From Fort Mac to Fort York: The ripples of Chow's resignation on federal politics

Mike Layton, Olivia Chow at Chow for Mayor rally
TORONTO – Coun. Mike Layton introduces Olivia Chow during a rally for her mayoral campaign on Sunday. [Ernest Doroszuk/QMI Agency]
The decision by Olivia Chow last week to quit her seat in the House of Commons to take a run at the Mayor’s chair in Toronto has already started a broad ripple effect in federal politics that stretches from the oil sands in northern Alberta to downtown Toronto and could even influence the way the 2015 federal election is fought.

Chow represented the downtown Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina, a riding which Chow won by 20,000 votes in 2011. But that race had been much closer in 2008, when she won by 3,500 and in 2006 when she won by 3,000. In 2004, Chow ran and lost Trinity-Spadina to Liberal Tony Ianno, who would be a junior minister in Paul Martin’s cabinet. Ianno had held the riding for the Liberals since 1993.

Now the Liberals want it back. Standing in their way (aside from some potential Liberal infighting) will likely be Joe Cressy, a close confidante and advisor of Chow’s and the Layton family general for years.  Cressy was best man at the wedding of  Toronto city councillor Mike Layton (son of Jack). Monday morning, Cressy announced he would seek the NDP nomination in Trinity-Spadina.

The NDP establishment — broadly defined as the coterie of advisors and party workers who spent some or part of the last decade working in Jack Layton’s office or on the NDP national campaign — will certainly approve of Cressy’s candidacy. Indeed, Cressy (pictured above in the Flickr feed of Mark Blevis) and his successful defence of Trinity-Spadina have been a key part of NDP HQ plans to beat Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland next door to Trinity-Spadina in Toronto Centre.

Connecting Cressy’s attempt to become the MP now in Trinity-Spadina to a 2015 attempt by the NDP to up-end Freeland, brings two other characters into this story, Linda McQuaig and Jennifer Hollett.

Hollett and McQuaig
TORONTO – Jennifer Hollett (left) and Linda McQuaig at the 2013 Toronto Centre NDP nomination meeting. McQuaig would win this race but go on to lose the by-election to Chrystia Freeland. (DAVID AKIN)

McQuaig, the rabble-rousing Toronto Star columnist, edged out Hollett, also a former journalist, to win the NDP nomination in last year’s Toronto Centre race. McQuaig then went on to lose that by-election to Freeland. Toronto Centre had been Bob Rae’s seat and before that, Bill Graham’s seat. Liberal roots are strong in that riding and the eventual outcome wasn’t close.

Still, the NDP were pleased that, in McQuaig and Hollett, they had two strong candidates which they believe could help them in 2015. In Cressy, they believe they now have three strong candidates for the 2015.

But where to put these three candidates?

Now we get into some of the “grand game” strategy for the 2015 election in downtown Toronto.

In 2015, the current federal ridings of Toronto Centre and Trinity-Spadina turn into three ridings: Toronto Centre, University-Rosedale, and Spadina-Fort York. [PDF of 2015 Toronto riding boundary map]

Hollett says she has been encouraged to seek the NDP nomination in Spadina-Fort York for the 2015 campaign and indeed, she is considering it. (For now, Hollett has signed on to Chow’s mayoralty campaign has her digital director.)

Cressy who would be an incumbent MP — or so the NDP brain trust hopes — would seek the nomination in the new riding of University-Rosedale. University-Rosedale is created with the northern halves of the current ridings of Trinity-Spadina and Toronto Centre. As its name implies, University-Rosedale includes the wealthy Toronto enclave of Rosedale as well as the neighbourhood around the University of Toronto.

Chrystia Freeland
TORONTO – Chrystia Freeland talks to supporters at the 2013 Liberal nomination meeting in Toronto Centre. Freeland almost certainly will run in 2015 in the new University-Rosedale riding, which incorporates the north half of the current Toronto Centre. (DAVID AKIN)

Though she has not yet announced it, it’s almost a certainty that this is the riding Freeland will choose to run in 2015. The NDP believe Cressy will make a much better matchup against Freeland than McQuaig did. Where McQuaig was, to use some broad characterizations, a tub-thumping, to-the-barricades old-school New Democrat, Cressy is a smooth-talking 29-year-old, freshly married, who wants to talk about daycare for parents with young families. He will seem a lot less threatening to the blue-bloods of Rosedale than McQuaig and her call to “tax the rich.”

That leaves the new 2015 version of Toronto Centre – which includes some of the poorest neighbourhoods in Toronto — open for McQuaig to come back to if she so chooses.

