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Toronto mayoral election: Everything you need to know about the 6 frontrunners

Toronto mayoral election: Everything you need to know about the 6 frontrunners

With 102 registered candidates, more than 10 debates featuring the apparent front-runners and around-the-clock news coverage, Toronto’s mayoral election has clearly offered plenty to follow.

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Less clear is whether voters have been paying attention.Concerns about voter apathy have come into sharp focus after only 29.7 per cent of the city’s 1.9 million registered voters cast ballots in the last municipal election.

There was little suspense in that October 2022 mayoral race, with incumbent John Tory ultimately delivering on widespread predictions that he would trounce the field.

Tory’s resignation in February after admitting to an affair with a staffer triggered a wide open race, which some experts speculated may help generate interest.

But Lydia Miljan, a political science professor at the University of Windsor, isn’t convinced Torontonians will flock to the polls.

“I think there is just fatigue out there for politics in general and for this election in particular, given that we just had a municipal race not even a year ago,” she said.

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“I am not surprised that people are not engaged in this campaign,” she added, noting that municipal politics typically generate less interest than provincial or federal votes.

Miljan suggested that the record number of candidates may end up suppressing voter engagement.

“I think what people end up doing is they become so overwhelmed, and I would imagine this might be the case that if you really wanted to be informed in this election, you would have to do a lot of work on your own,” she said.

It does require a lot of effort.”

If you’re planning to vote in Toronto’s mayoral election, here’s what you need to know about the frontrunners.

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Toronto mayoral candidate Olivia Chow takes part in a debate in Scarborough, Ont. on Wednesday, May 24, 2023. Photo by CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Olivia Chow

Before the last high-profile debate of Toronto’s mayoral byelection campaign, Olivia Chow was prepared for attacks from the other candidates on stage. She was leading the polls, and in the crosshairs of her political rivals.

What she was not prepared for was the large heart-shaped red card her campaign staff gifted to her the day of the debate. Her team’s signatures encircled a reminder to “be the heart,” to stay true to herself.

It’s a message that eluded Chow at times during her unsuccessful 2014 campaign for mayor, when she fell from an early front-runner position to a distant third. Her speeches at the time, she said, were often written by someone else. Her team included political operatives who shared a desire to win, but not necessarily her values. She questioned her English and herself.

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“I never thought that I would run again,” she said in an interview.

As she returns to the political limelight, the biggest difference between her campaigns, now and then, is the trust in her own political vision, she said.

“I feel very much myself. I have a wonderful team that are very supportive. We work as a team, we strategize together,” she said.

Chow has long been a standard-bearer of Toronto’s progressive left, rising from school board trustee in 1985, through to a 12-year stint on city council and eventually landing as a New Democrat parliamentarian in the House of Commons alongside her late husband and former federal NDP leader Jack Layton.

The 66-year-old supported an anti-homophobia curriculum in the 1980s, helped bring nutrition programs to Toronto schools in the ’90s, and fought back against exploitative immigration consultants in the 2000s. For much of the last decade, she founded and ran an organization to train community organizers.

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Her campaign is headlined by a pledge to get the city back into social housing development and an annual $100-million investment in a program to purchase affordable homes and transfer them to non-profits and land trusts, part of a larger pledge to crack down on so-called renovictions.

She wants to expand rent supplements to 1,000 homes and boost the number of 24-7 respite homeless shelters, promises funded by an expanded land transfer tax on homes purchased for $3 million and above.

Her critics argue there are candidates better positioned to take on the city’s challenges.

Chow has not delivered a fully costed platform and will not say how high she would raise property taxes, though she says any increase would be modest. Her campaign has faced questions about whether she is well-placed to negotiate financial support for Toronto’s nearly $1-billion budget shortfall, especially with a premier openly hostile to her campaign.

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“If Olivia Chow gets in, it’ll be an unmitigated disaster,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford told reporters Wednesday. Ford has backed ex-police chief and failed Progressive Conservative candidate Mark Saunders but said he would work with Chow if she’s elected.

A win for Chow in Monday’s byelection would mark a high point in her decades-long participation in Toronto politics. But Chow also sees her potential mayoralty as an opportunity to renew leadership.

“Bringing in people that are younger, have a different perspective, that are more open for democratic engagement,” she said.

“It excites me almost as much as being able to start building again, because you can set up a structure at city hall that can outlast your term.”

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For all the talk of her record, pollsters offer another explanation for Chow’s lead in the polls.

“She is way better known. And to a large extent, a lot of this is just name recognition, it being municipal politics and with no party ID,” said Lorne Bozinoff, president of Forum Research, a prominent Toronto polling firm.

