conservative Jane Pitfield in 2006.

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Some potential left-wing standard bearers – including downtown city councillors Joe Cressy, Mike Layton and Kristyn Wong-Tam – say they are not interested for now in facing Mr. Tory, who has pledged to serve just two terms. Liberal MP and former councillor and TV reporter Adam Vaughan says he is too busy in Ottawa working on the federal government's national housing strategy.

This, despite the fact that Mr. Tory, who has been busy defending himself from the Ford threat by keeping property-tax hikes low and championing both the Scarborough subway and the rebuilding of the eastern Gardiner Expressway, may have exposed a weakness on his left flank.

One surprising political outsider just might be persuaded to take a crack at it. Former Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president and chief executive officer Richard Peddie tells The Globe and Mail that he has not ruled out taking on Mr. Tory in 2018.

A career executive who held leadership roles at Pillsbury Canada, SkyDome (now Rogers Centre), Labatt and the Toronto Raptors before being credited with transforming MLSE into the massive multifaceted enterprise it is today, the Windsor-born Mr. Peddie has long been a charter member of Toronto's corporate elite.

But he calls himself a progressive, and surprised many of his business-world peers by publicly endorsing Mr. Tory's NDP challenger Olivia Chow in the 2014 race. He said he would support another such candidate next year, if one were to emerge. But he says he is also considering a run himself.

While Mr. Peddie, 70, is about to take over as chairman of the philanthropic Toronto Foundation, for months he has been meeting with city councillors, political advisers and urban-policy experts, as well as criticizing Mr. Tory's policies on Twitter – causing rumours about his ambitions to swirl.

In an interview this week over a salad at the private Soho House club on Adelaide Street West, he said the Toronto City Hall scuttlebutt was at least partly true: "No, I am not running for mayor. I would consider it, because I am worried about the city … I do worry about where we are going."

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His platform, if he were to run, would appear to borrow much from the playbook of council's left.

Mr. Peddie is starkly critical of many of Mr. Tory's signature moves. He calls both the $3.5-billion one-stop Scarborough subway extension and the plan to rebuild the elevated eastern Gardiner Expressway rather than tear it down "horrible." The mayor's insistence on only an inflation-matching 2-per-cent property-tax rate hike, with spending cuts imposed this year and a budget freeze set for 2018, also rankles.

If he was mayor, Mr. Peddie says, he would have increased the city's relatively low property-tax rate by as much as 5 per cent, producing more than $75-million in additional tax revenue. That, he said, would have rendered this year's divisive debate at council about cutting front-line shelter staff, for example, completely unnecessary.

"We're a rich city. And we have a revenue issue. … We're way too low on property taxes," Mr. Peddie said. "Those debates we had about eliminating 10 front-line people, a lot of that would have gone away."

Ms. Wong-Tam says she plans to run for her council seat in 2018 and isn't contemplating a shot at the top job – although she wouldn't categorically rule one out in the future. She also heaped praise on Mr. Peddie, who shares her own views on the Gardiner and the Scarborough subway.

"I think he is actually quite formidable," Ms. Wong-Tam said. "I have an incredible amount of respect for him. And it has a lot to do with the fact that he is just so willing to listen and learn. … He deeply cares and loves this city."

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Mr. Layton, son of former councillor and federal NDP leader Jack Layton, would not rule out a mayoral run but says he is focused at the moment on countering Mr. Tory's budget cuts as a councillor: "I already have a vote on council, like every other councillor, including the Mayor. So I am going to use whatever powers I have in that role to continue to try to fight that austerity and cuts agenda."

In a City Hall corridor this week returning to his office from a workout, Mr. Cressy ruled out any mayoral campaign for 2018. And he was blunt about how his ambitions have been tempered after a gruelling term as councillor: "I'll be brutally honest: For a long time, it was something that was front of mind for me. Over the last three years here, amidst bouts of anxiety and depression, realizing the toll this place takes, what had long been something I had seriously considered is now an open question for me."

In an interview, Mr. Ford said he has yet to decide whether to try for a seat next year at Queen's Park in his home base of Etobicoke North under Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown or take another shot at the mayor's chair.

"I'll tell you, Tory and Wynne are making it very difficult for me. Both the city and province are a financial disaster," Mr. Ford said. " … My heart is with the city. I'd love to go back in there. I understand the city inside and out. That's obviously a tougher challenge, to go around the city and put the campaign together versus running in Etobicoke North as an MPP."

Recent polls put Mr. Tory ahead of Mr. Ford. And any campaign, by anyone, against the mayor would be tough slogging. Since winning in 2014, Mr. Tory has maintained a relentless schedule of campaign-style news conferences and photo-ops, and his fundraising last time set records, hauling in $2.8-million, close to double the spending limit. His office wouldn't comment on speculation around the 2018 race.

"The next election day is more than a year away," spokesman Don Peat said in an e-mailed statement. "Right now, Mayor Tory is focused on standing up for Toronto and doing the job he was elected to do – building transit, tackling traffic congestion and getting more affordable housing in the city."

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About the Author
Toronto City Hall Reporter

Jeff Gray is The Globe and Mail’s Toronto City Hall reporter. He has worked at The Globe since 1998. From 2010 to 2016, he was the law reporter in Report on Business, covering Bay Street law firms and white-collar crime. He won an honourable mention at the National Magazine Awards for investigative journalism in 2010. More

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