09/10/2014 02:46 EDT | Updated 11/10/2014 05:59 EST

'Hazel factor' looms large over Mississauga mayor's race

For decades the "Hazel factor" gave voters in Mississauga an excuse to ignore the mayor's race.

Why pay any attention — the thinking went — when no candidate had any hope of unseating stalwart Hazel McCallion?

The wildly popular McCallion, 93, was first elected back in 1978. Since then Mississauga voters have sent her back to city hall 12 times. On two occasions she ran unopposed. Even when she was challenged, McCallion often didn't bother to spend time or money to campaign in races where the result was never in doubt.

But now, for the first time in decades, Hurricane Hazel (as she's affectionately known) will not be mayor after the Oct. 27 vote. But that's not because anyone will manage to unseat her. After 36 years as mayor, she's opted not to run again.

"If she was going to be on the ballot this time around, she would win," said Louise Rosella, a reporter for the Mississauga News who's covering the campaign. "There's a running joke that even if she passes away, she would still win."

But she's not running again and so for the first time in a generation, Mississauga voters have a mayoralty race to watch.

Rosella said one of two front-runners to succeed McCallion is Steve Mahoney, a former Mississauga city councillor, a former MPP and former MP who served as a cabinet minister in Jean Chretien's Liberal government.

Mahoney is running on a platform to limit any property tax increases to the rate of inflation and develop the Port Credit waterfront.

His main opponent is Coun. Bonnie Crombie, who served as a one-term Liberal MP in a Mississauga riding from 2008 to 2011. She's vowing to enhance transit links with Toronto.

Polls suggest Crombie and Mahoney are running neck-and-neck, the race likely made closer because McCallion is leaving office without without endorsing any candidate.

Rosella said the race may also be tight because both leading candidates are "eerily similar."

"People really don't know who to pick because there's such a fine margin in between the two of them," he said in an interview Wednesday on CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

The Hazel factor has contributed to a low voter turnout during her time as mayor. In the last election, only 34 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots. In many of the races McCallion didn't bother wasting time and money campaigning.

Surging growth in successive pro-development McCallion regimes has allowed Mississauga to keep taxes low while paying the bills with development charges. But that's changing as the city becomes filled while facing pressing infrastructure needs.

Rosella said along with managing growth and addressing transit needs the main campaign issues include helping Mississauga — Canada's sixth largest city — define itself as more than the bedroom community.

"I think people are starving for a cultural identity," he told host Matt Galloway. "We've always been known as that big city beside Toronto. I think people are starving for some change in that."