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Toronto voters grapple with competing anxieties

Doc von Lichtenberg, owner of long-time Queen Street retailer Doc's Leathers, is among Rob Ford's supporters.

Sarah Dea for The Globe and Mail/sarah dea The Globe and Mail

Doc von Lichtenberg is a downtown guy.

He's owned a business - Doc's Leathers - on Queen Street West for 18 years; before that, he was in Cabbagetown. He's founder of the West Queen West business improvement area. A Torontonian of the Old City of Toronto since birth, he comes, in his words, "from an old line of unionist and communists."

Oh, and he's voting for Rob Ford on Monday.

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The reason, in Mr. von Lichtenberg's mind, is simple: He's seeing lower margins, more seemingly petty taxes and he reads daily about "the proverbial feeding at the trough" at City Hall.

"It's tough for the small business guy and gal. … We're the backbone of the city, we add flavour. But they're making it so hard for us to make a living."

It's a familiar refrain: The past 11 months have been, more than anything else, an election of protracted, conflicted discontent. Candidates headed out of the gate campaigning against a non-existent incumbent, railing against a dysfunctional City Hall. The grandiloquent Etobicoke councillor who leapt into first place this summer and appeared to be pulling ahead again in a poll released Friday did so thanks in large part to his repeated vow to drastically change a City Hall he has called wasteful, ineffectual and "corrupt."

The litany of woes is long, and councillors hear it at the door: Karen Stintz gets complaints from small businesses in her Eglinton-Lawrence ward - a frustration from residents, a sense that small businesses are being pecked to death. Adam Vaughan hears it from condo-dwellers and Annex residents in Trinity-Spadina, who "are happy with the city, but don't believe they're getting a good bang for their buck in terms of taxes."

But this is the city that ranked first out of 90 in a global survey by AON Consulting looking at the value of metropoles to international employers; its boring-but-sexy financial system was the envy of the world during the financial crisis; it consistently wins brownie points for diversity and "liveability."

The way a cascading series of public-opinion polls have set up this election, Monday's results come down to competing anxieties. Whichever candidate wins will be swept into office on a tide of unease from an electorate that appears poised, if advance polls are any indication, to turn up in record numbers and vote based on what they don't want.

And what concerns observers of the marathon campaign leading up to Monday's vote is that what really could hamper the city's ability to move forward over the next four years - and the next 40 - is not so much municipal waste or a failure to go "line-by-line" through the city's operating budget: It's a bleak post-recession outlook for a city struggling to deal with a growing demographic chasm that could change the way Toronto functions.

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A Toronto-Dominion Bank study released Friday indicates that while welfare rates and food-bank use reach historic highs and bankruptcies triple the national average, the post-recession jobs Toronto's adding aren't as stable or permanent as the positions lost. Economists predict unemployment will hover higher than the national average as Toronto's growth rate slows significantly compared to the rest of the country.

"There's an awful lot of people in the city who are struggling. … People who weren't behind the eight ball two years ago - they're behind the eight ball today," said John Tory, the former Ontario Conservative leader and radio talk-show host whose non-mayoral run got as much attention as any actual candidacies over the summer.

"A lot of those people started off a whole lot more anxious than they were angry and they're worried, and why wouldn't they be?"

A Vital Signs study taking Toronto's 21st-century pulse shows a city that's increasingly polarized: While the highest-earning tranche of the city's population has doubled, Toronto has also developed a million-person underclass - two-thirds of them visible minorities - living in the city's most vulnerable, underserviced and impoverished neighbourhoods.

It reinforces the idea that "not everybody's living in the same city," said Rahul Bhardwaj, president of the Toronto Community Foundation behind the report.

"The concept of a rising tide lifting all boats just didn't play itself out. And I think people are a little bit stunned at how that's being played out in this election: We're seeing some general frustration and malaise," he said. "If you keep telling people long enough that it's broken, they're going to believe that. … [But]if that's the message that starts being received, that's not going to help us."

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