A Look At The Toronto Mayoral Debates’ Arcane Selection Processes

As the first round of Toronto mayoral debates takes place this week, questions arise of how different organizations hosting the debates chose the four or five candidates to participate in their events out of the 35 mayoral candidates registered.

On Monday, ArtsVote hosted a debate including front-runners Mayor John Tory and former city planner Jennifer Keesmaat, as well as human rights lawyer and Black community activist Saron Gebresellassi, former World Wildlife Fund conservationist and transportation research expert and advocate  Sarah Climenhaga, and businessman and award-winning volunteer Gautam Nath.

In Global News’ Tuesday debate the same candidates were invited, excluding Nath, and the same four candidates will appear in TTCriders’ — a grassroots, membership-based transit advocacy organization — Wednesday debate focused on transit (excluding Tory who has dropped out to attend a fundraiser at a golf club).

It would be impractical to include all 33 lesser-known, so-called fringe candidates on the debate stages, and many are non-serious candidates (only Keesmaat and Tory appear to have a real shot at winning) not even attempting to run a real campaign, but how the organizers for these three debates chose Gebresellassi and Climenhaga, as well as Nath in the case of ArtsVote’s Monday debate, while excluding other candidates, is a question that remains largely unanswered.

All public polls thus far have only offered respondents the choices of Keesmaat and Tory, with a couple of polls also including white nationalist and YouTube personality Faith Goldy (more on her being shut out of the debates and her exploits of this development later) and “another candidate” as options. Without any polling including lesser-known candidates, organizers of debates have to make their own judgement call on who to invite.

Gebresellassi, according to columnists from both the Star and Sun, has shone in the past two debates and lifted her profile considerably. Getting on televised debates matters for a candidate in order to get exposure to and legitimacy from the average viewer and voter if they perform well.

Certainly the chosen candidates all have impeccable resumes, yet there are others running with similarly impressive CVs. There’s principal lawyer at Ma’at Legal Services, musician, community activist and past chair of Caribana Knia Singh, who is a regular panelist on Newstalk 1010. Previously mentioned businessman Nath seems to have been cut out of almost all of the debates, too.

Other lesser-known candidates excluded from the debates include: artist D!onne Renee, comedian and voice actor Josh Rachlis, and businessman and founder of obscure provincial party The New People’s Choice Party of Ontario Daryl Christoff. But a line has to be drawn somewhere.

Two of the more recent Toronto mayoral polls conducted by Probit Inc. (Sept. 5) and Mainstreet Research (Sept. 16) included candidate Faith Goldy — a former far-right Rebel Media personality who was fired for doing a warm interview on a neo-Nazi podcast, shortly after giving sympathetic media coverage to the Charlottesville Alt-Right demonstrators — as an option. Both polls also included the option of “another candidate”, but Goldy having her name as an option gave her a huge advantage over other lesser-known candidates. This resulted in Goldy getting 2 per cent and 6 per cent in the two polls, similar numbers to that of “another candidate”, which has led Goldy and her supporters to claim that she has a rightful place on the debate stage.

Both polling companies did not respond to requests for comment about including Goldy’s name in their polls, while choosing to exclude other names included in this week’s debates. Both pollsters were also asked if this decision to include naming Goldy as an alternative to the front-runners, but excluding naming any of the other 32 candidates, would artificially inflate her popularity in comparison with these other candidates not included in their polls.

Today, Mainstreet Research released a new poll’s results, conducted yesterday and today, that included Tory (63.7%, excluding undecided voters), Keesmaat (30.7%), Goldy (1.5%), Sarah Climenhaga (1.3%) and Saron Gebresellassi (1.1%). Goldy’s drop of 4.5% from Mainstreet Research’s last poll suggests she received a significant bump when no other lesser-known candidates were included. It also is looking more and more like a cakewalk for the incumbent.

Nevertheless, up until today, Goldy and her supporters have used the two polls with her name included alongside only Tory and Keesmaat to claim she is entitled to spot on the debate stage.

At the beginning of Monday’s ArtsVote’s debate, Goldy, claiming she wasn’t invited, waltzed on to the stage, disrupting the debate briefly, demanding a spot because of her supposed third-place status and a petition with over 5,000 online signatures (from whomever on the internet decided to sign it, collecting their emails) wanting her in the debate. Some of her supporters live-streamed and chanted “Let Faith debate!”

