Incumbency for the Win
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Incumbency for the Win

Why it's so difficult for challengers to unseat incumbent councillors, and what we can learn from those who have.

Photo by asianz, from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

If history is any guide, voter talk about being unhappy with city council’s performance will result in few, if any, significant changes after the municipal election on October 27. Council faced an anti-incumbent electorate in 2010, but only five of the 35 incumbents who ran were defeated. And that actually made it a bad election for incumbents—over the past three municipal elections, incumbent politicians have won 95 of 105 races (excluding two acclamations), meaning they have emerged victorious 90.4 per cent of the time.

So why is so difficult to defeat incumbent councillors, and what can we learn from those rare cases in which challengers have done just that?

Since 2003, only 10 candidates have defeated incumbent councillors:

  • Gay Cowbourne (2003, Ron Moeser)
  • Janet Davis (2003, Michael Tziretas)
  • Mike Del Grande (2003, Sherene Shaw)
  • Karen Stintz (2003, Anne Johnston)
  • Anthony Perruzza (2006, Peter Li Preti)
  • Michelle Berardinetti (2010, Adrian Heaps)
  • Vincent Crisanti (2010, Suzan Hall)
  • Sarah Doucette (2010, Bill Saundercook)
  • Mary-Margaret McMahon (2010, Sandra Bussin)
  • Jaye Robinson (2010, Cliff Jenkins)

Of these 10 challengers, six had previously run for elected office in the same area. Del Grande, for example, had been a local school trustee for more than a decade, and Perruzza had been an MPP. Crisanti managed to win on his fourth attempt for the seat, while Davis, Berardinetti, and Robinson overcame narrow previous losses to win on their second attempts.

These successful candidates had a few key factors working in their favour. They had established a level of name recognition through previous electoral efforts. They also had built-in donor networks, campaign infrastructure, and voter information thanks to their previous campaigns. Politicians and strategists frequently refer to candidates’ “lists,” shorthand for the voter database that each candidate develops over the years to identify potential voters and maximize get-out-the vote efforts on election day. This database can make or break an election effort regardless of the candidate’s other qualities.

And, of course, the reputation of the politician being challenged can affect the odds: Cowbourne, Stintz, Doucette, and McMahon each faced unpopular incumbents who were widely seen as entitled, disconnected from local concerns, or out of touch. Anti-incumbent voters in those wards settled on these candidates as the most promising alternatives, in part because they had been involved in these communities before they ran.

But these successful challengers are the exceptions. In the 105 races since 2003 that have featured incumbents, incumbents have averaged 59.1 per cent of the vote, while runners-up have averaged only 26.2 per cent. This 33-per-cent gap indicates that the average council race is nowhere near competitive. In two-thirds of races, the incumbent gets a majority despite fields that can have a good 10 candidates. Only 11 losing challengers managed to come within 5 per cent of the incumbents’ vote totals.

The reasons for the lack of competitiveness are varied but largely structural. It can be difficult for a candidate to establish name recognition, particularly when it comes to municipal politics, which voters don’t tend to follow very closely. Viable candidates sometimes shy away from running against incumbents with similar politics for fear of vote splitting or alienating allies (both issues that have arisen recently in terms of Jane Farrow’s bid for the Ward 30 council seat, currently held by the left-leaning Paula Fletcher). Incumbents also have the advantage of the ongoing publicity they can generate while doing their jobs. Most councillors send out regular newsletters touting accomplishments and giving updates on projects. Others hold contests and hand out prizes—Glenn de Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre), for example, gives gardening and cutest dog awards. Every constituent tends to go home with some kind of prize, and while the practice is defended as a way of building community goodwill, it also builds a lot of goodwill for the politician at election time.

With their established name recognition and network of contacts, it’s also easier for incumbents to fundraise. New candidates often have to spend time identifying likely donors rather than simply returning to reliable sources—which means time away from canvassing and meeting community groups. And often donors with projects being undertaken in a ward will prefer to go with the existing councillor simply to ensure continuity. So while Toronto’s cap on donations and generous rebates can help level the playing field for candidates, there’s still a significant incumbent edge when it comes to fundraising.

Incumbents also enjoy other structural advantages. They have a job that allows them to campaign on a regular basis while collecting a salary, a luxury not enjoyed by many other candidates, who often have to negotiate time off work or use savings to subsidize a reduced workload as they campaign. For these reasons, and because of other organizational challenges, non-incumbents often delay their entry into the race, which only increases their disadvantage. In the 11 council races in 2010 for which information was available for the incumbent and the runner-up, the incumbent entered the race an average of 14 weeks earlier than the runner-up.

The difficulty of defeating incumbents and the lack of term limits mean that some councillors stay in their positions for decades. For instance, Maria Augimeri (Ward 9, York Centre), Frances Nunziata (Ward 11, York South-Weston), and Gloria Lindsay Luby (Ward 4, Etobicoke Centre) have represented their communities at the municipal level since the 1980s. Council has not approved the implementation of term limits when the issue has come up in the past, but the effort to implement ranked ballots to avoid vote splitting was gaining momentum before a snap election was called earlier this month.

Although challengers are currently running competitive campaigns in, for example, Wards 12, 17, 18, and 30, the 2014 election will doubtless see many incumbents returned to City Hall. If the past three elections are any guide, something like 35 incumbents will end up running for re-election in one of Toronto’s 44 wards—and only around three of them will face defeat.

The 28 who have already registered to run for re-election are:

Vincent Crisanti (Ward 1, Etobicoke North), Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West), Maria Augimeri (Ward 9, York Centre), James Pasternak (Ward 10, York Centre), Frances Nunziata (Ward 11, York South-Weston), Frank Di Giorgio (Ward 12, York South-Weston), Sarah Doucette (Ward 13, Parkdale-High Park), Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park), Josh Colle (Ward 15, Eglinton-Lawrence), Cesar Palacio (Ward 17, Davenport), Ana Bailao (Ward 18, Davenport), Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s), Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s), John Filion (Ward 23, Willowdale), Jaye Robinson (Ward 25, Don Valley West), Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale), Pam McConnell (Ward 28, Toronto Centre-Rosedale), Mary Fragedakis (Ward 29, Toronto-Danforth), Janet Davis (Ward 31, Beaches-East York), Mary Margaret-McMahon (Ward 32, Beaches-East York), Shelley Carroll (Ward 33, Don Valley East), Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East), Michelle Berardinetti (Ward 35, Scarborough Southwest), Gary Crawford (Ward 36, Scarborough Southwest), Michael Thompson (Ward 37, Scarborough Centre), Norm Kelly (Ward 40, Scarborough Agincourt), Chin Lee (Ward 41, Scarborough-Rouge River), and Paul Ainslie (Ward 43, Scarborough East).

Councillors Peter Milczyn (Ward 5, Etobicoke Lakeshore) and Raymond Cho (Ward 42, Scarborough-Rouge River) could run for council again depending on the outcomes of their Queen’s Park candidacies. Other councillors who haven’t signed yet up but are likely to do so include Gloria Lindsay Luby (Ward 4, Etobicoke Centre), Mark Grimes (Ward 6, Etobicoke-Lakeshore), Anthony Perruzza (Ward 8, York Centre), Mike Layton (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina), David Shiner (Ward 24, Willowdale), John Parker (Ward 26, Don Valley West), Paula Fletcher (Ward 30, Toronto-Danforth), and Glenn de Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre). Peter Leon (Ward 3, Etobicoke Centre) has not ruled out a council bid despite pledging during the council appointment process that he would not run. Ron Moeser (Ward 44, Scarborough East) has not indicated either way, but he has had numerous health problems over the past term.