Rob Ford

I am sorry for your loss. 46 years of age is far too young to die. Cancer sucks. My condolences to the Ford family. Like all of them, I am sure, this is not how I wanted to see it end.

But I am thankful that, at least for the moment, it is over. The Rob Ford political/personal/family melodrama that has held the city of Toronto, a city of over 2.5 million residents, not some provincial backwoods, hillside, Hatfield-McCoy hamlet, in its dense, thick thrall for more than half a decade now has concluded. With the passing, perhaps, we can get on with having an honest debate about local governance and decision-making in the 21st-century.

As someone who only observed Rob Ford from the outside, never meeting him in person except to shake his hand once in the greeting line at one of his Ford Fest gatherings, my relationship with him is not at all complicated or complex. He was a terrible mayor, an awful local politician. His approach to representation functioned in the bleak zone of willful ignorance and stubborn self-certainty. If something conformed to his stunted, myopic world view, it must be right. Anything else was brushed aside as gravy.

That streetcar blocking the lane in front of him on his way to work must be the source of all congestion, everywhere in the city.

He leaves behind a legacy of belligerence, divisiveness, and a disdain for politicians, the bureaucracy and the political process itself. His 15+ years of public service was of the easiest kind. Push peoples’ buttons, get them angry, howl for simple solutions and lie about everything that could not be squared with reality. Millions became billions. Facts observed and acknowledged only when convenient.

The customer is always right, retail politics that Rob Ford mastered boiled down to nothing more than What can I do for you? The idea of What can I do for us? was an anathema to his political calculations. He was looking out for the little guy, gave voice to those left out of the civic discourse, as long as they saw things the way he did, said the same things he said.

Rob Ford is credited with alerting the otherwise unaware, largely downtown elite crowd to the alienated, angry, outsider voices of the inner suburbs. This is true although it hardly tells the whole truth. People were, and continue, to be angry. People weren’t being listened to or, more exactly, people weren’t being consulted, engaged with. There was indeed a certain smugness, let’s call it, at City Hall, a belief that people knew their best interests were being looked after. Bigger picture thinking was at work. The small details don’t matter.

Which turned out to be a near-fatal political mindset.

Speaking for myself, back in 2010, it wasn’t surprising many people were angry. I miscalculated the degree of anger. But mostly, I was caught off-guard that that anger so identified itself with Rob Ford and attached itself so strongly to him.

He appropriated the anger, giving it voice but no solutions. He had no interest in channeling it constructively, only in amplifying it incoherently and destructively. His Ford Nation wasn’t so much a cohesive ideology as it was pure demagoguery of blind resentment.

I don’t doubt anyone’s account of the human side of Rob Ford, his warmth, playfulness and generosity. While not at all getting the political charm of Rob Ford, others clearly did. You could watch him amiably chatting with kids in the council chambers. His enthusiasm bubbled over when he talked about things he loved, like football. That’s where the Everyman label got affixed to him.

That only proves anything if you adhere to a totality of behaviour of personality. Somebody is one thing or the other, and being one negates the other. But no one’s all saint, just as sure as nobody’s a complete shit bird.

Read through Karen Geier’s Remember these Rob Ford Gems?, compiled shortly after Ford re-emerged from what would not uncharitably be called a politically motivated rehab stint. None of it refuted. Christopher Bird’s Torontoist obituary similarly dismantles any notion of a well-intentioned but flawed character. Rob Ford seemed especially adept at one thing. Wreaking havoc. He left others to try and pick up the pieces of everything he broke.

Any notion of Rob Ford as a one-of-a-kind politician, there’ll never be another one like him again is a form of civic self-flattery. A singular political phenomenon we could never fall for again.

There will always be political opportunists. There’ll always be the possibility of another Ford. Pretending he was something he wasn’t only makes the possibility even more likely.

As we’ve seen, that would be disastrous for Toronto.

All of this in no way means I am happy he died. I am sorry for his death. I am sorry for those most affected by it. A death like he suffered will invariably leave a huge hole, a void in the lives of those closest to him.

What I am not sorry about, when all is said and done, is that I will never have to write about Rob Ford again.

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An Indelicate Balance

How to be Rob Ford and not Rob Ford at the same time? This is the quantum politics Mayor John Tory is trying to determine as he enters his 2nd full year in office. quantumphysicsHe misses no opportunity to point out to everyone and anyone who’s listening how he isn’t Rob Ford: the return of civility to City Hall, respect re-bestowed upon Toronto by the international community, no more of the proverbial drunken stupors.

The mayor, however, never wants you to forget that, like Rob Ford, he stands firmly opposed to taxes and waste. Firmly. We can build shiny new things, expand necessary services and programs, world class up Toronto, done and done on high hopes and pure hearts. All we need to do is tighten our belts. Root out efficiencies and dead weight. Like that.

