BY EDWARD KEENAN
I drove my car out to Ford Fest in Thomson Park in Scarborough on Friday, which turned out to be a mistake. Not that taking transit would have been an attractive alternative, since I know from much experience that the trek to McCowan and Lawrence on the TTC is the kind of journey you could write a book about—a disaster travelogue in the nature of those harrowing tales of Everest (as Rosie DiManno of the Star found out). Conveniently for the Ford brothers, the subway line they are now supporting alongside their erstwhile nemesis Karen Stintz would have a stop at McCowan and Lawrence, perfect for delivering people to the park—if not to many other places in Scarborough.
Still, even by car, it was a slog: the DVP predictably slow, Lawrence Avenue a parking lot due to the closing of part of the street for the Taste of Lawrence Festival, and alternate route Ellesmere similarly jammed up because of the detouring traffic. It took over an hour to drive from U of T to the party, and once we arrived the parking lot itself was worse than all that had been, so we finally found a spot to leave the car on a nice residential street over near McCowan and walked into the park.
There, after waiting in traffic for so long, we encountered thousands more people, all waiting for free burgers and drinks in lines that snaked for hours—really, for hours— through the park’s pathways. The line for food converged at some point with another line, the one to meet Rob Ford and have your picture taken with him—which you needed to do before you could get tickets for food. (I pity the poor attendee who got to the front of the burger line without a ticket.) For a customer-service mayor like Rob Ford, this would seem to have been a disaster, these Soviet-style food lines. But while there was ample grumbling about the wait times, people didn’t seem to hold it against the man who threw the party. Another popular theme of Ford’s career—you can get something for nothing—seemed to provide ample couterweight to those with hunger pangs and aching feet.
I did not wait in line, for two reasons: First of all because I do not wait in line if I have any option at all. (In fact, I left my planned purchases in the aisle at IKEA just last week and walked out of the store when I encountered the 15-minute queue at the checkout counter—I regularly do the same at Chapters in the Eaton Centre, where they consistently fail to open enough cash registers to handle the load of customers.) But second, and equally importantly, I would not accept the hospitality of the Ford Family and then crap all over them. And crap all over them, it seems, is what I do these days.
Away from the food line, amid the swampy muck that resulted from the rain earlier in the day, there was a Ferris wheel and a bouncy castle for the kids, and there was a band playing under a tent. This was Jenny James’ band, doing a series of solid covers of Top 40 songs that you might hear at a wedding, punctuated by no fewer than three performances of their original absurdist Ford Anthem, “Mayor Ford (The World Will Remember).” People were handing out lyric sheets that, in my mind, should have served only to emphasize the song’s self-parodying qualities, but then there’s no accounting for taste: Some people were very demonstrably rocking out to the number, including an octagenarian who stood next to the speakers beside me and drew his own circle of admirers, and, at one point, the Mayor himself, who bobbed and swayed as Ms James celebrated him as, variously, the “Taxpayers’ Lord,” “the Cost Cowboy,” and “the Rollback Viceroy,” among other things.
And then, you know, at some point the mayor made a speech, in which the only real piece of information was that if Doug Holyday is elected to provincial parliament, Norm Kelly will serve as Deputy Mayor. The rest of the speech hardly needs commenting on—it was Ford saying his Ford things: “subways,” “stop the gravy train,” “the campaign’s already begun.” One could get worked up about the open, shameless campaigning—and the whole event, for that matter—since it is illegal to spend money on a campaign before registering to run in January 2014, and it is also illegal at any time to campaign in a public park. But Rob Ford has so thoroughly and consistently disregarded the rules meant to apply to our system that, at this point, the objections seem almost pro forma.
Besides, I didn’t go out to Scarborough to hear Ford talk. I’m sick of hearing him talk. Unless he starts talking about a certain video that he says doesn’t exist and the circumstances of a photo that shows him in front of an old buddy’s house that is alleged to be a notorious drug den, standing with one man who’s since been gunned down and two men who’ve since been arrested as part of a giant drug sting, I don’t expect him to say anything that’s really news to me.
