Chow-Tory dust-up portends nothing good

August 20, 2014

Yes, it's a minor incident in a long race that has yet to begin in earnest. And, okay, it's only Warren Kinsella, a long-time political operative notorious for his feuds and flare-ups. All the same, the Kinsella affair is bad news at a critical time for the faltering Olivia Chow campaign.

We are on the verge of the final and by far most important stage of the 10-month mayoral contest. The eight weeks between Labour Day and election day on Oct. 27 are when voters coming off their summer holidays turn their attention to city politics and start reviewing their options.

The momentum going into the home stretch seems to be with John Tory, the former businessman, 2003 mayoral candidate and provincial Progressive Conservative leader who has pulled ahead of Ms. Chow in recent polls.

Ms. Chow, the well-known former city councillor and NDP MP, joined the race as a favourite. She led the polls from February through the early summer. Now the talk in city political circles is that she may have peaked too soon and that the campaign seems to be running out of gas. The last thing she needed was an embarrassment like this.

Mr. Kinsella's tweet asking whether Mr. Tory's SmartTrack transit plan should be called "Segregationist Track" instead was intemperate even for him. To imply the plan was segregationist because it was "careful to exclude" the Jane-Finch and Rexdale districts was ridiculous and plainly offensive. He also tweeted: "@johntoryTO: if you don't come from his demographic, he doesn't give a –– if you lose transit service."

He apologized and Ms. Chow quickly disavowed the remark, saying Mr. Kinsella did not speak for her campaign and making it clear she does not think Mr. Tory discriminates against anyone. But she hurt her case by claiming Mr. Kinsella was nothing more than a campaign volunteer. "I have thousands of volunteers and he's just volunteering."

Come on. Mr. Kinsella leads the campaign's rapid response team, or "war room." He has taken part in campaign strategy meetings. The campaign has hired his company, Daisy Consulting, to monitor media coverage. As Mr. Tory was quick to point out, this is not just someone who wandered into campaign headquarters and offered to lick envelopes.

The right thing to do would have been to cut all ties with Mr. Kinsella. Heading into the post-Labour Day battle, Ms. Chow can't afford to have a loose cannon sliding around the deck. By keeping him on board and trying to minimize his role, she left a gap for Mr. Tory, who told reporters of his "profound dismay and regret" at her failure "to take any real responsibility for this."

He also took the chance to talk about his career as a civic leader who has worked hard to bring the city together. "I have a proud record of standing up for human rights," he said.

It is a bad day when you give your main rival both a stick to beat you with and a trumpet to blow his own horn.

It is not likely that the incident will cause any lasting damage to the Chow campaign. The whole thing is bound to be forgotten once real campaigning gets under way in a couple of weeks. But it was a learning moment for her campaign and a foreshadowing of the fight that lies ahead. The Tory and Chow teams have been exchanging potshots for months now. The disputes will only escalate when advertising campaigns get rolling.

"I said this was going to be a dirty campaign," a chuckling Rob Ford told CP24 television. "And it's probably going to be one, if not the dirtiest campaign ever in Toronto's history." Let's hope he's wrong.

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