The best way to fix city council’s diversity problem? More money.

The best way to fix city council's diversity problem? More money.
(Image: Jack Martin/Flickr)

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve had brief conversations with black candidates who, like me, ran in the last election. We’re a small group, but we tend to travel in the same circles and end up in the same places. One of those candidates was Ken Jeffers, a retired city employee and civil rights activist who ran in Ward 42. Far from a newcomer like myself, Jeffers has been in the thick of civic engagement and activism for over 40 years. He’s one of those names (along with Charles Roach and Dudley Laws) that were synonymous with 1980s-era black leadership in Toronto. I asked him whether he was encouraged by the depth of black candidates in this past election, including fresh faces like Idil Burale, Keegan Henry-Mathieu, Lekan Olawoye, and, well, me. Did we actually make some progress this time around?

The answer was written on his hunched shoulders and his exhausted face: “No,” he said, eventually. “We didn’t.” And he has a point: city council is just as white today as it was in 2010.

Jeffers, like every other black candidate I’ve spoken to, was disappointed by the inability of Toronto’s black communities to organize and get good people elected. Go to any gathering of black Torontonians, and you’ll hear the same refrain: “If only we invested in our own communities.” This train of thought falls into the familiar trap of tracing black problems to black pathology. Where it comes to the municipal election, it’s not some unwillingness on the part of black people that’s the problem. It’s our campaign finance laws.

Our election legislation is designed to promote accountability and fairness, but it also has a way of stifling collective action. Ontario law forbids council candidates from accepting individual donations of more than $750. City bylaws place restrictions on the sources of that money: donations can’t come from corporations, they can’t come from unions, and they certainly can’t come from community groups. Also, contributions can’t be accepted outside of the campaign season.

When Canada’s wave of immigrant Caribbeans arrived in the seventies, they looked out for one another as a matter of necessity. Without the benefit of white skin and established social connections, it would have been impossible for them to survive without pulling together in times of need. One of their survival methods involved putting money together in a communal pot, called “partner money,” a portion of which would be paid out to one of the members each month. Each member was also expected to pitch in for emergencies. If one member fell short on rent, for example, the partners would organize a miniature fundraiser to help cover the cost. Each partner knew that when his or her day came, the collective action of their community would keep them afloat. Community organizing was all we knew.

Toronto’s campaign finance restrictions make practicing this type of collective action during city elections almost impossible. The cost of running a smooth campaign can easily top $20,000. Without the ability to build a war chest outside of the campaign season, and with no way to collect money from community groups, each council candidate is forced to spend a few frantic months chasing down donors and offering quiet nighttime prayers that their run for office doesn’t leave them broke. And so it’s not just Toronto’s sometimes-ugly racial atmosphere keeping black candidates—and candidates from other historically marginalized groups—out of the political game. It’s also the personal financial risk.

I was very, very lucky that my run for office didn’t annihilate my savings. Every other candidate I’ve spoken with about campaign finance says they’ve had to spend at least $4500 of their own money. Early in the campaign season, before I’d even raised my first thousand dollars in donations, I spoke with a candidate for school board trustee. He told me that his last run came at a personal cost of over $15,000. For a trustee’s seat. In that moment, I considered withdrawing from the race.

Political action committees (or, PACs) have earned plenty of scorn in the U.S., where they’ve become a conduit between corporations and money-hungry political parties. I’ll admit that third-party donations make me nervous, but I see ways they could make Toronto’s municipal elections more equitable.

Third-party organizations like the Black Business and Professional Association, the Urban Financial Services Coalition and the Association of Black Law Enforcers disburse tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships and grants each year. Yet for all of the work they’ve put into incubating black leadership among Toronto’s youth, they’re effectively barred from investing in municipal candidates. If the law allowed these groups to act more like PACs, they’d be able to use their financial resources to back qualified black candidates. Young hopefuls without wealthy friends would finally be able to compete with council’s incumbents. In time, council could start to resemble the city it represents. Ontario’s provincial election laws do allow for corporate and union donations, and the provincial legislature is relatively diverse—so at least we can say third-party donations don’t seem to hurt diversity.

When we talk about PACs and third-party donations, it’s easy to visualize the corporate spending orgy that has claimed democracy in the U.S.—but there has to be a compromise between the current U.S. model, which benefits the white and well-connected, and Toronto’s system, which also benefits the white and well-connected. Perhaps this means limiting third-party donations to groups that can prove they represent a particular community. Perhaps it means raising the portcullis to allow corporate and union donations, but with strict spending limits of their own.

Whatever the solution, the absence of third-party donations is hurting the diversity of city council. Potential candidates with drive, great ideas and community support have no good reason to add their names to the ballot if they don’t have friends with loose wallets. Next time around, we need to make some progress at building a city council that reflects Toronto’s diversity. Without election laws that let communities invest in themselves, that’s going to be difficult to achieve.


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