She has the “left lane” largely to herself, Bozinoff said, tapping into the NDP’s organizational strength in a byelection dominated by candidates with closer ties to Liberal and Conservative political machines.

With Chow’s support polling in the range of 30 per cent among decided voters, double her next closest rival in the crowded field, “this is her election to lose,” he said.

When former mayor John Tory admitted to an affair with a staffer and resigned in February, triggering the June 26 byelection, Chow first encouraged her stepson and former city councillor Mike Layton to run. Layton had, however, just months earlier opted not to seek re-election to council in order to spend more time with his young family. When former progressive councillor Joe Cressy also declined a run, Chow started seriously considering one.

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“It was a sense of responsibility. Someone needs to do this. I have the experience. I don’t have a young family. I can handle it,” she said.

She has referred to this campaign as akin to her third run for mayor, accounting for her late husband’s unsuccessful 1991 campaign. When the couple married in 1988, they set out a list of priorities they hoped to tackle in their political partnership.

It became a road map of sorts, she said. From the environment to homelessness, some of the issues they charted have only become more urgent since then.

“That is unfinished work,” she said.

Ana Bailão

When Ana Bailão joined Toronto city council in 2010, the affordable housing committee chair was considered a low-profile appointment, a losing file for those seeking political star power.

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The committee met infrequently and struggled to garner wider public attention. But it was a file then-rookie councillor Bailão was eager to take on, seeing it as an opportunity to make a difference.

“I always knew that this is an area that I wanted, because I always felt this is so foundational,” she said in a recent interview.

As the issue rose in prominence, so too did Bailão’s political profile, eventually landing her a role as deputy mayor and housing point person to former mayor John Tory.

Now, the 46-year-old is staking her campaign to replace Tory in large part on her housing record. She has positioned herself as a pragmatic consensus builder — backed by seven city councillors and nine Liberal parliamentarians — who helped elevate affordable housing from a political afterthought into a defining issue of the June 26 byelection.

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But as Toronto grows increasingly unaffordable and record numbers of people go unhoused, can she shake her critics’ label as the maintainer of a broken status quo?

Bailão immigrated from Portugal at age 15 with her sister and parents, sharing a one-bedroom apartment near Brock Avenue and DundasStreet, in a neighbourhood she would later represent on council. Bailão, the daughter of a construction worker and a seamstress, saw herself becoming a social worker, but was recruited to work in city councillor Mario Silva’s office during the last year of her undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto.

When Silva left for federal politics in 2003, then-28-year-old Bailão ran for his open seat and lost. After a stint in the private sector, she ran again and won in 2010.

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“This is what I love. It’s the city, it’s the issues, it’s how you work with the communities, how you shape the community. And it has such a huge impact in people’s lives,” she said, sitting in a park behind the Art Gallery of Ontario, across from her campaign office.

“That’s what I’m passionate about, because it’s the little things that I think have a big impact.”

One of Bailão’s most notable affordable housing victories arrived early in her first term, in 2012. She convinced the mayor to walk back a plan that would have seen Toronto Community Housing Corporation, the city’s social housing provider, sell off more than 600 units of single-family homes.

“I think that’s where Ana really shines, is that as someone who hasn’t done the grandstanding and has that reputation for being a collaborator,” said Braden Root-McCaig, her chief of staff at the time, and now her mayoral campaign’s policy director.

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The victory was sealed almost a decade later, when she helped negotiate the transfer of TCHC’s single-family housing portfolio to two community land trusts.

Over the course of that decade, Bailão spearheaded a number of affordable housing projects, such as a 10-year housing action plan. She helped develop a fund for community housing providers to purchase and preserve affordable units. She took a leadership role in supporting the approval of laneway and garden suites.

She gained the respect of some city councillors who did not always vote with her and Tory.

“I have seen her in the mayor’s boardroom doing the moving along of things that the mayor has to do even though she wasn’t the mayor,” said Coun. Shelley Carroll, a 20-year council veteran who gave the campaign an early endorsement.

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Bailão’s record, however, is not without its critics. She failed to get the votes needed to legalize rooming houses citywide while housing chair, in what she calls the biggest regret of her tenure. Her critics have questioned her decision to fundraise from developers. She defended the police budget against attempts to reallocate $10 million to rent supplements and voted against a motion to freeze transit fares.

And while Bailão helped establish a housing-first pilot program for a homeless encampment in 2021, known as the Dufferin Grove model, she has been accused by frontline advocates of overstating her part in its design and for not standing up against encampment evictions earlier that summer.

