This was never going to end well, was it? Everything Rob Ford’s supporters liked about him would eventually lead to his awkward tumble out of City Hall: the stubbornness, the creativity with facts, the love of confrontation. As Toronto gets set to say farewell to the strangest mayoralty in memory, we look at the damage he’s done (significant), his positive achievements (yes, they exist), and the unlikeliest of happy endings.
This is the way the Rob Ford movie ends: On a Monday, he is ordered removed from office as mayor; on Tuesday, he leaves a council meeting where the scheming to replace him is running rampant, in order to preside over the Toronto Argonauts’ Grey Cup victory parade. He returns to City Hall, offers a quick, downbeat semi-apology to “anyone who thinks I should have acted differently,” and then leaves again to coach his beloved Don Bosco Eagles in the Metro Bowl. The team suffered a tough loss under the lights of the Rogers Centre even as City Council continued to meet a few blocks away. And as the tearful teenaged players gathered around Ford after the game, he told them, “Keep your heads up.” As Metro columnist Matt Elliott suggested on Twitter, that’s the freeze frame over which the biopic credits roll.
It’s a movie that couldn’t have ended any other way. Like Shakespearean tragedies and Greek myths, The Rob Ford Story revolves around a character whose flaws were initially perceived as assets. The same qualities that elevated Ford to power have now laid him low, and he ends where he began—an outsider shunned in the corridors of power but still beloved by the high-school football players he coaches.
The ruling of Justice Charles Hackland that declared the seat of the mayor of Toronto vacant lays bare in a few simple words those character traits that have defined Rob Ford’s career: a “stubborn sense of entitlement,” a “dismissive and confrontational attitude” towards procedures and those who enforce them, “ignorance,” and a “lack of diligence in securing professional advice amounting to willful blindness.” This is a man who tried to impose an $8 billion change in transit plans by decree. He wouldn’t let experts tell him a suburban subway was too impractical and expensive, and he fired a senior civil servant who insisted on saying as much. Ford couldn’t compromise with city councillors, whose support he actually needed; when they defied him, he called their vote “irrelevant.” He smeared city integrity officials who investigated his misconduct, and even rejected brother Doug’s pleas to get a driver, insisting on conducting his office affairs while operating his car. Ford called the CEO of the TTC to inquire why the bus that had dumped passengers on the road in order to pick up his football squad was late, and hauled city-department heads into his office to demand that road work be expedited for his family business. He insisted on his own definitions all along: a library closing was an “efficiency” rather than a cut; slashing revenue was a “savings” in the budget; garbage collectors were “social elites” sucking down gravy.
And, finally, in this conflict-of-interest case, those personality traits have coalesced. On the stand, Ford insisted that his definition of “conflict” trumped the one actually described in a law he admitted he had never read. Earlier in the process, he refused to accept sensible advice, and stubbornly spoke and voted on a council resolution dealing with his rule-breaking on behalf of his football charity.
Ford’s career was defined by elevating nickel-and-dime items to city-wide prominence: watering plants at City Hall, serving dinner during council meetings, rented bunny suits, plastic bags that cost a nickel. So it’s fitting that he gets removed from office due to a seemingly petty matter—a mere $3,150 in donations to be repaid.
Those qualities are precisely what made him appear to be a scrappy and authentic outsider to voters who thought he might be what the city needed in 2010. They led him to early victories as he steamrolled council and Queen’s Park in early 2011. But it was those same qualities that inspired a citizen uprising over the budget, transit, and the waterfront, that led city council to start routinely overruling him, and, finally, that gave a judge no legal choice but to remove him from office. He erected a pig-headed barricade with stubborn, prideful ignorance, and manned that barricade to the very end.
“But!” the plaintive voice of Ford Nation cries, “It’s not over yet! There will be an appeal! A stay! Another election!” And, sure enough, legal questions may—or may not—stretch the limping last days of the Ford administration out for another month or two. But already, at Tuesday’s council meeting, his one-time arch-enemy Giorgio Mammoliti—who, since his election, had become his most loyal and loudmouthed henchman—had turned on him again, demanding that Ford step aside pending appeal, claiming it was time for the city to get over the partisanship of the Ford era and move on. And already the city solicitor was offering an interpretation of the judge’s ruling that read it to mean Ford would be barred from running in any by-election between now and 2014. Councillor Shelley Carroll was talking about running for mayor, and the press gallery was handicapping the race to come. Even as Rob Ford and his brother declared that the fight was not over—and even as the immediate future was clouded by outstanding legal fine print to be deciphered—the rest of the City Hall regulars were preparing for the next battle. Ford may at some point rise again, but City Hall is moving on to a new fight—over where it goes next.