The stunt, characteristic of her former employer Rebel’s stunt-right tactics, along with her attending Premier Doug Ford’s “Ford Fest” over the weekend, where she waited in line to get a picture with the premier caused enough controversy on Monday that Goldy was trending on Twitter and received coverage from much of the mainstream press, making her one of the top Toronto stories of the day. (Ford clearly knows Goldy from as far back as her time working at Sun News, where she covered Toronto City Hall when Ford was a Toronto Councillor at the beginning of the decade.)

ArtsVote, the organization that organized Monday’s debate, told one journalist Goldy was invited to fill out paperwork and “reminded more than once” that it was a requirement. Eventually a statement was released by organizers saying that all candidates were asked to fill out a pre-requisite form laying out their platform for the arts and that “to the best of their knowledge” Goldy didn’t fill out the form. However, a few other mayoral candidates out of the 35 running also say they were never sent the pre-requisite form to fill out.

“I was not notified of this debate in any way – and not asked to attend as either a candidate to be on the stage or even to observe,” says mayoral candidate Brian Graff, who works in real estate. “What is strange is that in 2014 I ran for council and was sent information about the Mayors debate by ArtsVote (and a councillor survey) – yet nothing this year – I searched my email and spam. Nothing.”

“No, I don’t appear to have received anything regarding TIFF or ArtsVote,” says mayoral candidate and bus driver Kris Langenfeld. “And Chorus gave no explanation why I wasn’t selected by the committee for today’s 640/Global debate. Nowhere to go but up!”

A request to comment on whether or not all candidates were reached out to, and to provide proof Goldy was provided the pre-requisite form (which she disputes), was forwarded to the ArtsVote’s co-chairs by another representative of the organization. The co-chairs didn’t respond before publishing.

It seems likely that ArtsVote didn’t want to invite a white nationalist, who flirts with neo-Nazis and white supremacist ideology, to their debate. If that’s the case, that’s a perfectly justified position; they’re the organizers in charge of the debate and can use their own discretion on who they want to invite and not invite, but at least be frank to the public why you’ve decided to exclude a candidate you deem beyond the pale of what constitutes civil discourse.

Skirting around the issue has led to the Streisand Effect, in which trying to ignore her as a mayoral candidate has ended up giving her far more attention as a supposed free speech martyr than either including her in the debates or expressly excluding her would have likely ever caused. Raving Canuck has received hundreds of visits in the last couple days, spurred on from the mainstream coverage, predominantly from Canadians searching Goldy’s name through search engines. Keesmaat today told the Globe outright she “would never accept a debate proposal that included Faith Goldy or any of the other white nationalists as participants.”

Goldy and her supporters have claimed that Mayor John Tory has blocked her from participating in any of the debates, citing a September 12 press release stating, “The Mayor is ready and willing to debate any candidate who does not have a history of spreading hate speech or bigotry.” Although the mayor’s statement would likely factor into the decisions of organizers of the debates (and it undoubtedly helps the mayor to not have a far-right candidate whose platform rails against his poor record on conservative issues, which could result in her eating some of his right-of-centre voting bloc), it’s likelier these debate organizers would be concerned of the backlash they would face in inviting someone with an infamous reputation like Goldy (there’s a Canadian tradition of blocking firebrand right-wingers from speaking through large protests, e.g. Ann Coulter) or they simply themselves disagree on principle with inviting someone using incendiary and hateful rhetoric such as Goldy to their debates.

Lawyer_Saron_Gebresellassi_takes_Tory,_Keesmaat_to_task_in_first_broadcast_mayoral_debate_The_Star_-_2018-09-25_22.48.35
Star removes Goldy’s name from the Mainstreet Research results.

Late Tuesday afternoon Global News hosted a debate including four candidates. Goldy wasn’t invited and showed up outside the location of the debate with a few dozen supporters to protest the decision and drop off her petition (yet another common tactic of The Rebel) now with 7,000 online signatures. News cameramen ended up filming her protest and a Global news reporter gave her an interview where she got to talk about the trumped up controversy of her being excluded from the debates, like 31 other candidates, without being confronted on her notorious past she refuses to renounce in any way, another win for her campaign in attempting to attract moderate right-wing voters who don’t know her backstory. (In my own initial interview with Goldy I similarly failed to confront her on some of the more odious things she’s said.)

Global’s senior manager of radio and news did not respond to a request for comment on how they chose candidates for its debate.

“Our organizing team decided to invite leading candidates whose transit plans are central to their platforms,” says executive director of TTCriders Shelagh Prizey-Allen. Questions regarding whether or not anyone was excluded for extremist views and how certain lesser-known candidates were chosen over others despite no polls to gauge popular support were not answered before publishing.

