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Toronto can't lose with Olivia Chow -- or the class act poised to take her place

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Image: instagram/oliviachow

Finally, in Olivia Chow, Toronto has an opportunity to elect the kind of mayor the city so desperately needs, while downtown Toronto has the opportunity to elect a new Member of Parliament worthy of Ms. Chow.

At the same time, a by-election must be held to replace Ms. Chow, and many New Democrats believe they have just the man for the job -- Joseph Cressy, a rising star on the Toronto political scene.

First, to the mayoralty race, whose outcome only the rash would try to predict. It still seems impossible, after all, that Rob Ford was ever elected mayor of Toronto. It seems even more impossible that Rob Ford could be re-elected mayor of Toronto. Yet despite everything, the man commands almost a third of the vote, quite enough in a multi-candidate election to slip in. Of course how pre-campaign polls translate into actual voting behaviour is any pundit's uninformed guess. The mind boggles, but it's not impossible.

Still, Ms. Chow is a formidable candidate. She's an altogether appealing figure. She's comfortable in her own skin and makes others feel comfortable in turn. How many other New Democrats could have earned so many influential supporters from other parties? She's smart and tireless, cheerful and easy-going, a serious and knowledgeable public policy wonk, idealistic yet realistic, combining deep compassion with a readiness to work with others to get things done. She's spent her entire career fighting to make life better for those who grew up with as few privileges as she did herself. She's a splendid reflection of the new Toronto, and her many admirers would go to the barricades for her. As they'd better do in the interminable eight months to come.

After Toronto's bizarro world of the last four years, she seems to me exactly the antidote the city so badly needs. In a previous mayoralty campaign, I publicly urged John Tory to run. But I fear his best political days are now past. The race is between Ms. Chow and Mr. Ford, and it's going to be tight and it's going to be dirty. I just hope the Chow campaign doesn't get down in the gutter with some of her opponents.

As for Joe Cressy, his time has arrived, and his many admirers are pressing him to go for it. Whenever it's called, and with the downtown Toronto Liberals in bitter public disarray, the by-election to replace Ms. Chow is his perfect opportunity. There's vague talk he could be challenged if he runs for the nomination, but that seems implausible. No one knows the riding better, no one's been closer to Olivia Chow, and no one has a brighter future in Canadian public life.

Even as a youngster Joe Cressy was an unusually admirable figure. This is a young man who chose to spend a year of high school far from home, in Nelson Mandela's South Africa, where he lived with both black and white families. He spent an undergraduate year at the University of Ghana -- the only non-African in the entire university -- where he dared to promote gay and lesbian rights and during breaks rode a moped around West Africa so he could experience first-hand the Africa that tourists and diplomats never see.

On school breaks he worked on First Nation literacy programs in northern Canada. After graduation he returned to South Africa to work for a human rights NGO for another year. In Toronto he's been a tireless volunteer for good causes. And wherever he's been, he's been a bold political activist for progressive causes. This is not your run-of-the-mill resume. But it's the real Joe Cressy.

If he goes for the nomination, Mr. Cressy will have to quit his senior position at the Stephen Lewis Foundation, where he has worked to support women's HIV/AIDS groups in Africa. As Mr. Cressy's entire life has demonstrated, he cares passionately about those the world leaves behind. That focus is what Canada needs so urgently today, as inequality soars and the political world is in thrall to some mysterious entity called the hardworkingmiddleclass.

Like Chow, Mr. Cressy also understands what a city really is and what it needs to fulfill its potential in our lives. With Ms. Chow running Toronto as it should be run and Mr. Cressy adding his voice in Ottawa, maybe metropolitan Canada will come closer to reaching its true potential.

Throughout her long career, Olivia Chow has demonstrated that politics can be an honourable calling, a proposition that seems almost laughable in our age of political buffoonery in Toronto and mean-spiritedness in Ottawa. Throughout his shorter but jam-packed career, distinguished by fascinating experiences and an unswerving commitment to social justice, Joe Cressy has demonstrated that idealism and principle are not dead among younger Canadians. I can't imagine anyone better to build on Olivia Chow's distinguished contribution to Canadian public life.

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.

Image: instagram/oliviachow

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