And not a moment too soon. As dominating a presence as Ford has been in the political conversation these past two years, his chief legacy has been to freeze Toronto in a state of paralysis. We’ve spent the two years since his election re-fighting the garbage strike of 2009, reversing some of the new revenue tools of 2007, and revisiting the plastic-bag fee and bike-lane debates of 2010. As we survey the landscape at the end of the Ford movie, we find ourselves in many ways back near where we started: The Vehicle Registration Tax is repealed, the quest for new sources of money is back on, the new bike lanes have been removed, and the plastic-bag issue is driving everyone nuts. And after all the traumatic hand-wringing, the budget isn’t much closer to (or further away from) being structurally balanced than it was the day Ford was elected.
There are a few issues his supporters will point to as enduring victories: Ford contracted out garbage collection in part of the city, legislated an end to TTC strikes, and negotiated a deal with the city’s other unions that will prevent any strikes for four years.
And there are even some moves his detractors will agree were uncontested wins for the city, especially on the hiring of senior bureaucrats. Jennifer Keesmaat is a chief city planner after a downtown elitist’s heart, new TTC head Andy Byford is a transit pro by anyone’s estimation, and if Gene Jones could lead a turnaround in the public housing agency in Detroit, he seems well-equipped to help move Toronto Community Housing forward. Some wonder if other candidates might have applied for these jobs if we’d had a less controversial mayor, but I haven’t heard anyone denying that we landed some solid, world-leading public executives nonetheless.
Still, the issue that best sums up the Ford administration’s effect on the city is the biggest: The city’s transit plan today is the same one we had when Ford arrived in office, except it’s been delayed by about two years, and stalled by a bitter fight over the mayor’s stubborn indulgence of fantasy and his attempts to exercise power in the service of it.
So we’re on the same course as before, but two years behind, a statement that applies to many things about the city after Ford. But there is one big difference. We now proceed—however delayed—having gone through a thorough, very public debate about transit planning, a debate in which citizen activists campaigned and a city council emboldened by public support awoke to its own authority. A blue-ribbon panel of experts weighed in, and virtually everyone in the city learned something about how population density and cost can inform a decision about transportation technology. As a direct result of that debate, we’ve now begun to publicly recognize the need for another line—a downtown-relief subway line that transit wonks have spent decades quietly insisting should be added—and about how to find a way to pay for it.
Ford didn’t lead that public debate about transit (his contribution was limited to repeating a mantra of “subways, subways, subways”), but he sparked it. Without Mayor Ford bringing his outsider grumblers into the conversation, and without the vitriolic opposition he and his supporters inspired, a public debate we dearly needed would never have happened.
And that is just as noteworthy as Ford’s personal foibles, or the stasis he’s created. He inspired—or maybe a better word is “provoked”—a massive civic debate. The council public gallery is now full during meetings, budget deputations from residents run into the night, and Twitter is full of memes poking fun at both the politics and policy of City Hall. The population is both more engaged in and more enraged about Toronto politics than it has been for generations. And so, looking forward, the question is whether the heat generated by that newly energized civic conversation can also shed light on the path forward.
There’s another way in which the case that threw Ford out of office is a perfect symbolic end to his administration. The whole process was sparked by his decision to vote on an issue in which he had a financial interest. But the court case began when a private citizen named Paul Magder hired a lawyer and filed a complaint with the courts. A citizen was inspired to activism by the actions of a mayor. And that citizen changed the course of the city. Roll the credits.
On Monday afternoon, The Grid conducted a highly scientific poll, asking 52 shoppers at Woodbine Centre (deep in the heart of Ford Country) and 51 shoppers at the Eaton Centre (home of the downtown elite!) to answer five questions about the most recent Ford shemozzle. Answers have been combined for a total of 103 respondents. A probability sample of the same size would yield a margin of error of…oh, whatever. Here’s what Torontonians had to say.