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What tone will Olivia Chow set at city hall? Experts contrast vision of hope with Toronto’s problems

Olivia Chow officially became Toronto’s 66th mayor Wednesday and experts say she’ll be setting a new tone at city hall.

Chow won the June 26 mayoral byelection and has spent the last few weeks in briefings, meetings and events as mayor-elect. During a speech just moments after being invested with the Chains of Office, Chow struck a tone of optimism while acknowledging there are serious challenges to be addressed.

“Today we commit ourselves to the hard work ahead,” she said. “Together, our city can find its feet again, find our swagger, give ourselves the permission to believe that together we can move the needle of progress for the people of Toronto.”

Chow to strike tone of hope, experts say

Toronto Metropolitan University politics professor Myer Siemiatycki said he expected Chow to acknowledge those difficult issues but also give people a reason for hope.

“I don’t think she will want to either send a doom and gloom or a defeatist signal,” he said. “I think she’ll say it’s time to roll up our sleeves and all work together.”

WATCH | CBC Toronto went for a bike ride with Chow to get a sense of her leadership style:

what tone will olivia chow set at city hall experts contrast vision of hope with torontos problems

Toronto’s next mayor is a cyclist, so we did a Q&A on 2 wheels

2 days ago

Duration 4:06

When did Olivia Chow know she’d won? Is she afraid she’ll fail? What does she need from citizens to succeed? CBC Toronto’s Haydn Watters saddled up for an informal interview ahead of Chow’s official swearing-in Wednesday.

Siemiatycki said the occasion gave Chow a chance to make an agenda-setting address in the style normally given at Queen’s Park or on Parliament Hill.

“It’s the equivalent of the speech from the throne that we are familiar with at the federal and provincial level,” he said of her swearing-in. “She will do a roll-call, naming the challenges and issues, as a way of signaling to Torontonians that she got the message from the public.”

Strategist and consultant Kim Wright said the ceremony gave Chow a chance to visibly “reset” the council term. It’s a rare opportunity and will mark a significant change in direction, she said.

“She can reset council, reset those priorities, and showcase that whatever one thought of ‘campaign Olivia Chow’, ‘governing Olivia Chow’ is a very different conversation,” she said.

Wright said part of Chow’s job will be to reassure Torontonians that she can begin to fix the many problems the city faces.

“All of those very fundamental fears and anxieties Torontonians are feeling about the future of our city really have to be looked at in a very different lens than they have been for the last decade,” she said.

Committee shakeup likely

Chow will likely appoint new chairs for key committees in the coming weeks and also elevate her allies into important roles. After the ceremony Wednesday, Chow told reporters she’s been meeting with every councillor to discuss their priorities. 

She said she’ll make a decision about committee assignments and key roles in August, but could not provide an exact date. 

Chow said she’s also talking with city staff about committee structure, hinting there could be changes coming to the mandate of the working groups themselves.

“We’ll look at all of that and collectively decide where we’re at later in the summer,” she said.

Former city councillor Joe Mihevc said the city might also start to get a sense Wednesday of where the fault lines lie for the new mayor when it comes to her allies on council. 

To pass her agenda with 13 votes required, she’ll need to build a coalition. In reality, Mihevc said Chow will need around 16 councillors who she can regularly depend on to help her and ensure she has a healthy margin of support.

The new mayor’s staff have already been busy meeting with councillors and trying to find common ground, he said.

“She has to find sweet spots, she has to negotiate — she has to also define who her enemies are,” he said. “Who will be the minority of councillors that will be on the outside almost always?”

Mihevc said he thinks Chow will enjoy a bit of a honeymoon with voters and they’ll recognize that some problems will take time to address. Some issues, like the city’s financial challenges, have been around for years, he said.

“I think she gets lots of support and benefits of the doubt for at least a year,” he said. “I think it’s been the history of the city of Toronto, certainly since amalgamation, that you might even get the full first term.”

Siemiatycki said he thinks Chow will need some policy wins in her first few months to help ease her transition into the job. Otherwise, it could be a short honeymoon with voters, he said.

“I think she needs to have some quick deliverables,” he said. “They don’t have to be big-ticket items.”

Wright said as a new mayor, Chow will need the “space and grace” to make different choices and mistakes. 

“Really, she’s got a council that is already six months ahead of her on some of these decision making,” she said. “So she’s going to be playing catch up.”

Chow acknowledged that she’s ready to get to work, and has been working, since the day she was elected. She wrapped her remarks Wednesday with a call to action. 

“So to the public service, business and labour, civil society, community leaders and the people of our great city, I invite you to join us,” she said. “Let’s build a Toronto that is more affordable, safe and caring. Where everyone belongs”.

“Together we can. And today we start.”

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