A Very Late Election Wrap-Up

Inequality and problems with governance ensure Ford Nation’s longterm survival, despite Rob’s “loss” of power.

In December of 2013, in a piece on my blog, I wrote quite pessimistically about how our crap candidates and the cynical elections they sire. John Tory was painted as a hero Toronto needs right now, if only he’d run. Karen Stintz chose to run because she saw it as the next logical step. To where? Who knows? And Olivia Chow, so reticent to run you wondered why she needed so much convincing. With a field including a drug addict, a career also-ran, Council’s most ambitious member and a seemingly decent candidate who couldn’t make up her mind, I tempered my hopes that the 2014 campaign might provide a renewing fire, burning off deadfall from the Ford years.

My biggest fear was, of course, that the “others” would take so long deciding which of them would be the one to take on Ford, that Mayor Gong-Show would fumble his way to another victory, propped up by a bull-crap redemption story and a ravenous fan base who alternately view his faults as virtues or see his having faults as a virtue.

By April 2014, things were looking up and, for the first time in a long time, I was feeling optimistic. David Soknacki had joined the campaign, Olivia was in, Tory was being his usual, bumbling self and polls suggested Ford might not only be beaten, but that he might be soundly beaten by a progressive candidate. We could banish Ford to the hinterlands and pretend the past 4 years were merely an aberration.

Silly rabbits…

The reign of Rob Ford had to end more dramatically. A man like Ford doesn’t go gently, if he goes at all. He doesn’t take his lumps. Rob Ford, a walking, talking time-bomb, sat on Council for 10 years before exploding. To imagine Ford’s fallout would have a half-life of only 4 years is foolish.

Put away the balloons and streamers and cancel the band, the Rob Ford wrap party has been cancelled. Force majeure. But we haven’t really earned the party, have we? Four years into the Ford era, many of us, myself included, still can’t always accept that he was ever elected.

I can easily accept that the end of the Miller era ushered in a return to conservativism. Miller was terrible at communicating his message, he picked fights he knew he couldn’t win, stayed in them long after they were lost, and callously used progressive issues, like the Jarvis bike lane, to score quick wins with his shrinking base. Even if those win were ultimately big losses. Jarvis, and the fracas it created, for example, probably put bike infrastructure back 10 years.

It’s equally easy to accept that, in choosing a conservative figurehead, people were drawn to a populist. Populists make a good counterpoint to politicians like Miller, who present themselves as intellectuals.

Plenty of politicians have been elected despite their personal issues. Marion Barry was elected twice. Were he able to run again, Bill Clinton could probably win the Presidency in 2018. Ralph Klein was Premier of Alberta for 600 years. Toronto’s electorate is no more or less foolish than Washingtonians, Albertans, or the entire United States of America.

Despite that, it’s still hard to accept that Rob was elected in 2010, was polling in the 30’s in 2014, or that his brother, a stand-in candidate and as vile a character as Canadian politics has ever seen, came within 60,000 votes of the Mayor’s office.

Much of the disbelief is rooted in ego. To properly understand why people would vote for Ford, you have to accept the degree to which we, as a supposedly just society, have failed the people who make up the core of Ford Nation. (Spacing Magazine did a good job analyzing the demographics here.) The people on the city’s wings, like Etobicoke and Scarborough, who are the most ardent Fordists, have the least and worst transit, the least walkable neighbourhoods, travel the furthest for services and are, consequently, most likely to believe Ford’s narrative of broken government. That those same people have, in the last 4 years, contributed to their own problems doesn’t discount the decades of time the rest of the city spent creating and prolonging them in the first place.

You might believe the success of the Ford family indicates a hard right turn in Toronto politics, but that position is largely unproven. Toronto’s wealthier core has always leaned more centre-right, as evidenced by its ongoing support of the Liberals, while the more urban downtown areas still tack progressive, or NDP at the provincial and federal level. The city’s wings, where Ford Nation lives, aren’t so much conservative as they are open to help from anyone willing to offer it, even if it’s a man who claims to speak for them, while typically working against them. Thirst, meet seawater.

Beating Rob Ford for good requires us to focus more on the people who support him and less on the man himself. Yes, he’s a liar, a racist and a homophobe, but if pointing out those things, or pillorying the media for not pointing them out, hasn’t yet run him out of town, let’s accept that it never will. We should still keep tabs on our sneaky (soon-to-be former) Mayor, but it’s probably time to repurpose or retire your indignation.

John Tory gives progressives a chance to rest and rearm. We should certainly be watchful and ensure that Tory the candidate, a consensus builder who wants to bring us together, matches Tory the Mayor, who probably has a list of friends to reward. But that will require a different set of muscles than the ones we used to hold back Rob Ford. The former requires attention to detail, the latter was all white-knuckle strength.

It’s also important to remember that Tory doesn’t stand for anything, and that could make him malleable. He’ll want to do as little as possible whilst ensuring his fundraising for 2018 isn’t jeopardized. But he’ll also want to make the occasional splash, so look out for an Olympic bid if PanAm 2015 goes off successfully.

The concept of his campaign was that SmartTrack would be his splash, but it will never be realized in its advertised form. Kathleen Wynne will press on with GO electrification, offer some kind of premium crossover fare deal that will help launch PRESTO and in 4 years, the two of them will declare partial victory with a pointed reminder that the big win will require us to give them another term. (If we get that and avoid the perils of tax increment funding, it will be a kind of win.)

What is certain is that Mayor Tory will continue the long Toronto tradition of ignoring the people in Toronto wings who didn’t vote for him and who’ll continue propping up Rob Ford, regardless of where he’s sitting on council. Tory neglects them at his peril. They’re continued support for Ford, which can endure anything short of death, means that Tory will always be one big gaff away from welcoming Mayor Ford back into office in 2018. You want to believe Tory is politically savvy enough to figure that out, but given his history, it’s not something to be taken for granted.

We could have done worse, obviously. (Oh, that low, low bar.) We could also have done much better. Olivia Chow would certainly have paid more attention to Ford Nation’s real problems. David Soknacki would have done the same, while also enthusiastically taking on things like police budgets, which Tory won’t touch with a 10-foot nightstick. And why would he tackle the hot potatoes? There so little he can do about them on his own and wrestling council into doing anything, especially the right thing, is exhausting.

The job of Mayor of Toronto perfectly fits the description of a crap gig. It’s lots of perceived responsibility with very little actual authority. It’s the kind of job you start knowing that going out on a high note is essentially impossible.

And because being Mayor has so much exposure and so little scope, it attracts wealthier people who either love the spotlight, need a stepping stool or career boost, have an axe to grind, or haven’t really thought the matter through. In other words: Mel Lastman, John Tory, Rob Ford and David Miller, respectively.

It feels strange, here at the end of the Ford era, to argue in favour of a strong Mayor system, and watching the devolution of Chicago over the last 10 years, it’s failing are also self-evident, but we, at the very least, need to consider how to entice more of the best of us to run for Mayor. The alternative is a never-ending spiral of also-rans lightly dusted with great people who are underfunded and subsequently under-perform.

With voting reform on the horizon in this term, we should also take an opportunity to talk about the job of Mayor and how we envision it in the future. Years of legislative stasis make it clear that our existing system is not ideally suited to fixing the city’s larger inequities, nor does it attract our best people. If we want to banish Ford for good, these are conversations we need to have.