TORONTO – Diana Burke speaks to supporters at the 2013 Liberal nomination meeting in Toronto Centre. Burke would lose to Chrystia Freeland but has already announced she will seek the Liberal nomination in the newly re-drawn Toronto Centre for the 2015 general election. (DAVID AKIN)

The Liberals are certainly expecting a fight in the new Toronto Centre as their nomination process there gets underway. Former Royal Bank executive Diana Burke, who ran and lost to Freeland for the right to represent the Liberals in the 2013 by-election, has announced she is seeking the right be the Liberal on the ballot in 2015 in Toronto Centre. Ryan Sullivan, a Porter Airlines pilot, has also announced his intention to seek this nomination.

In all these races — the pending by-election in Trinity-Spadina and the 2015 races in Spadina-Fort York, Toronto Centre and University-Rosedale — it almost certainly going to be the Liberals and New Democrats in a close finish with other parties well up the track. In Trinity-Spadina this year, the NDP must hold so that they have the advantage of an incumbent MP among the trio of new downtown Toronto ridings in 2015. The Liberals, in the pending Trinity-Spadina by-election,  want to remove that advantage and would love to test-drive the Justin Trudeau brand against what was a 20,000-vote NDP lead in 2011.

However it plays out for Cressy, Chow’s decision to resign and set in motion the process for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to call a Trinity-Spadina by-election is unequivocally bad news for Lori McDaniel who, last week, was acclaimed as the NDP candidate in the also-vacant federal riding of Fort McMurray-Athabaska.

McDaniels and Mulcair
FORT McMURRY, Alta. – NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and his party’s candidate in Fort McMurray-Athanbasca Lori McDaniel speak to reporters on Feb. 22, 2014. (VINCENT MCDERMOTT/Fort McMurray Today)

McDaniel was a long shot to win Fort Mac in any event. This riding has returned nothing but conservative MPs since its creation in 1968. The most recent MP, Conservative Brian Jean, won in 2011 with 72 per cent of the vote. Jean got nearly 22,000 votes. The New Democrat finished 2nd with 4,000 votes.

But NDP HQ back in Ottawa were prepared to pour the maximum amount of money — about $80,000 — into McDaniel’s campaign and back that up with plenty of support from leader Thomas Mulcair, caucus members and lots of behind-the-scenes support in the hopes — albeit still slim — of an upset by-election win. Certainly, there was a strong hope that the NDP might have its “Brandon-Souris” moment, a reference to the 2013 by-election in which the Liberals gave the Conservatives a serious scare by stealing a riding that, like Fort Mac, has gone overwhelmingly blue almost for forever.

McDaniel’s personal narrative also opened up a West-friendly narrative for Mulcair to use as he tries to boost his party’s fortunes in the West. She is a transplanted Cape Bretoner — the West’s resource sector is full of Atlantic Canadians — who works for oil sand giant Suncor. She actually drives one of those monster oil sands trucks at Suncor’s Wood Buffalo plant.

Her motivation to run, as my colleague Vince McDermott at Fort McMurray Today reported, was not with oil sands development per se but with the fact that the riding was not seeing enough of the benefits from the wealth it was producing for the rest of Canada.

”We should be flourishing but we aren’t,” she told McDermott. “Look at the hospital. Look at our elder care. (The Conservatives) are the ones who have been in control and look where we’re at. I’m sorry, but they haven’t done a very good job.”

Ironically, Jean, the former Conservative MP, had roughly a similar complaint infrastructure development — hospitals, schools, roads — had not kept pace with Fort Mac’s development. Jean, of course, thought provincial Progressive Conservative governments had let his region down.

In any event: McDaniel’s candidacy would have given Mulcair a chance to talk up sustainable oil sands development and, perhaps, get Western voters to forget about his talk about Dutch Disease and how the West’s success was killing manufacturing in Ontario and Quebec.

But all those resources — financial and otherwise — that McDaniel might have been counting on to help her in Fort Mac will now be allocated to Trinity-Spadina and Cressy (or whoever wins the NDP nomination) in his knock-down fight with the Liberals.

Indeed, the timing of Chow’s decision to resign her seat was influenced partly by these broader federal party considerations vis-a-vis a Fort Mac by election. Chow — and the party — were hopeful that Harper would have called byeelections by now for Macleod, in southeastern Alberta, and Fort Mac, allowing the NDP to “flood the zone” in the northeastern Alberta riding.

Harper and the Conservatives, knowing as everyone did that Chow was eyeing the Toronto mayor’s race. simply had to wait her out and can now call three by-elections — the two in Alberta plus the Toronto one — on the same day likely late this spring or early summer. The Conservatives would have surely calculated that a strong defence of Trinity-Spadina would be a much higher priority for NDP cash and resources than betting those resources on a bet in Fort McMurray.

