Ford Doesn't Scale


This is not a fat joke. Get your mind out of the gutter.

Earlier today, Toronto city council had another in its showdowns between a newly empowered council and an increasingly intransigent mayor’s office over the issue of subways versus light rail transit. Ford and his allies (which seem to number around 14 at the moment, or just 31% of council) scored what they thought was a point at the end when they filibustered the vote and forced council to adjourn (as scheduled) and reconvene the matter tomorrow. But it’s a hollow and temporary victory. The fact that Mayor Ford moved to reconvene the meeting on April 4th shows how scared the mayor’s office is running on this issue. He knows he doesn’t have the vote to carry the day, and his actions here have done little but harden his political opposition and public opinion against him.

How did we get to this point? Earlier, I likened Rob Ford’s rise and projected fall to the trajectory experienced by Ottawa’s former mayor, Larry O’Brien. Within two years, O’Brien felt he had no choice to stand up and apologize to council and the citizens of Ottawa for the tumultuous months that were behind him. Ford’s been in power for fifteen months, and council only really stood up to him late last year when they slapped his hands off of the Portlands, so he’s following that trajectory. However, I don’t recall ever having heard of the political manoeuvrings that we witnessed earlier today, filibustering, attempts to break quorum, happening in Ottawa. Is it only because that Toronto’s media swamps the news of the surrounding municipalities that Toronto council meetings seem so much more interesting?

Pundits across the political spectrum can’t understand what Ford’s end game is. Some have speculated that Ford is going to cross his arms and just stand in the mayor’s office, using the current discord as fuel for his re-election campaign. That does not seem wise. A lot of people, some of whom have voted for Ford, are likely to think that they elected a mayor to govern, not stomp his foot for two and a half years. Most people, I think, understand that it is the mayor’s responsibility to negotiate his way to a majority of council in order to pass his agenda, and if Ford refuses to do so, then he’s simply not doing the job that they elected him to do. Already polls indicate that the mood is souring. Ford’s approval rating is down to 40%, and in a one-and-one contest against either Karen Stintz or Adam Vaughan, Ford loses 49%-36%. His attempts to drive a wedge between downtown and suburbs notwithstanding, recent polls suggest that he’s even losing popularity in Etobicoke — his home turf.

Has Ford received bad advice? Or is he just pigheaded? How could a man who was politically savvy enough to ride a wave into office fail so spectacularly?

Early in Ford’s term, I read a column from a columnist (I forget his name) who suggested that Rob Ford ran for the wrong job. Let’s pause a moment as the more left-leaning of my readers shout at their screen, “well, duh!!” But this is not what I meant. The columnist suggested that Ford’s strengths as a public figure, and his goals in pursuing public life tailored him for a job that had little to do with the day-to-day activities of the mayor’s office. As a councillor, Ford was a gadfly, but he was adept at connecting to people in his ward (people who agreed with him, anyway), and championing their causes, cutting through the bureaucratic red tape to fix a pot-hole that city workers seemed to ignore, dealing with noise complaints — small scale issues which nevertheless affect ordinary people where it matters the most: in their homes.

This assessment was reinforced by this article wherein Ford cordially told Star columnist “the Fixer” that Ford’s self-imposed ban on talking with the Toronto Star (for a controversial story that attacked the Ford family) did not extend to the Fixer himself. And, if you think about it, this is not a surprise. The Fixer’s modus operandi is to find these annoying and persistent problems in the city, find the people responsible for fixing these problems and getting the problems fixed. It’s everything that Ford loved doing while he was a councillor. And it’s what he loves doing now that he’s mayor.

But as a job, a mayor has an entirely different set of responsibilities than a simple councillor. It’s hard enough touring your ward, asking 56,000 constituents if their fridge is working or their sidewalks are in good condition. Imagine doing that for a city of 2.5 million. Also, as councillor, Ford was responsible to no one but himself. He was under no obligation to work with other councillors, and the people who were under him worked for him in a clearly defined employer-employee relationship. This does not carry over to the mayor’s office. Ford has said that he’s not a politician, he’s a businessman, but that’s not an accurate assessment of his problems here. A good mayor needs to negotiate and needs to delegate, and while a business the size of Ford’s Deco Labels & Tags (employing 250 people) may be successfully run by an energetic, tight-knit family, Ford may find that if Deco Labels & Tags increases in size substantially his inability to delegate may become more of a hinderance than a help.

Ford passed up an opportunity today to show real leadership on the subway vs light rail debate. If he had come forward with a credible plan to pay for new subways in exchange for using some of the province’s $8.4 Billion to extend the Sheppard subway to Victoria Park, many centrists (myself included) would have stood with him. Instead, he would only promise to “look at” revenue sources once “shovels were in the ground”. By that logic, Ford would go looking for a trampoline after he stepped off a cliff. Ford’s problem is that he appears to believe that true leadership is “giving the people what they want”. Unfortunately, that’s not what real leaders do, it’s what entertainers do. Ford has promised on the campaign trail that he could build the Sheppard subway and extend the Bloor-Danforth to the Scarborough Town Centre, have both lines opened by 2015, and not raise taxes in order to do it. He has stuck to variations on this plan because, as he says, “people want subways” and, as his brother says, “taxes are evil”.

But a true leader doesn’t just listen to what people want and advocate for it. If it was so simple to give the people two contradictory things, life would be so easy that we’d really have no need for government — we’d all be fed, clothed and sheltered, and nobody would be stepping on anybody’s toes.

The reality, of course, is different. If Ford really talked to people, really listened (rather than ignoring those who told him LRT was a better investment), and heard “I want subways” and “I want lower taxes”, his next step should have been to say “well, you can’t have both at the same time. So you need to ask yourselves what your true priorities are. How much do you want new subways to be built? Would you be willing to pay a 0.5% sales tax, or a parking levy, or would you be willing to see your property taxes rise?”

A true leader would not only advocate for his or her vision, but would also tell the people that choices have to be made and sacrifices have to be taken, so will they join together to share that sacrifice, knowing that the vision, once fulfilled, will be better for all? Sugarcoating the transit debate as Ford has done, trying to tell Toronto’s voters that subways can be built without a substantial increase in taxes, may have netted Ford the votes in the short term, but it does nothing to advance his vision for subways. Reality has already crashed down on that fantasy, and those who followed Ford’s vision of new subways but were never warned of the taxes required to pay for them, are now coming away disillusioned and angry. A sacrifice that has been communicated to the electorate, taken up by them and shared by them, is something they point to proudly once the goal behind the sacrifice is achieved.

For the past fifteen months, Ford has struggled mightily to come up with a workable funding plan for his subways, but he refuses to commit to anything that results in higher taxes. His lack of leadership on this issue has caused several Scarborough councillors to break ranks, and advocate for new subway development with new revenue tools (taxes). They’re the ones showing some real leadership on this issue. But such understanding appears to be a blindspot for Ford.

So, yes, Ford is in the wrong job, and I think that most individuals can see that this is the case. It doesn’t bode well for his political future, in spite of the bluster of his allies, either on council, or at the Toronto Sun. But the real losers are the people of Toronto who, regardless of who they voted for mayor, probably still voted for some real leadership on council. In the vacuum that the mayor’s office has established, council has little choice but to step forward to fill it, but it’s not a perfect fit. Council meetings will likely be more interesting than they should be for the next thirty months, until some sense of normalcy is restored to City Hall following the 2014 vote.

Update: 11:52 p.m.

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