I went to check out the crowd, which is generally the only reason to go to a political event, since the politicians only ever say things you’ve heard them say before. And this crowd was a lefty-organizer’s dystopian nightmare: They were young and old alike (people brought their children and their mobility scooter–piloting grandparents), they ranged mostly from working class to poor on the economic spectrum, and they were as multicultural a crowd as you’d expect a random group of Scarborough residents to be. You don’t need to have gone to many anti-Ford rallies to notice how much more like Toronto’s actual population the demographics of this event were. And the Ford Festers told me, in accents that ranged from Chinese to Jamaican to Indian to Wayne-and-Garthian, that they like Rob Ford.
I asked a whole series of people to tell me what they thought the important issues in the city were and what they thought of the mayor. Almost without exception, they said the same things, and they said them in the words Rob Ford uses. “He stopped the gravy train” was an exact phrase I heard from the first two people I talked to. An 82-year-old man told me that, since he owns two cars, Ford had saved him $120 by cutting the vehicle registration tax, and another woman, a retired nurse, told me that and his plan to cut other taxes (including the land transfer tax) were important to her, since she lives on a fixed income. Virtually everyone mentioned subways, and they want them, and they believe he will deliver them.
“I love his ideas about building a subway in Scarborough,” said Tony Ling, “and he’s clear about how how to do the budget, to stop the gravy train. I like his ideas. But I want to see more actions.”
The perception of Ford as “his own man” seemed equally important to the crowd. They seemed to admire that he’s a target for the media, and for council’s left. “You cannot expect a person to do what everybody wants him to do,” Rosetta Carrington told me. “He’s doing it the way he sees it, the way thinks, that’s his motto. Someone’s gonna like it, and some won’t.”
“Personally, I like him,” her friend Harri Anne Brown chipped in. “If you please everyone, then you’re not doing your job. He’s not perfect, like all of us.”
“He doesn’t say what people want him to say,” Rosetta added. “He doesn’t say what society wants to hear. He says how he thinks, how he’s gonna do it—he puts it on the table, take it or leave it. I see him like that, ’cause I’m like that.” She said if the mayor changed his mind to please other people, he would be lying to himself.
“He’s trying his best,” said Cathy, standing with her husband Harry and their son Kevin.
Winston Churchill famously remarked that the strongest argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. And as I spoke to the people at Ford Fest, it was hard to avoid thinking along those lines—not because the people I spoke to disagreed with me (I am very used to—and comfortable with—people disagreeing with me), but because they seemed to occupy an entirely separate political-news universe from me. I spend time at city hall, and away from it with people who are city-hall watchers, and the assumptions we have about Ford as a manager of money, as an honest man (or not), and about the issues in play in the decision to put a subway or an LRT in Scarborough are very different assumptions from those I encountered at Ford Fest. I won’t belabour the way my own impressions differ. (If you’re a reader of my blog, you’ll be familiar by now.)
I wrote recently, on the cover of this week’s issue of The Grid, about Ford’s re-election chances. And my own evaluation in that piece of how some voters view Ford lines up pretty well with what I encountered at Ford Fest. A lot of reaction to my piece was disbelief—invoking that always handy caricature of Ford voters as moustache-twirling villains who want to mow down cyclists in their tax-exempt SUVs—but I myself wasn’t surprised, necessarily, by what I heard in Scarborough. But it was still sobering, to stand in a gathering of thousands (Ford’s camp says it was 20,000, other estimates say 5,000) and experience the disconnect between the way I view city-hall politics and Ford’s scandal-plagued career, and the way these Ford Fest attendees from Scarborough view those things.
Polls show that those who like Ford do not comprise a majority of the city. But they are a very substantial minority. And this bit of field work confirms my gut feeling that those who still support him are unlikely to be swayed by more of the same sorts of argument we’ve been having about Ford and his policies for the past couple of years.
Winston Churchill had another famous saying about democracy: that it was the worst system except for all the others that have been tried. And it is the system we have. Many people may find the average voter frustrating, but their opinion remains the most important consideration come election time. You can argue with voters all you want, and you may even be right. But you cannot beat them—you have to convince them.
Right now, this chunk of voters is convinced by Rob Ford. So the question, when confronting the average voter—or a lot of average voters—in Toronto just now is, how do you convince them otherwise?
PHOTO: LUCAS OLENIUK/TORONTO STAR