“I think in regard to that, it was politically expedient for her to change the approach,” said Diana Chan McNally, a longtime advocate for the homeless.

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Underlining Bailão’s final term on council is a record of voting with Tory more than 90 per cent of the time.

“I think she had the opportunity, if she’s truly progressive, to push harder. And I didn’t see that happening. I think what we saw instead was, for the most part, upholding the status quo,” Chan McNally said.

That time came sooner than expected, when Tory admitted to having an affair with a staffer and resigned in February.

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Her campaign has inherited some of the personnel and policies of Tory’s administration, including a promise to keep taxes at or below the rate of inflation despite a nearly $1-billion budget shortfall.

But what she has not inherited from her former boss, according to polls, is his popularity. Bailão has polled in the low teens for most of the byelection campaign, trailing front-runner Olivia Chow by around 20 points.

Pollsters and her campaign have suggested part of the problem, especially in a 12-week byelection campaign, is that her name recognition does not measure up with Chow, a longtime NDP parliamentarian, or ex-police chief Mark Saunders.

But it’s never been her style to seek out the spotlight, she said,going back to her decision to take on the affordable housing file.

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“I don’t need to be recognized on the street,” she said. “It’s not about me. It’s about getting the issues fixed.”

Mayoral candidate Anthony Furey during a meeting with the Toronto Sun editorial board in Toronto, Ont. on Tuesday June 13, 2023. Photo by Ernest Doroszuk/Postmedia

Anthony Furey

The conservative columnist, who styled himself as a city hall outsider, nonetheless said he could bring a “fresh perspective” to the problems plaguing Canada’s most populous city, focusing heavily on issues of public safety.

Lately, Furey feels like his message has been resonating.

Recent polls have placed him among the leading candidates, with one even landing him in the top three. And while he wasn’t invited to several earlier debates, he has participated in some that took place later in the campaign.

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“It feels really good to be the only candidate with the momentum right now,” Furey said in a recent interview.

Furey is perhaps better known for being a former Toronto Sun columnist. His commentary over the years has included pieces that criticized measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 during the pandemic and others that scrutinized elements of Islam.

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He is currently on leave from his role as a fellow at True North, a right-wing digital media platform run by the True North Centre for Public Policy.

During his mayoral campaign, Furey said he’s focused on addressing addiction, crime, the increased cost of living in the city and Toronto’s nearly $1-billion budget deficit.

He has suggested diverting funds from the city’s climate action program — saying the city is ahead of its targets — and putting them into hiring 500 additional police officers, among other measures. He’s also pledged to phase out safe injection sites and replace them with treatment centres.

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“Right now, we have a culture that is enabling addiction and people … are tired of what is going on,” Furey said.

He’s also said he would bring in no new taxes as mayor, and would have no more bike lanes on major streets in the city.

On the conservative side of the field, Furey is competing against ex-police chief Mark Saunders and city councillor Brad Bradford, who have also highlighted public safety as key election issues.

But both Saunders and Bradford have trailed behind left-leaning front-runner and former NDP parliamentarian Olivia Chow, and conservative voters might be turning to Furey as an alternative, said Myer Siemiatycki, a professor emeritus of politics at Toronto Metropolitan University.

Furey’s absence from most mayoral debates could have put him in a stronger position since he hasn’t had to explain his positions and defend his record, Siemiatycki said.

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“His views and he himself as a candidate has not been challenged because he hasn’t been in debates,” the professor said. “So ironically, I think that has been an advantage to him.”

When it comes to policy, Siemiatycki argued Furey’s plans are lacking in substance.

“He is putting forward a number of very simple solutions to complicated issues that are going to worsen situations that exist,” said Siemiatycki.

He argued that investments in mental health care, as well as providing housing and employment opportunities for youth, are important measures to combat crime.

He also said Furey’s “war” on bike lanes would make traffic congestion worse and could put cyclists at risk, and called the plan to shut down safe injection sites a “dangerous suggestion.”

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Furey, for his part, said he’s been genuine and his plans are increasingly connecting with voters.

“Everything I’m campaigning on is authentic to me,” he said. “It is something I cared deeply about, and I think people see that.”

Toronto mayoral candidate Mark Saunders meets with the Toronto Sun editorial board in Toronto, Ont. on Wednesday June 14, 2023. Photo by Ernest Doroszuk/Postmedia

Mark Saunders

When Mark Saunders launched his bid for mayor of Toronto, the former police chief positioned himself as the only candidate who could save a city plagued by “out-of-control” lawlessness.

Canada’s most populous city is a “broken” metropolis, he warned, and only a tough-on-crime mayor could turn things around.

