Mayoral Candidates Duke It Out in First Debate
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Mayoral Candidates Duke It Out in First Debate

Candidate Rob Ford speaks at the March 29 mayoral candidates’ debate. Photo by Emily Shepard/Torontoist

The first mayoral debate has come and gone, and if you’re looking for the one-line recap, there was no clear winner.
The six major mayoral candidates—Giorgio Mammoliti, Joe Pantalone, Rocco Rossi, Rob Ford, Sarah Thomson, and George Smitherman—gathered last night in front of a packed (and rowdy) auditorium at Mary Ward Catholic Secondary School in Scarborough, to respond to a series of questions on new taxes, road tolls, the Gardiner Expressway, bike lanes, the TTC, rooming houses, wind farms, and the police budget. Unsurprisingly (though no less amusingly), they immediately honed in on Scarborough as an under-funded and under-appreciated sector of the city, weaving in stories of family or personal connections to Toronto’s “urban suburbs” as if trying to prove they knew where Scarborough was on a map.
The proposed Light Rail Transit line on Sheppard as an element of Transit City loomed large: Ford, Thomson, and Mammoliti advocated a subway line instead, while Smitherman and Pantalone defended the LRT. Pantalone objected to Ford’s statement that the LRT was a “fancy name for streetcars,” calling them “fast trains” that were more viable and enjoyed the support of the area’s councillors.
But debates are often more about the candidates than the issues, especially since we usually have a sense of what they’ll say before they walk in the room. So we have come to the essential question: how did these candidates portray themselves, and how did they perform?

Soft-spoken but firm, Mammoliti stood dutifully behind his radical ideas. He reiterated his commitments to exempting seniors from property taxes, demolishing the Gardiner, imposing a curfew for children under fifteen, and uploading both the TTC and welfare to the province. (If wishing made it so.) The self-proclaimed “voice of the urban suburbs,” he speculated that the other candidates “get a nosebleed when they cross Eglinton.” On the issue of bike lanes, he called for a halt on all new lanes until cyclists “adhere to the rules of the road,” adding “they don’t have the right to be kicking cars.”
Joe Pantalone’s approach was measured and established and oh-so-earnest. Calling the city a “living organism that needs tender loving care,” he cited the need for compromise, planning, and funding from the provincial and federal governments. He accused his opponents of a “bulldozer approach”—of advocating dramatic experiments that would ultimately damage the fabric of the city.

Candidate Rocco Rossi addresses the auditorium. Photo by Emily Shepard/Torontoist.

As polished as his bald head, Rossi was (despite his lack of campaign experience) the consummate politician. He was assertive, prepared, and charismatic. He began and ended the debate with polyglot addresses, pulled out a prop bag to discuss the plastic bag tax, and even borrowed a page from the David Miller playbook and told a story about his mom’s immigration triumph. Rossi was critical of the current state of affairs in Toronto, including TTC matters and the municipal grant-giving process.
The newest candidate on the scene, Rob Ford came off as the friendly city councillor who would work tirelessly to serve you. His motto is “customer service,” and he said his default response was to act on community consensus (an easy answer to most tough questions). Ford cited his on-the-ground experience, including establishing a football club for youths and “cleaning up Rexdale.” He also inserted a few oddball ideas, such as bringing back former police chief Julian Fantino.
Sarah Thomson stood out as the idealistic visionary of the bunch, with few concrete answers. Her main, oft-repeated message was the need for an extended subway line along Sheppard. How do we promote economic growth? Build a subway. Are road tolls a good idea? Yes, to fund the subway. Should we build a wind farm? We should build a subway. She answered with more substance on questions such as bike lanes and rooming houses, showing some potential to develop a more sophisticated platform as her campaign matures.
Speaking of a lack of substance, George Smitherman did little to challenge the accusation that his campaign lacks it. He continued to coast up the middle, evading many questions by offering vague answers or counter-attacks. (When the audience heckled him for saying there was “room for mature discussion” on bike lanes, he countered: “It seems like the promise of free alcohol might have been extended to the Rossi camp a bit earlier.”)
The conflict between Rossi and Smitherman defined the latter half of the debate, a dynamic that reflected polls that place those two candidates at the front of the pack. When Rossi brought up eHealth and Samsung, someone in the audience yelled “Get furious, George!” In response, he argued that his mixed political record was better than Rossi’s non-existent one. Oh, snap.