What Mayor Tory needs us to believe and accept is that his predecessor’s mess was manifest purely in the personal not policy realm. Policy failures, such as the cutbacks to TTC service, had nothing to do with revenue shortfalls or fiscal mismanagement but were the direct result of character flaws. The years 2010-2014 projected as tabula rasa on the governance front. disappearNothing but scandal and misconduct.

The problem for the mayor is that he’s not really fooling anybody. Non-Ford supporter critics of Mayor Tory, largely from the left side of the political spectrum, see him fighting for at-or-below inflationary levels of property tax rate increases and fending off talk of new revenue sources and can only conclude that it’s pretty much the same old same old, business as usual. This is what’s got the city in the financial straits it currently sits in.

At the other end, the hardcore Fordists, see through Mayor Tory’s suggested City Building Levy, and scream (rightly) that it’s just a property tax increase by a different name. Like the Scarborough subway levy although, for this camp, that’s another thing entirely. The people want subways. Subways, subways, subways!

So Mayor Tory has certain Toronto Sun columnists and editorialists, who never see a tax hike as anything other than proof positive of government overreach, yipping at him quantumphysics2while those having battled the Ford assault on City Hall coffers and services regard this mayor as just a well-mannered faux-populist who really ought to know better. There’s little room left for him to balance, his base squeezed onto an untenable platform made up largely of wishful thinking and constant thanks that, it could be worse, we could still have a Ford as mayor.

Not to cut the Fords much slack on this but a solid argument could be made that they actually believed their tax-and-spend, stop the gravy train rhetoric. Basic math never really mattered to them. The numbers didn’t have to add up. An obstinate and willful stance in opposition to facts passed for principled politics for the Fords. They didn’t have to be right to be right.

But how can a politician like John Tory, elected to the mayor’s office as a sensible, reasonable, prudent alternative to the madness of the Fords pursue policies with similar reckless abandon? johntoryvisionDuring the start of the 2016 budget process, he is being told by city staff in no uncertain terms that the city has a revenue problem. Its dependency on the property tax base and a still hot real estate market in terms of the land transfer tax is unsustainable. We must look seriously at other sources of revenues.

Mayor Tory’s reaction?

To propose an additional half-percent bump in the property tax rate, call it a ‘levy’, and look for further efficiencies at City Hall. It is as indifferent to staff advice and the reality on the ground as anything Rob Ford displayed. How is that sensible, reasonable or prudent?

Mayor Tory touts his willingness to work with his opponents at council on the Gardiner east hybrid to deliver a better option than the one he championed earlier this year as an example of the improved governance style under his watch.ignore Yet, whatever option finally emerges will be, fingers crossed, the best of the worst option on the table, not to mention, in all likelihood, the most expensive. The obvious choice, the one touted by city staff, the sensible, reasonable, prudent option, was to tear that section of elevated expressway down, rebuild it at-grade. Mayor Tory ignored all that and pushed ahead with what he believed to be the most politically advantageous choice.

In October 2014, nearly 70% of Toronto voters delivered what was almost exclusively an anti-Ford mandate. Picking up a 40% plurality of that vote, John Tory has read those numbers and concluded that it was merely the personal scandals Torontonians rejected, the confrontational and abrasive governance style, too. We were all good with the bad math, the deplorable accounting practices, the complete and utter disregard of expert advice, the detrimental policy choices.

All of which Mayor Tory now vigorously pursues if in slightly different guises. Attritional and limited levels of tax rates and revenue sources. schrodingerscatQuixotic cost savings quests. Ruinous public transit projects. Just like happened during the Ford administration. But somehow different with Mayor Tory at the helm, he wants us all to believe.

He’s got away with it for his first year. With reports due early in the new year on things like the Scarborough subway and SmartTrack, an impending budgetary shortfall forcing some tough choices out into the open, 2016 looks to provide a somewhat rockier road for Mayor Tory. How much longer can he continue trying to be not Rob Ford and Rob Ford simultaneously? Even the smallest of particles has to ultimately become one thing or the other.

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1 Year Down, 7 To Go

Hey!

Here’s an idea nobody’s thought about until this very moment.brightidea

How about today, on the first anniversary of John Tory’s election as mayor of Toronto, I assess his job performance, by issuing a, what would you call it, a report card of sorts? So obvious. It’s amazing to me nobody’s come up with it before I did.

I kid. I kid.

While children throughout the province may not be receiving report cards this term, Mayor Tory has been inundated with them. So don’t mind me while I just pile on here for a second. I’m sure I’ve got something to say about his time in office somebody else hasn’t said already.

A+s all round, it seems, for Mayor Tory’s restoring of civility to City Hall. Out with the shit show. In with decorum. Toronto’s reputation in the eyes of the nation and the world has been salvaged and revived.