“Crime and disorder reigns on our streets, on TTC and in our parks. It’s everywhere, it’s a crisis,” Saunders said in a campaign video.

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The former police officer of nearly 38 years — five of which he spent as police chief — has staked his mayoral campaign on a lone premise: that his experience as the city’s top cop can save Toronto from what he says is worsening crime and idling at city hall.

Experts say, however, that his controversial track record could hinder his political ambitions.

Born to Jamaican parents, Saunders immigrated to Canada from England as a child in 1967. After joining the Toronto Police Service out of high school, he was assigned to a range of divisions including the drug squad, emergency task force and homicide unit.

He was appointed chief in 2015, becoming the first Black person to head Canada’s largest municipal police force.

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As mayor, he says, he’d ensure fairness at city hall.

“I’ve seen success stories through a lot of my partnerships and I hope to bring that to city hall so that everyone has a voice, not just the loudest voice in the room,” Saunders says in an interview.

“I’ve had a lot of empathy and understanding when it comes to finding the right solutions.”

He specifically cites his experience managing the police budget as proof he can manage the city’s pandemic-ravaged finances.

Saunders’ campaign launched on the heels of several high-profile cases of violence on city streets and public transit, some of them deadly. He pledged to respond by adding 200 special transit constables and 600 uniformed officers, paired with accompanying mental health and addictions supports.

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He’s also pledged to increase the supply of housing by cutting down approval times, easing congestion by deprioritizing bike lanes on major streets and replacing supervised injection sites with treatment options to address drug use and homelessness downtown.

University of Ottawa criminology professor Michael Kempa said those issues roll together for an older, conservative or suburban voter base.

“For the typically older people who vote in the largest number, most of the more politically-conservative decisions that chiefs of police have made resonate with those voters,” he said.

But timing could work against Saunders, as Kempa noted public support of policing is at a low point following criticism of police operations during the Freedom Convoy in Ottawa and the mass shooting that killed 22 people in Nova Scotia.

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“It’s an unfortunate time to be a former chief of police seeking office,” he said.

Saunders could also be up against a motivated left-wing vote, as progressives look to take advantage of the open mayoral race and opportunity to end 13 years of conservative rule.

Polls have consistently seen Saunders fight to hold on to second place, behind front-runner and former NDP parliamentarian Olivia Chow, who has maintained a significant lead ahead of the June 26 byelection.

In recent weeks, Saunders has shifted away from policy discussion to position himself as her antithesis, urging voters to rally behind him to “Stop Chow.”

He’s also the candidate of choice for Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who recently put a Saunders campaign sign on his lawn after warning Toronto would be in trouble if a “lefty” mayor was elected. Saunders ran, and lost, in last year’s provincial election running under Ford’s Progressive Conservative banner.

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While Saunders has been “saying some of the right things” about the limits of policing to tackle complex social problems, “he does have a track record of having made controversial statements and decisions around using enforcement on these same issues,” said Kempa.

In his time as chief, Saunders came under fire from members of the Black community, who said he failed to effectively deal with discriminatory policing and excessive force.

Saunders also faced intense criticism over the force’s handling of a series of disappearances and killings of men who frequented the city’s gay village.

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He appeared to suggest, in a Globe and Mail report, that the community’s lack of co-operation played a role in how long it took to arrest a suspect. Saunders later told The Canadian Press he would never have tried to shift blame onto the vulnerable community but said the police should have better communicated to the LGBTQ community how much time, money and resources the force had spent on investigating the disappearances.

Mayoral candidate Josh Matlow Photo by Facebook

Josh Matlow

Josh Matlow opened his campaign to lead Canada’s most populous city with an unorthodox, but arguably bold, political move: a pledge to raise taxes.

The former actor entered politics after working as an environmental activist, ultimately winning a seat on Toronto’s city council in 2010. He has over the past 13 years become known as one of the council’s leading progressive voices.

As he entered the race to succeed John Tory, who resigned suddenly in February after admitting to an affair with a staffer, Matlow told voters that if elected he planned to raise their property taxes by two per cent.

He told The Canadian Press he wanted to be straightforward with voters, and not conceal the reality of dealing with the city’s estimated $1 billion budget deficit.

“Anyone who is mayor is going to have to both be efficient with the budget we have, and is going to have to get real about raising the revenue,” Matlow said in an interview.

“I’d rather just be upfront about it and begin the conversation with Torontonians about what it will take to manage this budget and to fix the services that have declined for too many years. The challenges are too important to be timid about,” he added, noting that his proposed tax hike amounted to an additional $67 per year for each homeowner.

