Jane Farrow is a natural public speaker. In front of a crowd of about 50 at Edward Levesque’s Kitchen on Queen Street East, she is celebrating her announced campaign for city council. “I think we can do better,” she says to a cheering audience.
That was her first speech as a politician. “It felt like I was in a movie,” she tells Xtra a few weeks later, in a park just down the street from her Leslieville rowhouse. Inside, a small campaign team is working away, not in her pink office plastered with maps of Ward 30 and campaign materials, but in the backyard.
“It’s not about what I want to see; it’s what the community wants,” she says, a statement that seems to sum up her campaign philosophy. She talks mostly of what the people want, mentioning how Leslieville has become home to people who want to bike to work in safe bike lanes, who care about how their neighbourhood is being developed and who are frustrated with an overburdened transit system.
These issues are what Farrow is focusing her campaign on in one of the toughest ward races in the city: Ward 30, where Councillor Paula Fletcher has held sway for 11 years, despite coming close to being unseated by journalist Liz West in 2010. Both Fletcher and West are back in the race this year, but with Farrow entering the fray, there is now another high-profile candidate for voters to choose from.
For her part, Farrow hopes that her history as a community builder will help her win. Once a CBC radio host, she originally lived in the west end of the city and slowly made her way east, working with at least one residents’ association and several community groups along the way. She spent some time as Mary-Margaret McMahon’s executive assistant and worked on bringing together the coalitions that would fight back against proposed cuts to several city services. However, she left McMahon’s office in 2012 to work at the Stephen Lewis Foundation.
Openly gay for many years, Farrow deeply values the diversity and inclusiveness of Ward 30. She’s experienced it firsthand now that she is canvassing door-to-door — a marked difference from some of the uglier incidents that have marred this election cycle. “I think that people personally at the door are incredibly receptive and incredibly embracing of diversity,” she says.
It is clear that her community-building experience informs her campaign strategy. The founding executive director of Jane’s Walk, Farrow has been leading community walks all summer, whether they be in search of urban food with the Toronto Star or great examples of urban planning with locals.
Farrow says it wasn’t necessarily dissatisfaction with Fletcher that made her want to run; she praises some of the incumbent councillor’s work. Farrow believes that she is the only progressive option for Ward 30, but she couches that by noting only the voters can decide which candidate represents the most progressive option.
Fletcher, for her part, welcomes the challenge. She has never had any plans to quit. “Why not run again in this ward?” she says. “We are creating a tremendous community here.” Fletcher believes her record from her last four years in council is impressive, including being one of the councillors who helped take back the Transit City project, putting in place a six-storey limit for new buildings along a stretch of Queen Street East and helping ensure that the Red Door Women’s Shelter would remain within the ward.
While both Farrow and West avoid criticizing Fletcher directly, reading between the lines of their campaign platforms reveals why they may think they can do a better job. During her interview with Xtra, Farrow points out that a Shoppers Drug Mart built at Queen Street and Carlaw Avenue could have been built as a six-storey building with housing above. “We technically defeated the big-box movement down on the lakeshore, but we’re basically building the medium-size box on Queen,” she says.
West, who lost by a mere 259 votes in 2010, says that people in her ward are fed up with the inaction on council over the last four years, later adding that partisan politics have “all but” destroyed municipal politics. “I am non-partisan,” she says. Several weeks after Xtra’s interview she endorsed John Tory for mayor because of his non-partisan position, according to her website. Fletcher has endorsed Olivia Chow. Farrow has not made any public endorsements at press time but did tell Xtra that she sees merits in both Chow’s and Tory’s transit proposals.
Though a mid-September poll placed her third in the race, Farrow says the close result in the 2010 election gives her hope that she could break into the field. “People in this neighbourhood really want change, but they want progressive change, someone with a track record,” she says. She’s hoping voters respond to hers.