Joe Conte frets about the city he’s called home for 52 years.

“I’m just a little upset with this city and the political people who run it that are self-serving and grand-standing,” the retired General Motors worker complains. “Oshawa is at a turning point.”

Battered by the economic downtown and sagging auto industry, the city that GM built is in transition. With its biggest employer regrouping after cutting several thousand jobs, a downtown in the midst of revitalization and a waterfront poised for redevelopment, Oshawa presents some serious challenges for its next leader.

Conte is backing John Henry, a businessman and councillor of four years who’s taking on two-term Mayor John Gray with promises to unify a newly respectful council and the community.

“He’s willing to deal with the issues and straighten out the messes caused by the poor economy,” Conte says.

He could be describing the “new day, new way” campaign Louise Parkes has in high gear as she also mounts a challenge against Gray, with an ambitious platform built on cost-cutting, fiscal restraint and lower property taxes.

Echoing voters’ concerns, she has taken personal shots at Gray for flaunting his city-bought Camaro sports car and approving taxpayer-funded MBAs for his executive assistant and a councillor.

Gray is running on his record and vision for downtown and the waterfront.

Keeping taxes down is tough when “we’ve already cut the fat,” he notes.

But Gray’s underlying message is one of optimism, rooted in the belief that the “Shwa” can overcome its stigma and misperceptions that unfairly keep property values down.

“I have a great deal of hope here in Oshawa that we are going to become the true leader in Durham (Region),” he says.