By law, Harper must call the by-election in Macleod by May 17.  But, by law, Harper could have waited until July 29 to call the Fort Mac race. For Chow, waiting until after July 29 to force Harper’s hand, was too late so far as the Toronto mayor’s race is concerned. She might have gambled on waiting past May 17 but that still might have been trouble for her mayor’s race.

If past practice is any indicator with Harper, he will now call all three by-elections on the same day and set election day on the same date. The earliest he could call this trio of by-election is 11 days after the Speaker of the House of Commons officially notifies the Chief Electoral Office that the seat of Trinity-Spadina is empty. As Speaker Andrew Scheer is in his riding in Regina until next Monday — and there fore won’t sign the official notice of vacancy until March 24 — it would likely not be until the weekend of April 5 before Harper would pull the trigger.

The writ period or campaign period can be as long as the prime minister likes — there is no maximum length to campaigns believe it or not and the Fair Elections Act, for all its changes, keeps this odd provision the same — but there is a minimum period for a campaign:36 days plus election day.

So that means that, if the PM calls all three by-elections at his first available opportunity, the first available election day is May 12. If Harper waits until the last available day to pull the trigger on the Macleod by-election calendar, the earliest voting day would be June 23.

Now, back to the municipal race at hand in Toronto.

Rob Ford
TORONTO – Toronto Mayor Rob Ford chuckles after telling reporters he thinks Olivia Chow “makes David Miller look like a Conservative.” (STAN BEHALL/QMI Agency)

Chow’s campaign team includes John Laschinger and Warren Kinsella — a couple of “non-New Democrats”. But it also includes lots of New Democrats who have been involved with federal and provincial NDP campaigns.

It’s notable, then, that the Chow campaign will be taking deliberate aim at Ford Nation, the so-called group of voters who helped elect Rob Ford mayor four years ago. Some of the New Democrats helping Chow’s run for mayor note that a big chunk of Ford Nation voters are made up of people who do not believe there are enough politicians out there “fighting for the little guy.” Ford successfully played the part of that kind of politician four years ago and his handlers then were smart enough to package him that way.

This Ford Nation voter distrusts politicians generally and prefers voting for someone who can be successfully sold as an outsider. This voter likely earns an hourly wage and could very well be a first-generation Canadian.

This voter is hard to pin down on the traditional left-right political spectrum and could just as easily vote for so-called conservative candidate as a so-called social democrat.

This is the voter that Chow’s team believes will vote for her and, so far, the script that launched her campaign appeals to this kind of voter.

Olivia Chow
TORONTO – Olivia Chow’s strategists believe she can appeal to many of those who part of “Ford Nation” four years ago. (ERNEST DOROSZUK/QMI Agency)

If this narrative works — and the NDP strategists behind Chow’s campaign can steal a chunk of Ford Nation and defeat Ford and John Tory — then the federal NDP may have learned some valuable lessons which it could use as it fashions its “narrative” for the 2015 campaign.

That’s because in many parts of the country, particularly Western Canada, New Democrats find themselves fighting with Conservatives over voters who very much have the characteristic of “Ford Nation” voters. Now, obviously Olivia Chow is not Thomas Mulcair, but there are elements already emerging in Chow’s campaign which New Democrats could adapt to a federal campaign.

If Chow loses her bid for mayor, there will be lessons for the NDP there, too.

3 thoughts on “From Fort Mac to Fort York: The ripples of Chow's resignation on federal politics”

  1. An interesting multi-dimensional analysis, David.
    Trudeau has intervened in several recent byelections to not-so-subtly choosing his candidate – and now it seems that his promise of “open and transparent” nominations is coming back to bite him, and his dwindling credibility: especially in Trinity-Spadina.
    A new generation of very credible young New Democrat candidates is also impressive.
    The coming byelections in Toronto and Fort McMurray will be worth watching.

  2. The NDP is not so broke that it can’t fund more then one bielection to the tune of 80,000$, I mean it brought in 8 million dollars last year, and the two ridings are far enough apart that they will utilize different volunteer pools. Heck with over a 100 MPs the NDP can bombard both ridings with MPs.

    Mac Murray might not get as much face time with Mulcair as it otherwise would have, but it will get some no doubt.

    Still this was interesting and informative. You must have some good contacts in the NDP.

  3. * Its Fort McMurray not Fort MAC.
    *Its Athabasca…formerly it was Athabaska (native tribe)
    *And NDP have campaigned many times against Canada’s Resources with Council of Canadians (Joseph Stalin, Founder)…they cant trash Alberta and stand for it same time…no can do bubba.

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