Make no mistake. This is important. While it’s tough to wholly quantify, local governance had been worn down to a slow grind even after the previous administration crashed and burned. oneyearanniversaryThe appearance of serious-minded competence is a vital first step in realizing serious-minded competence.

So, with absolutely no facetiousness intended, well done. Mayor Tory has largely succeeded in relegating the lunacy to the fringes where it belongs. At the local level, this is no small feat.

But this should come as no surprise, really. It’s pretty much as advertised. John Tory campaigned heavily on being the anti-Ford. That’s what the city voted for. That’s what the city got.

But is it enough? Going forward, is simple peace-and-quiet all we can demand and expect from this mayoralty? One year in, what other accomplishments can this administration point to?

I ask because, over the weekend, I was involved in a discussion on social media about the long term electoral prospects of Mayor Tory. It stemmed from a Toronto Star article by David Rider, outlining how the mayor seems to be operating with his attention focused on a rematch with Rob Ford in 2018, catering to the issues perceived to be important to the Nation: cars and low taxes. notthatguyAn unnamed councillor suggested the mayor doesn’t want to be perceived as ‘downtown-ist or urbanist’, and that his staff isn’t concerned with any sort of unrest from the ‘left flank’.

Essentially, as long as Rob Ford remains a viable contender (or the perception exists that he’s a viable contender), Mayor Tory can just waltz toward re-election, scaring left-of-centre voters into supporting him for no other reason than simply to keep Rob Ford from being mayor again.

I questioned the wisdom of that, and heard from some very non-Tory types that, yeah, as long as Rob Ford is in the electoral picture, nobody serious from the left would challenge the mayor, let alone win. This had been a sentiment expressed to me by more than a few voices on the left almost immediately after election night last year. Plan for two terms of Mayor Tory.

That’s 7 more years, folks. All this administration can point to by way of accomplishments is not being Rob Ford and we’ve resigned ourselves to expecting nothing more? For 7 more years?

What happens to a city presided over by a mayor who defines himself by something or someone he isn’t? Where exactly is the aspiration in that? Come 2022, at the end of Mayor Tory’s presumed 2nd term, what does that Toronto look like, aside from being Rob Ford-free for nearly a decade?yoursforlife

Nothing the mayor has done over the past 12 months can point to anything transformative taking place during his tenure. He’ll tell you SmartTrack despite every indication suggesting otherwise. He’s got a report on a plan to tackle the city’s poverty and growing income inequality. But so far, it’s just that, a report on a plan. In the words of the mayor’s chosen right-hand man, Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong, “When the rubber hits the road, it all comes down to money.” Ambition and aspiration are all well and good but, ultimately, show me the money. “There are going to be competing priorities,” Mayor Tory concurred.

As much as he’s relied on differentiating himself from his predecessor for the goodwill he’s generated from Torontonians, policy-wise, there’s little sunlight to be seen between the two men. Like Rob Ford, Mayor Tory has solidly aligned himself with the suburban, conservative rump of city council, filling his Executive Committee with them almost to the exclusion of downtown councillors. Like Rob Ford, Mayor Tory has rejected any discussion about property tax increases above the rate of inflation. foggytoLike Rob Ford, Mayor Tory grudgingly accepts public transit fare increases but will not so much as consider user fees on other types of commuters (*cough, cough *drivers* cough, cough * cough, cough*). Both Rob Ford and Mayor John Tory euphemistically talk efficiencies when they actually mean cuts. Rob Ford uses the low-brow terminology, ‘gravy’, while Mayor Tory goes all Michelin Guide, 5-star rating, ‘marbling’.

Mayor Tory talks a much bigger, brighter picture than Rob Ford ever did but he steadfastly refuses to discuss the grim reality of how we achieve such things. We might have to pay more. We might have to re-prioritize how we go about doing things, how we go about getting about the city, say. We might have to accept the fact it’s 2015 not 1975.

In no way do I see Mayor Tory willing to accept that challenge. He’s an agent of change from the Rob Ford way of doing things but he seems risk averse to much of any other sort of change. He’s returned us to the pre-Ford status quo, one chock full of intractable problems and structural concerns he seems no more prepared to face than Rob Ford was.unsure

Lest you think I’m just some Douglas Downer, on a positive note, I do think Mayor John Tory is both amiable and pliant enough to establish good working relationships with the other levels of government which, when all is said and done, will be vital for the city to deal effectively with those intractable problems and structural concerns. We’ve seen hints of it in his first year in office despite some setbacks. (You want us to pay how much for our portion of UPX?!) I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But is that enough to feel good about the prospect of 7 more John Tory as mayor anniversaries, to simply concede to him certain re-election because he’s proven little more to us than he’s not Rob Ford? We get it already. Who exactly Mayor Tory is and what he represents remains a mystery. One he needs to start unwrapping before we give him the keys to the office for as long as he wants.

notthatguy1

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