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Councillor for life: Toronto’s incumbency problem

Four years ago, Jon Burnside came up just short in his bid to defeat long-time incumbent councillor John Parker in the Toronto municipal election. Burnside lost the 2010 race for Ward 26-Don Valley West by just 400 votes.

This fall, Burnside got his revenge. He surged past Parker Oct. 27, and became the only challenger to beat an incumbent councillor in the election.

Burnside credits his victory to his campaign team, his 30 years of community activism and to voters’ desire for a councillor with a more hands-on approach.

“It’s always good to get new energy, new ideas, ” Burnside said in a telephone interview after the election. “Someone that hasn’t gotten comfortable and potentially bogged down in the system.”

While voters in the centre of Toronto may have been looking for a fresh voice and new ideas, the evidence says otherwise for the majority of Torontonians who vote.

Overall, in 2014, 36 of the city’s 37 incumbent councillors are heading back to city hall for another four-year term.

Election results analyzed by the Toronto Observer show that over the last four municipal elections this high re-election rate is no anomaly. Of the 143 races involving incumbents since 2003, only 11 challengers have been elected – a turnover rate of only 7.7 per cent. This doesn’t include the 33 sitting councillors who retired, or decided not to run again. Statistics show that Toronto city councillors are 11 per cent more likely to retire from office than they are to be voted out of it.

Although he declined to point fingers at specific councillors, Coun. Josh Matlow, who himself was re-elected this time, was quick to acknowledge that councillors are not always rewarded on merit.

There were certainly many incumbents who worked hard and earned their election victory. There were others who relied on name recognition alone. Coun. Josh Matlow

Some observers pointed to the record turnout in this election – 60 per cent of the 1.62 million eligible voters, and wonder why Torontonians seem to be happy sending the same politicians back to work in election after election. Some councillors have been at city hall since amalgamation in 1997.

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, says current campaign financing rules have a lot to do with incumbency win rates.

“[Councillors] shouldn’t be able to carry over their war chests from the previous campaign,” he said. “It gives them a huge advantage.”

Conacher believes that every candidate’s campaign should start from zero and feels campaign donations should be limited to a couple hundred dollars. The donation limit currently stands at $750 per person. Conacher said a lower limit would be within reach of everyday people and could eliminate the advantage for candidates who are independently wealthy.

Along with the 36 returning councillors, there are now seven first-timers, plus one familiar face: former mayor Rob Ford, who returned to his position in Ward 2 after a turbulent reign, but who was too ill with cancer to campaign with his usual gusto.

For many incumbent councillors, re-election was not in doubt. Many councillors received more votes than all their rivals running in their respective wards. Overall, in the most recent election campaign, the 37 incumbents got roughly the same total number of votes as the 320 non-incumbents combined.

Matlow’s win in Ward 22-St. Paul’s topped the list of most lopsided victories. He won with more than 85 per cent of the total vote.

Ford’s win in Ward 2 was decisive. After his brother Doug, who was the incumbent, put his hat in the ring as mayor, Rob Ford won by 48 per cent.

Alternatively, the 15 closest ridings were decided by a margin of 22 per cent or less. Four of those 15 races saw a newcomer elected, while another four were decided by less than 500 votes.

Jane Hilderman, acting director and research manager at Samara, a Toronto based democracy think tank, acknowledged that non-incumbents can have difficultly building support, but said that the problem might be voters themselves.

“You don’t have [political] parties as cues in Toronto,” she said. “People are more likely to look for another sort of thing that they’re familiar with – a shortcut – and that is often a name that they recognize.”

Hilderman described how sitting councillors have track records in the community, and spend large amounts of time with their constituents while on the job. These are all factors that she said contribute to re-election.

While some critics have called for limits to be placed on how many times a politician can hold office, Conacher wants to see how changes to campaign finance rules would change things.

“Term limits are a blunt tool that can have the unintended consequences of kicking someone out who is very popular and is a really good councillor,” he said.

Similarly, Nelson Wiseman, director of the Canadian Studies program at the University of Toronto, said that while voters often support a candidate they recognize, veterans on council are often invaluable as well.

“The longer you’ve been on the job, the more likely you know the job and the issues,” he said. “I think it has to do with who the councillor is. If it’s a rotten councillor then I think [being there a long time] is a downside. If it’s an excellent councillor, I think that’s probably OK.”

In future elections, challengers may be advised to take a page from Jon Burnside. His years of community involvement and his desire to continue in politics after losing the 2010 election have finally secured him a place on council—something that none of this year’s other challengers can claim.