The campaign to elect Toronto's next mayor officially got underway Monday, heralding what political observers expect to be a whirlwind race as a number of high-profile candidates jostle to establish themselves as front-runners in a crowded field.

A procession of mayoral hopefuls descended on city hall to file their nomination papers Monday morning, kicking off the campaign ahead of the June 26 byelection.

The mayoral contest arrives more than three years earlier than expected and was triggered by the February resignation of John Tory, who admitted to an affair with a staffer.

Contenders have spent the past weeks hastily building their campaign teams, lining up possible donors and canvassing for endorsements in anticipation of registering as candidates, a step that allows them to raise and spend campaign dollars, said Zac Spicer, a political science expert at York University.

Spicer said he now expects to see a "flurry" of policy announcements as candidates look to raise their profile and distinguish themselves in a campaign that lasts half as long as a typical mayoral race.

"The clock is absolutely ticking," said Spicer, an associate professor in the school of public policy and administration at York. "Things are going to move very, very quickly over the next couple of weeks."

The contenders who filed their nomination papers Monday include former Liberal provincial education minister Mitzie Hunter, current city councillors Brad Bradford and Josh Matlow, former city councillor Ana Bailão and ex-city police chief Mark Saunders.

Spicer said he expected the initial stretch of the campaign to feature candidates taking aim at contenders who share a similar political platform, in an attempt to narrow the field.

"If you are a candidate in this race, you want a head-to-head contest. You don't want a vote split six different ways," he said.

The mayoral contenders made broad overtures to some of the issues animating their campaigns Monday, with frequent mentions of making public transit safer and tackling pandemic-related budget shortfalls.

Toronto is looking at a nearly $1.5-billion gap between its 2022 and 2023 budgets, in large part from lost transit revenue and increased shelter costs, with no promises to bail out the city in the recent federal and provincial budgets.

Bradford, appointed by Tory to chair the city's housing committee, has openly embraced the "strong mayor" powers granted by the provincial government.

"There is an acknowledgment that Toronto is at a breaking point. It has never been more expensive, less safe and more difficult to get around the city,” he said. "I will be a strong mayor of action."

Matlow, the sitting city councillor who launched his campaign with a promise to introduce a property tax to raise $390 million over five years to help support city services, said he would run an "honest" campaign with funded promises.

"I am determined to make Toronto a livable, safe and affordable city," he said.

Hunter said she was a consensus builder whose experience with Toronto Community Housing and in provincial politics made her well-placed to advocate for more revenue tools to fund city services. Hunter said she would resign her seat as Liberal MPP for Scarborough-Guildwood by May 12, when the byelection nomination period closes.

"I certainly have the experience to hold Premier (Doug) Ford to account," she said. "I will be a strong advocate for the people of Toronto."

Saunders, a former Toronto police chief, said public safety would be top of mind in his campaign, but said his vision for tackling the issue extended beyond policing.

"We are moving in a wrong direction," he said. "If we are going to get this right, we have to be safe, if we are not safe, we are not healthy."

Bailão, who formerly served as deputy mayor and Tory's housing point person, said she would push the Ontario government to take responsibility for the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway, a proposal previously dismissed by the province. In response to transit safety concerns, she pledged to cancel city cellphone contracts with major telecoms providers if the companies continue to refuse to provide cell service on the subway system.

"I've brought ideas," she said. "This is even before we started today ... It's leadership, it's ideas, and that's what I think the city needs."

A number of “heavy hitters” – well-placed individuals with ties to Liberal and Conservative politics – have joined several mayoral campaigns, said Spicer.  

The Bradford campaign is managed by Matt Hiraishi, the former chief of staff to Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, and advised by a group with connections to Liberal and Conservative politics. His digital team is led by Jeff Ballingal, the founder of the controversial conservative advocacy group Ontario Proud.

The Saunders campaign, meanwhile, includes a number of former staffers in Ford’s government and is headed by longtime strategist Mitch Wexler, who worked on Saunders’ unsuccessful provincial election campaign under the Progressive Conservatives.

The Bailão campaign team is managed by Tom Allison, who has worked on campaigns for Tory, as well as those for former Ontario Liberal leaders Steven Del Duca and Kathleen Wynne. The team includes Nick Kouvalis, the pollster who helped get Tory and Rob Ford elected in Toronto.

Matlow’s senior campaign adviser is Brett Thalmann, a former staffer in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office. The campaign is managed on a volunteer basis by Eric McGoey, a director with Ontario Power Generation, who has worked on a number of Ontario Liberal campaigns. The campaign’s digital lead is Rollie Pemberton, the author and rapper who performs under the stage name Cadence Weapon.

More than two dozen people were listed as registered candidates for mayor by Thursday afternoon. Other notable names included former Sun columnist Anthony Furey and former city councillor Giorgio Mammoliti.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2023.