Progressive voters in University-Rosedale are being treated to “an embarrassment of riches” this municipal election, says Rory Gus Sinclair.

The community activist and past chair of the Harbord Village Resident Association should know. He’s been organizing candidate debates in the downtown neighbourhood for years, and says this year’s contest in Ward 11 will be one to watch.

University-Rosedale is one of seven wards in which incumbents aren’t running for re-election this year. While there is a clear favourite in some of the other open races, the vacancy left in Ward 11 by outgoing progressive council heavyweight Mike Layton has attracted three high-profile left-leaning candidates hoping to take his place. The resulting electoral battle is shaping up to be one of the most competitive contests in the Oct. 24 vote.

“There are some seriously good candidates in there,” said Sinclair. “It’s exciting in the sense that we’re going to get a new face, no matter what.”

In one corner is Dianne Saxe, the former provincial environmental commissioner who’s taking leave from her role as deputy leader of the Green Party of Ontario to run for council. She’s pitted against Norm Di Pasquale, Toronto Catholic District School Board Trustree for Ward 9 (Toronto), and Robin Buxton Potts, current interim councillor for neighbouring Ward 13 (Toronto Centre).

All three cite similar issues when asked about residents’ biggest concerns — housing unaffordability, development pressures and climate change — and each claim they’re uniquely qualified to take on those problems.

“I think the biggest thing that separates me is my direct experience at city hall,” said Buxton Potts, 34, who was former Ward 13 city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam’s chief of staff, and before that worked in the council offices of Adam Vaughan, Ceta Ramkhalawansingh and Joe Cressy

Saxe, 69, who ran for the Greens in University-Rosedale in June’s provincial election and placed fourth, says her 46-year career “working for the public interest” in government, business and law will enable her to deliver for residents.

She also touts her “long personal relationship” with Mayor John Tory, whose daughter is married to the son of family friends. Under the strong-mayor system that will go into effect in the coming council term “it’s going to be increasingly important to work well with the mayor, and I can do it better than they can,” she said of her opponents.

Di Pasquale argues that as a school trustee he’s the only candidate who’s already served as an elected representative for University-Rosedale. “I know what it’s like to be the face of moving policy and then having to have it stand up in the public,” he said.

The 44-year-old, who previously helped lead a grassroots campaign to keep jets out of the island airport, also has the support of Toronto’s progressive establishment, including local NDP MPP Jessica Bell, political advocacy group Progress Toronto, and Layton himself.

“Norm leads with his progressive values and has the energy and knowledge needed to advance stronger progressive policies across a range of issues,” said Layton in a statement Thursday.

There are indications Di Pasquale could use the help. An early Forum Research poll conducted Sept. 14, before Layton announced his endorsement, suggests Di Pasquale is trailing in fourth place, behind Saxe, Buxton Potts and lesser-known candidate Axel Arivu.

Neither Di Pasquale, Saxe nor Buxton Potts lives in Ward 11, but all say they have roots in the community and have a home near by.

Buxton Potts has faced criticism from the moment she entered the race. That’s because in June when council appointed her to temporarily take over Wong-Tam’s seat after the latter stepped down, she promised she had no intention of running in the municipal election.

She said she changed her mind when Layton announced his intention to step down because, with the departures of Wong-Tam as well as Cressy, the former Spadina—Fort York councillor, it meant Toronto’s three downtown wards would be left without an experienced representative.

Buxton Potts was recently photographed at a fundraiser for Tory, but said she has not asked for the mayor’s endorsement and would only accept it if she secured concessions to benefit the ward’s residents.

It initially looked as though the trio of prominent left-wing candidates risked splitting the progressive vote in Ward 11, allowing a more centrist challenger to take the seat. But although broadcaster Ann Rohmer entered the race and was considered to have a strong chance of securing Tory’s endorsement, she ended her campaign just nine days after registering.

Although the remaining leading candidates are broadly in sync with the downtown progressives who make up much of University-Rosedale, Layton says the winning council candidate will need more than left-wing bona fides to do the job.

The ward is a hot spot for pressures related to Toronto’s housing crunch, including rising rent and home prices, visible homelessness, and large-scale development. It also has a lot of residents with strong opinions about those issues.

Whoever is elected will need the skills to “personally engage with the community” and come up with “collaborative” solutions residents can live with, Layton says.

Sinclair agrees, and says the workload for the local councillor has only grown since the province doubled the size of Toronto’s wards in 2018.

“I think it’s a really hard, hard frigging job,” he said.

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr