Whatever highs we got from compulsively tracking the mayor’s antics have long worn off—and still, we can’t seem to look away. Admit it, Toronto. We’re Fordaholics. What will it take to kick the habit?
Last week, around the end of the workday on Dec. 4, we went on another bender. A superior court released new censored information from police documents detailing the investigation into Mayor Rob Ford. And so, beginning in the late afternoon and stretching well into the wee hours of the following morning, on Twitter, talk radio, TV news, and in private conversations over coffee or cocktails,we got drunk on the fresh revelations.
The rush was familiar—we’ve been hooked on the mayor for years—and it contained all the qualities we’ve grown to expect: the meme-worthy nicknames (“Juice Man,” “Princess”), tweet-ready phrases (“smoking his rocks,” “hezza,” “so much pictures of Rob Ford”), and the alarmingly lurid details (blackmail, kidnappings, shootings).
At this point, though, a Ford binge has lost some of its thrill and our consumption of his latest misadventure feels a bit dirty. Our tolerance for the darkly absurd has increased; the highs (such as city council restricting the mayor’s powers) don’t feel as high, and the lows (like the shooting of a would-be crack-video salesman) are so much lower. It has gotten to the point where a news junkie—like, say, me—interrupts a marathon reading of police documents and social media commentary to ask: Is this what I’ve let Ford’s story turn me into?
And yet first thing the next morning, even before the regret wore off, Ford addicts were hungry for another fix. At City Hall last Thursday, the executive committee now headed by Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly dealt with the proposed Billy Bishop Airport expansion, which everyone agrees is A Matter Of Civic Importance. Of course, when the mayor showed up, people looked mostly at him and tweeted mainly about him, even as the rest of council made serious faces and talked in those sober tones meant to indicate careful deliberation.
The committee decided to defer the decision to a later date. Afterwards, Porter Airlines CEO Robert Deluce went to address the media. His handlers led him to an area just around the corner from the meeting room, but the press did not follow. “I know this sounds weird, but can we do it over here?” asked Katie Simpson of CP24. “I need to keep an eye on that door over there.” You see, at any moment, Ford might have emerged, and if he had, the Deluce scrum on A Matter Of Civic Importance would have been abandoned to chase the mayor—even though he probably would have said nothing, or nothing of substance, and instead pushed silently through to his office. But you never know: He might have blurted something out. And whenever he does, we get another hit.
I know this cycle well. I’ve been an addict for longer than most and a pusher from the beginning. As far back as 2010, my editors and I realized that fans and haters alike wanted to read about Ford at the expense of most other things. A story I wrote before the election, predicting the “night-mayor” scenario of a Ford mayoralty, became the most-read item I’d written that year. Shortly after the election, another piece I wrote about the divide in the city’s culture that fed his vote quickly surpassed the popularity of the previous one. In fact, no matter what I cover—tax rates, political attitudes, even mundane policy questions—it is far more widely read if I find a way to wedge the words “Rob Ford” into the headline.
Yahoo recently released its most popular search results for Canada in 2013, and Ford is just behind Miley Cyrus in the top spot. An analysis of U.S. media coverage revealed that in November, the Ford saga was the most reported Canadian story of the century so far. Toronto Life ran a list of Ford-themed Christmas gift ideas. Many have speculated on how much our addiction to the mayor’s troubles have cost the city in lost productivity.
He has even become the centre of stories that have nothing to do with him—whether it’s the Buffalo Bills game, the Santa Claus parade, or the recent funeral of police officer Const. John Zivcic. There is not a single Toronto event or political discussion that does not in some way revolve around Rob Ford.
Can we acknowledge that this is unhealthy?
Remember that old public service announcement from the late-’80s, with the egg cooking in a frying pan accompanied by the slogan, “This is your brain on drugs”? Well, Toronto, this is your city on Rob Ford.
During this current Ford chapter, amid speculations that the mayor has a problem with substance abuse, Toronto Star reporter Jim Coyle has detailed his own experiences with addiction and rehab. In a tweet last month, he wrote: “The three phases of alcoholism: Fun. Fun with problems. Problems. Anyone still having fun, or who thinks they might again, isn’t ready to quit.”
I think Toronto has reached phase three: We have problems. Whatever kind of fun we had or high we got from following the antics of the mayor while he was coaching football and shouting about subways has long worn off. And whatever good might have arisen from our addiction (by drawing attention to suburban alienation, or alerting city council to its own dormant authority) has long passed.
The two questions we face now are the same as those of any addict realizing the extent of their dysfunction. One, how can we kick this habit? And, two, how the hell are we ever going to find things interesting again without it?
The first is difficult, since Ford will remain the mayor until the next election, barring some extraordinary circumstances, such as a criminal conviction. City council, for its part, has embraced the courage to change the things it can and the serenity to accept the things it can’t. They have taken a harm-reduction approach: limiting the mayor’s influence and allowing the police and the voters to determine the conclusion of this story.
And maybe that election campaign will serve as our rehab. The recent all-consuming focus on the mayor’s sad, shocking personal troubles has made the toxicity of an all-Ford political climate clear. But perhaps we need to address what got us hooked on him as a form of self-medication in the first place.
Ford offered an escape from confronting the city’s most intractable problems, such as the decades-long gentrification trends and bad planning that have created two separate Torontos: one populated by wealthier people with access to better municipal services, the other home to poorer people in isolated neighbourhoods with fewer resources, like efficient transit. The mayor’s troubles distracted us from tough, grown-up, responsible conversations about such things. Instead, he enabled us to emphasize our differences (suburban vs. urban, cyclists vs. motorists, and so on) and allowed us to substitute resentment for the hard work of addressing our challenges.
