In Monday's debate, Jennifer Keesmaat, right, said that whoever is mayor must aggressively defend the city's interests against the province, while John Tory, left, said the the mayor should avoid getting into a "state of war.” At centre, is candidate Gautam Nath.

The difference in approach is crystal clear between Toronto’s two main mayoral candidates

This mayoral campaign seems like it’s taken a little while to launch, given the mucking about of the provincial government. But it finally, kinda sorta kicked off in earnest with the first debate of the campaign — hosted by ArtsVote on Monday morning. If nothing else, it defined the battle lines, not in any way surprisingly, but perhaps more clearly than before.

The nominal topic of the debate was the arts, but there seemed to be little actual debate on the topic — shockingly, no one on stage took the wide-open position that the arts are bad. No one even nodded to the common cynic’s refrain that there are pressing life-and-death issues in the city that require more attention. Instead, the candidates were like a cheer squad (Gimme an A! Gimme an R! Gimme at T! Gimme an S!) and agreed that the city should double or triple its per-capita funding of the sector.

But stepping back from the specific topic, the contrast in message between incumbent John Tory and presumed number one contender Jennifer Keesmaat was stark.

Keesmaat took every single opportunity, no matter what the topic of the question at hand, to attack Premier Doug Ford and Tory, and to tie the two men together: “you can’t fight conservative cuts with a conservative mayor,” she said. At times she seemed almost too eager to attack, passing up opportunities to discuss her just-released arts and culture platform in order to take another stab at SmartTrack or the rise in rents under Tory’s leadership.

But she certainly drove home her twofold message. Part one of that is that we need to “stand up” forcefully against a premier who has shown he plans to keep pressing his boot on the city’s neck. Part two is that the city needs to do more. “This city can be so much better!” she said at one point.

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Tory, in between frequent references to an art in the parks program and to a Scarborough theatre troupe whose work he saw but that he never named, offered the contrast to Keesmaat’s call to arms that you’d expect from a fairly popular incumbent who grew up politically at the knee of Bill “Bland Works” Davis. At one point, discussing affordable housing proposals, he said we need to have goals that are “adequate but realistic.”

“Adequate but realistic.” It may not quicken the heart or get imaginations soaring, but it is as pithy and honest a summary of Tory’s political approach as I’ve heard him say out loud. Put it on the signs.

As for the bullying of the premier? “You can’t be in a state of war,” he said at one point. The city needs to “maintain those partnerships with other governments.” So when Ford lays a beating on the city — as he has and as he most certainly will—Tory says we should sternly tell him we’re disappointed, then sit down to see how we can work together on other things.

To me, that approach seems likely to be neither adequate nor realistic. Though the bind, given the constitutional firepower the provincial government holds, is that it’s not clear how effective warfare may be, either. In the short term, that’s the precisely the crisis facing Toronto’s leadership: how keep from getting crushed.

In any event, the choice between the two approaches to the city’s ambitions and its relations with the Ford government — which may be the two biggest questions facing the city on every policy decision — is fairly clear.

We have other choices of candidates, of course, and a few of them were even at the debate. Business person Gautam Nath seemed a bit out of his depth and underprepared — though he did offer the most whimsical moment of the debate when he imagined setting up participatory arts installations on street corners where a commuter rushing to work might take two minutes to chisel out a carving before hopping on the bus.

Both of the other candidates, Saron Gebresellassi and Sarah Climenhaga, were solid contributors to the conversation.

Gebresellassi, kicking off her introduction and conclusion in French and positioning herself as both an employer and a labour activist, rightfully returned again and again to inclusion of at-risk youth and priority neighbourhoods — and sold herself as a generational and demographic alternative to the same old cast of “status quo politicians and city bureaucrats.” In a city that is largely working class, she said, with a majority of residents who are racialized or migrants, “I represent that change.”

Climenhaga came across as a reasonable neighbour who knew how and when to gracefully steer the conversation to the most pressing topics — in this case, pointing out repeatedly that artists need to be able to afford to live in the city and, increasingly, they can’t. Her three-point program for the arts — in which each point consisted of the word “investment” — drew appreciative laughs from the sympathetic crowd.

As for the front-runners, I don’t think either of them ran away with the debate. At times Keesmaat looked too eager to attack, and at times Tory seemed too content to brag about very meagre incremental results. But both clearly established their approach — and made clear how they differ from each other. As the campaign kicks into gear, it’s at least clear which tracks the candidates are racing on.

Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire

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