Kate Graham, who teaches at Western University’s Local Government Program, credited Matlow for being direct, stressing that property taxes in Toronto are likely to go up regardless of who wins the election.

His proposal was an example of a “bold position to take,” she said.

Matlow served as a trustee on the Toronto District School Board before being elected to serve Toronto-St. Paul’s, a central city ward, on council.

Beyond the tax hike, he has put forward plans to invest in rent-controlled and affordable housing units, policies aimed at addressing Toronto’s housing shortage crisis.

He has also supported a new levy on commercial parking lots, funds he says he would use to invest in climate initiatives and public transit.

In the early phases of the campaign, some pundits speculated that Matlow could earn support from voters seeking a shift towards more progressive governance in a city led by a right-of-centre mayor through most of its recent history.

But then Olivia Chow, a prominent former federal lawmaker and long-standing figure in the left-wing New Democratic Party, entered the race.

Polls in recent weeks have consistently given Chow a commanding lead ahead of the June 26 vote.

Matlow told The Canadian Press that the ideas he has argued for through the campaign “are not just to win an election.”

“They’re there to support our city, and to be able to govern effectively,” he said. “I told my team from day one that no matter what happens, I want us to be really proud of this campaign.”

Mitzie Hunter a candidate in the Toronto By-Election for Mayor, meets with the Toronto Sun editorial board in Toronto, Ont. on Tuesday June 20, 2023. Photo by Ernest Doroszuk/Postmedia

Mitzie Hunter

From boardrooms, to the cabinet table, to mayoral debates, Mitzie Hunter has long fought to ensure her ideas are heard — a mission she says began as a young girl growing up with three brothers.

“I absolutely know I have a voice because it started at home around that dinner table,” the 51-year-old Toronto mayoral candidate says with a laugh. “My older brother says I was bossy. How could I not be? I had to be heard.”

Moe Hunter, her older brother, does indeed confirm this.

“She always liked to run the show, tried to be a little bossy,” he says.

“She tried to show leadership and control us growing up, so at times we had to sort of say, ‘Hey, you’re not the oldest here and you’re not the boss,’ but it was a good thing about her, to see that drive about her and to see the leadership about her.”

Former cabinet colleague Brad Duguid says that while in government, Mitzie Hunter was composed and measured but strong in getting her point across.

Hunter served as minister of education, minister of advanced education and skills development, and associate minister of finance, in charge of developing then-Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne’s goal of an Ontario-made pension plan. She navigated varying views on that topic around the cabinet table, Duguid says.

“She also brings a toughness that is not always apparent in her demeanour and I think that comes from coming from and representing a high-needs area like her riding in Scarborough,” said Duguid, who represented a neighbouring riding.

“While she’ll be nice, likable, polite, at the end of the day, you don’t want to go toe-to-toe with Mitzie Hunter because she brings that Scarborough scrappiness.”

For all the accolades from those who know her, it doesn’t appear as though those qualities have propelled her far enough in the Toronto mayoral race. Polls have pegged her support at between five and 11 per cent, and Duguid is the only one of her former provincial colleagues listed on her endorsements page.

But hers is a life dedicated to public service, her brother says, to the point that she has given up a lot in her personal life in order to help her community. That’s a proposition that Hunter herself is noticeably uncomfortable with, but she says she gets a lot of joy from her work.

“I’ve never seen what I do on a day-to-day as work,” she says. “I see it as, this is my contribution.”

Hunter and her family moved to Canada from Jamaica when she was three years old, and she developed a real sense of community growing up in the east-end Toronto region of Scarborough.

She watched as her grandmother hosted Thanksgiving dinners to which absolutely everybody was invited. She watched as her mother, upon hearing that a call centre colleague of her then-teenage daughter had become homeless, asked the woman to come live with them while she worked to find her housing.

“In everything that I do and I want to do with my time in my life, I want to make a difference,” Hunter says. “I want to make a change.”

Hunter’s parents, who worked in trucking and manufacturing, expected their children to work hard, as they had made sacrifices so their children could have better lives.

“They strongly believed in whatever job you’re doing, you put in 100 per cent,” Moe Hunter says. “If you weren’t the best at it … they wanted to see that the effort was put forth.”

She resigned from her Ontario seat on May 10 because election rules stipulated that provincial or federal office holders couldn’t also run for mayor.

While her gamble appears unlikely to succeed, there’s that drive to give 100 per cent, even if you’re not the best at it.

“She… gave up a job, but that’s what she does,” Moe Hunter says. “That’s how dedicated she is. She may not win, but she’s willing to chance it.”

  • June 25, 2023