“Because of the possible changes to Toronto’s municipal governance structure, The Agenda is waiting until later in October (likely the week of the 15th) to finalize plans [of the TVO mayoral debate],” wrote TVO producer Cara Stern. “October 10, 2014, we invited the three leading candidates, Olivia Chow, John Tory and Doug Ford. As the leading candidates, all three were polling at over 20%.”

“We’re still formalizing our plans. The format may change this year. Details to follow when confirmed,” Stern said of this year’s debate.

The Toronto election isn’t until October 22. Goldy has told me her campaign has paid $15,000 to send a million robocalls of a recording of her to Torontonians (although I only found several mentions thus far on Twitter, despite Goldy claiming 30,000 calls are going out daily) and claims to have bought ads planned to be released on Friday. Goldy and her campaign team continue to campaign throughout the city, presenting a softer image, hiding Goldy’s more extreme positions. Many Torontonians — prospective voters — will only see the true side of Goldy if the media further scrutinize her and her campaign, which finally seems to be happening (e.g. The Globe and Vice) now that she’s made it virtually impossible to ignore.

The best disinfectant to bad ideas is sunlight. Letting Goldy onto the debate stage would allow seasoned public speakers and experts in their fields such as Tory, Keesmaat and debate moderators to challenge Goldy on rudimentary knowledge on municipal affairs and the odious things she’s said (like calling for NATO troops to commit war crimes by shooting grenades at migrant and refugee ships entering European harbours).

Canadians are generally reasonable people and can make up their own minds who deserves their vote. Either that, or organizers of these debates should explicitly tell the public why they are not including Goldy (and other candidates). Otherwise casual observers will be given the impression that organizers and candidates fear Goldy being in the debates and see her as a legitimate threat, which Goldy can then exploit to maximize controversy over her supposed censorship, causing the Streisand Effect that follows with nontransparent decision-making by debate organizers.

Facebook Post
A Facebook response — advocating for Goldy’s incendiary ideas to be heard, not to be feared or censored — to freelance journalist Justin Ling’s August Walrus piece on the possible problems arising from Goldy’s mayoral candidacy.

On November 2, American Conservative politico David Frum will faceoff against former executive chairman of far-right news site Breitbart and White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon in Toronto for the Munk Debates. They will argue whether or not “the future of western politics is populist not liberal.” The Toronto mayoral election on October 22 is a litmus test of how true that resolution is in Canada’s largest and most diverse city.

One thought on “A Look At The Toronto Mayoral Debates’ Arcane Selection Processes

  1. It’s a dilemma for sure. Two facts contribute to those you’ve identified in making it difficult to figure out how to handle Goldy’s candidacy.

    The first is that Goldy is a presentable, superficially coherent young woman. This defies popular expectations that a white supremacist is by definition a 50 year old ex-con with a shaved head covered in prison tattoos of Swastikas: she passes for “normal”. One also suspects that if it had been, say, a large black man who stormed the stage at the first debate, he would have been treated rather differently than the polite escort she was given off stage.

    The second is that Goldy entered the campaign with a large following on social media. Most of these people (including some of her most active online supporters) aren’t from Toronto, or from Ontario, or even from Canada, but unless one digs into their accounts this isn’t usually obvious. This gave her the impression of a groundswell where none existed: any tweet she sent out was immediately liked and retweeted several thousand times, dwarfing the impact of all her rivals’ social media efforts combined. The obvious thing for a media outlet to have done here would have been to have paid for a detailed demographic breakdown of, say, her Twitter followers. Documenting that in all probability only 5000 or so of her 100K followers were from Toronto would have gone a long way toward bursting her claims to importance.

    A related point from this is that Goldy has clearly benefited from something not foreseen by Elections Ontario’s funding rules: massive financial support from people who do not live in Toronto. This is a function of social media: bored/frustrated/angry men online are giving money to the attractive racist lady. Elections Ontario needs to think a lot harder about how to deal with this fairly. There is no good reason why money should be coming in for a Toronto election from Hamilton, or Ottawa, or Thunder Bay (as the rules currently permit), let alone from the US, UK, Germany or Australia (as the rules currently don’t quite prevent from happening). Throw in twists like her online shop being run by a third party organization (the racist ID-Canada) and selling T-shirts (are the payments for these donations? how will this be audited?) and you have a real mess.

    On how the debate should have been handled: it’s a bit of a toss-up. While I like the “sunshine” argument, the unfair advantages of her large social media following would distort the assessment of her performance no matter what she said during a debate.

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