How to become a Toronto City Councillor

On Thursday, November 2nd, Toronto’s City Council held a special meeting to appoint a new council member to Ward 28. The successful candidate, Lucy Troisi, filled the ward seat that had been vacant since long-time Councillor Pam McConnell passed away in July.

Appointments tend to happen if one of Council’s 45 seats (44 ward representatives and one Mayor), becomes vacant towards the end of the term in order to save costs of holding a by-election. Anyone eligible to become a Councillor can sign up and give a five minute speech to Council, usually focusing on their experience, community involvement, and their values. Councillors then get to vote for their future colleague, and fun fact: if there is a tie, the winner gets pulled out of a hat.

During this Council term two Councillors have been appointed: Jim Hart and now, Lucy Troisi. While getting appointed is one (more unusual) way to enter City Hall, I wanted to take a look at how our current Council came to represent us, and how aspiring Torontonians can maximize their chances of winning an election. The table below focuses on three conditions to consider when running to be a City Councillor, although that is not to say they are the only things that are important in becoming an elected official.

1. Incumbency

There has been extensive research that has shown us incumbents usually win due to name recognition, established networks, and successful fundraising, which is why it’s safe to assume it is typically ‘easier’ to first get elected when the incumbent isn’t running. In the same logic, it’s ‘hardest’ to win when it’s your first election and you’re against an established incumbent. For those councillors who were elected in the first post-amalgamated Toronto election (1997), the context of their initial municipal win is shown on the table, as they were all previously elected within the former Toronto region.

2. Political Experience

Having prior political experience, such as being a Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) or a School Board Trustee, can not only help a candidate seem more qualified, but allow for greater exposure to constituents and a better understanding of the campaign process. Being a political staffer or serving in a public service position can also expose a candidate to the community, and can come with endorsements by elected officials.

3. Relative Connections

Just looking at our current Prime Minister shows us that having politicians in the family can help improve branding, name recognition, and provide strategic advice and support. Being positively associated with relatives who are influential in the community, such as siblings, parents or spouses, can help connect a candidate to the community and can help to improve one’s chances of being elected.


So, how to become a Toronto City Councillor:
(results may vary)

1. Run in a ward with no incumbent – 76% of our current council members entered City Hall when there was no incumbent. Tips for the 2018 election: run in Ward 32, 33 or 41 – both Shelley Carroll and Chin Lee have been confirmed as the provincial candidates for the Ontario Liberal Party, and Mary-Margaret McMahon has self-imposed a two term limit on her candidacy. Also look out for Ward 28 and 44: these two appointed candidates have vowed not to run in the 2018 election. Lastly, consider if any current Councillors will be running for Mayor (I’ve heard Ward 19 might be up for grabs if Layton throws his hat in the ring).

2. Get yourself some political experience – 73% of Councillors had some sort of political experience before entering City Council. While running for provincial or federal politics may not seem any easier than running locally, 27% of council members started out as a School Board Trustee, 22% were assistants of campaign managers at some level of government, and 13% were involved in public service (not mutually exclusively).

3. Don’t be afraid to lose – 53% of current council members lost at least one election prior to being elected (locally, provincially, or federally). Sometimes, the first step is getting your name out there, even if that means it will take you a few tries. Councillor Perruzza lost the 1997, 2000 and 2003 Toronto elections to Peter Li Preti before narrowly beating him in 2006… and now he’s serving his third term on Council! Due to the lack of term limits, being patient may also be a good strategy – nine Councillors have been in office since Toronto’s amalgamation…. they’ll have to retire at some point!

4. Marry a politician – ok, so I may be (mainly) joking with this one, but 25% of Councillors are related to a current or former Councillor, MPP, MP or influential Torontonian. While some relatives may be less well known (such as Maria Augimeri’s husband, former MPP Odoardo Di Santo or Paula Fletcher’s husband John Cartwright, the President of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council), there is no doubt that many people recognize the names Layton, Cressy, Ford, Colle, Shiner and Holyday.

5. Become BFFs with someone on Council – although not displayed above, many successful elections started with the endorsement of other councillors or politicians. For example, Kristyn Wong-Tam was formally endorsed by neighbouring councillor at the time, Adam Vaughan, for her extensive community involvement. Joe Cressy was Mike Layton’s 2010 campaign manager before running himself in 2014. And Michael Thompson was actually an assistant to Lorenzo Berardinetti in 1998 (who is married to Councillor Michelle Holland).

6. Be open minded and take a chance – anything can happen in Toronto politics. Joe Cressy first ran in a federal election where he lost against Adam Vaughan…. before winning Vaughan’s vacated Council seat in 2014. If the opportunity arises, you could try to be appointed or run in a by-election, like Councillors Ford and Shan. Lastly, you could just put yourself out there – Mary Margaret-McMahon won her first ever election against incumbent and Speaker Sandra Bussin.

Of course, there are many other tips and tricks to getting elected to Toronto City Council, but following these steps is sure to improve your chances! With the discussion of expanding Council to 47 wards, anything could happen in the 2018 election. Introducing term limits… now that would be a whole other game.


Lauren Birch recently graduated from the School of Public Policy & Governance with her Master of Public Policy. During her time at SPPG she was a Graduate Fellow with the Institute on Municipal Finance & Governance (IMFG) and a Research Assistant for the City Hall Task Force.  When she’s not researching cities for academic purposes she is usually researching them for her next travel adventures.