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Top 5 candidates duke it out in first televised mayoral debate

The top five candidates clashed on the biggest issues facing the city in the first televised debate of the 2014 mayoral election.

Rob Ford may currently command the coveted seat at city hall, but he was expected to be in the hot seat when the debate got underway in the CityNews studio on Wednesday.

The ‘hot seat’ turned out to be lukewarm when his rivals chose to focus on his politics, rather than his personal issues, giving the mayor a pass despite the heavy artillery at their disposal.

Ford is currently at the epicenter of an ongoing police investigation and has admitted to smoking cocaine, but it was subway tracks, not crack, that dominated much of the early debate.

Transit was the first topic of discussion and the two first scheduled speakers, Dave Soknacki and Olivia Chow, didn’t waste any time accusing Ford of orchestrating an epic waste of taxpayers’ money with his three-stop Scarborough subway extension.

Both Chow and Soknacki said if elected they would look to overturn the Scarborough subway and revert back to the original LRT plan, which was fully funded before being scrapped by council.

Chow and Soknacki accused Ford of playing politics with the issue of transit – at the expense of the taxpayers he claims to fight for.

Soknacki said the extra billion-dollar price tag for the Scarborough subway translates into the “biggest tax increase in the city’s history.” Chow said Ford was “wasting an enormous sum of money just so he can say ‘subways, subways, subways.’ “

Karen Stintz and John Tory both said they would stick with the subway plan and focus on creating a downtown relief line instead of rehashing a tired transit debate that’s paralyzed progress.

“We have had this fight, now we need to focus on the fix (for congestion),” Stintz said.

“We don’t need to open new debates. We need to build,” Tory added.

The open debate period on transit quickly degraded into a shouting match. Tory said it was the perfect example of what would happen if the subway debate was reopened – more bickering, at the expense of action.

Ford, who often borrows the rhetoric of prizefighters when discussing political battles, came out punching after spending the early moments of the debate on the ropes.

“Four years ago I was elected to stop the gravy; I have stopped the gravy train, saved a billion dollars,” he said, repeating his familiar mantra.

“I have a proven track record of success.  There’s no competition…This is a no-brainer we cannot support LRTs. LRTs cause congestion.”

Ford continued to tout his own accomplishments as first speaker on the issue of finance.

“Four years ago people said they are sick and tired of being taxed to death,” he said, adding that he eliminated the vehicle registration tax, reduced councillors’ budgets, contracted out garbage and found $800 million in efficiencies over four years.

Soknacki countered, saying Ford’s subway plan “disrespects taxpayers” and chided him for failing to eliminate the municipal land transfer tax.

Stintz vowed to keep taxes low and “bring some kitchen table common sense to budgeting. It’s not just cut, cut, cut, or spend, spend, spend,” she said.

Tory said “it starts with keeping property tax to the rate of inflation or below,” and vowed to “cut the waste that’s left at city hall.”

Chow drew on her experience as an immigrant from Hong Kong, saying she learned the value of a dollar watching her parents adjust to a new, challenging world.

Ford stood quietly, listening to the various pitches, before adding, “Everybody can talk about saving money.  I have done it.”

As the debate progressed, Chow seemed to emerge as the candidate most willing to take Ford to task for the slew of headlines she believes have scandalized our city.

“It’s time to take down the circus tent at city hall,” she said. “Rob Ford has made Toronto a national embarrassment. It’s time to return to our best traditions, like putting children and families at the heart of the city.”

Tory also added: “You (Ford) have let the citizens of this city down.”

Chow and Tory may have alluded to Ford’s issues, but it took CityNews political specialist Cynthia Mulligan to utter the “C” word – crack.

Mulligan asked Ford how he could be trusted after admitting to smoking crack cocaine and being investigated by police in relation to the video that allegedly shows him smoking the drug.

“People have heard the story. It’s rewind, rewind, rewind,” he responded.

“People can go to sleep at night knowing that their tax money is being watched. I have a proven track record of success watching peoples’ money.”

680News political specialist John Stall awarded Ford the ‘first star’ of the debate, saying he “performed above expectations.”

“I’m not saying he’s going to win the election,” Stall said. “I’m just saying tonight’s debate goes to Rob Ford for the way he handled it in terms of body language and defending and deflecting against pretty much a weak offense on their (his opponents) side.”

Even late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, who hosted Ford on his show recently, seemed impressed with his performance.