No trip to the bar for a drink (or 10) will solve a drunk’s marital and work problems and no amount of obsessing over Ford will solve our civic problems. Perhaps once other mayoral candidates enter the race and begin actively campaigning for leadership, we’ll be able to demonstrate to ourselves that this man no longer has the power to dominate our political conversations.
But that leads to the second question, the fear of the unknown future: Will politics ever be the same again? Will we ever be able to find those important debates about transit and zoning and budgets entertaining without a cheap dose of Ford outrage? Maybe not. Or maybe not in the same way.
Recall, if you can through the crack-induced informational fog, the more innocent time of September 2012. Hot on the heels of concerns that the mayor had used city resources to coach a high school football team, he was accused of using his office to speed up city roadwork near his family company’s office. Matt Elliott, the City Hall columnist for Metro, wrote, “The Ford administration has hit peak scandal.”
I’ll wait while you finish laughing at that. But the truth is, it did feel like we’d hit rock bottom then.
At that point, the Ford sideshow still offered real talk about policy and city issues—even if he was the wedge in every debate. In early 2012, for instance, he proposed cuts to all kinds of city services. After weeks of public outcry, however, council passed a budget amendment to preserve much of the funding. It was ordinary citizens who did the hard work of saving those services (many of them pleading with council during all-night meetings), but the headlines, like one in the National Post that read “Rob Ford slips,” framed it around the mayor.
Despite the acrimony, the city began to figure out what it thought was important, where and when to increase the budget or cut taxes, and what the gritty details of transit planning involve. Thanks to the ethics and legal complaints against Ford, we got a tour of how the city’s accountability officers operate and how municipal governance works (or doesn’t). We were functioning as a city, even if our chief magistrate was the narcotic that drew us to those debates in the first place.
Now, as we’ve hit a new peak in peak scandal, there is no denying that Ford is a riveting character. He is terribly flawed and terribly bad at concealing his flaws, and he’s brought some crazy family dynamics into City Hall. His equal hold on some people’s affections and other people’s rage is powerful and enduring. Pollster Ipsos-Reid estimates 20 to 24 per cent of voters will stick with the mayor no matter what, while 62 per cent will not vote for him in 2014 “under any circumstances.” He gets mobbed by fans at a football game, even after his former budget chief led fellow councillors in turning their backs to him whenever he spoke at City Hall.
I don’t know if any municipal affairs story can ever be as interesting as Ford’s. But it’s time for us to give it up anyway. There are worse things than a dull City Hall. Hell, in Montreal, where citizens are eager to clean up the city after years of mob-connected corruption, I imagine they’re hoping for a long dose of boring.
Other cities—and our own history—remind us that political engagement can be smart and serious and inspiring even when it doesn’t offer a jolt of the absurd every day. Calgary recently re-elected a likeable, intelligent urbanist as its mayor. New York City just put a guy in office who made addressing that city’s familiar divide between rich and poor his top priority—and he promised to do so by focusing on affordability and income inequality, not by nonsensically slashing budgets and cancelling cultural straw men like bike lanes.
Here’s the challenge for a city trying to detox after a long binge on Rob Ford’s colourful agenda: We need to focus on our own agenda. When you get past the dry policy talk, politics is about how we live. When we talk about subways, taxes, and housing, we have an opportunity to make our lives better in real, tangible ways.
It won’t provide the same rush, but that’s the only cure for this addiction: to swap our fascination with one man’s crazy life for an active interest in the evolving narrative of the lives—and futures—of a few million other people who live in this city.
Where our Ford binge has left us on four key issues
What a ride we’ve been on these past three years. To recap: We cancelled the Scarborough LRT plan, reinstated it, and then decided to go with a subway extension instead. The details are still being sorted, and the plan itself, after all this time, remains somewhat up in the air. Meanwhile, the Sheppard LRT has now been delayed by years. The good news is that we’ve all had a chance to study the issue and form more intelligent opinions on transit building. The bad news is that we’ve neglected to address service on the system we have. Transit has been cut and frozen in Ford budgets, and fares have risen while buses have been scheduled to come less frequently and to be more crowded.
Where to begin? There is a massive repair backlog in public housing and a wait list for apartments approaching 90,000 households; hundreds of millions have been diverted to emergency repairs on the Gardiner Expressway and investment in flood prevention has slowed down. Ford has kept property-tax increases low (below the rate of inflation; meanwhile, Toronto has the lowest property taxes in the region) and cancelled the vehicle registration tax. In an outbreak of sanity, council has not yet eliminated the Land Transfer Tax, which brings in $300 million per year. Still, a realistic plan to fund the city’s long list of pressing needs is a splash of cold water we haven’t received yet.
THE GRAVY TRAIN
When the mayor ran on a platform of cutting waste and inefficiency, a lot of reasonable people suspected he was on to something. Four budgets later, city manager Joe Pennachetti estimates the actual “savings” to the city by cutting inefficiency at about $400 million—a little less than former mayor David Miller saved in his final four-year term. Here’s a hard truth for the electorate to face up to: There is no secret pile of money, nor an overlooked train full of gravy, that will solve our financial difficulties.
Ford very noisily makes public housing a priority by visiting residents and then sharing their concerns about roaches and broken-down buildings. Yet he’s done nearly nothing of actual substance to improve the situation. At the same time, even as condo construction continues at skyline-warping speed, housing overall has become less affordable—for those rich, poor, or otherwise—in the past three years. Rents are up by more than double the rate of inflation, and average house prices have increased by 25 per cent. This issue, one of the most discussed in the city, cries out for immediate action.