…and that’s a good thing.
Here’s a question for you: Do you get the sense that anyone in the city cares about Mayor Rob Ford’s position on the proposed expansion of the Island airport? It was the central issue facing our city’s government this month—and will remain so until council decides on April 1 whether to vote on or defer Porter’s plan to fly jets out of Billy Bishop. Yet the key figures in the debate have been Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly, Waterfront-area councillor Adam Vaughan, and the other big-name mayoral hopefuls.
As the rest of the candidates played to type (Olivia Chow said no; Karen Stintz flip-flopped from her earlier no to a qualified yes; John Tory said he wants to defer the decision), the mayor dodged questions about the latest revelations from ongoing police investigations and court documents. We’ve entered a realm where the incumbent mayor is essentially a high-profile fringe candidate: For more than a year, Ford’s news-dominating plotline has run parallel to, but rarely intersected with, the actual business of the city, and now that business includes the election he’s (allegedly) trying to win.
That theme emerged more clearly throughout the past few weeks, during which competing candidates introduced themselves and began to outline policy positions on transit, taxes, and governance. Meanwhile, city councillors debated the Gardiner, street food, and other pressing concerns.
As this was going on, the Rob Ford Show delivered more updates on the police investigations and matters before the courts (Sandro Lisi’s phone records, the jailhouse-beating civil suit), more erratic behaviour (running through a pack of reporters outside City Hall), and more tightlipped non-responses from the mayor himself.
Of course, this isn’t just a sideshow if you think Ford may win the upcoming election. We’re all too familiar with how disruptive it is when the mayor is being investigated by police. Four more years of this would be a disaster.
But increasingly, Ford’s attempts at reelection seem like a Potemkin candidacy—lagging in polls, his efforts amount to him and his brother (both currently on the public payroll) responding to police allegations with rants about a long-discredited billion dollars in savings. Ford has no visible campaign team. He has no platform. Not anything, really, that you would associate with an actual campaign. It’s unclear if he possesses the voter database that powered his 2010 victory. Recently, his campaign website served up pop-up advertisements for sleazy pickup-artist training (a violation of campaign finance rules), apparently as a result of borrowed design templates plugged in during its hasty construction. When Ford showed up for a pre-debate meeting at CityTV, he was accompanied by his publicly paid chief of staff (another campaign no-no). Fittingly, the big draw at his mid-April campaign launch party will be, according to the invitation, the availability of Rob Ford “Bubbleheads.”
The iconic, wobbly-headed novelty-toy mayor continues to stand around posing for people’s selfies, but the other campaigns appear to have noticed he’s sidelined. Some people on social media have been puzzled by why the frontrunners haven’t attacked Ford more aggressively. But voters know all about the evolving scandal and Ford’s role in it, and the media coverage of the ongoing police investigation ensures no one will forget. As long as the mayor doesn’t surge to an unlikely lead in the polls, other candidates can treat him as a non-factor.
Already Tory and Stintz have focused their attacks on perceived frontrunner Chow; Chow has trained her own attack machine on Tory. It makes sense: There’s no way for the candidates to differentiate themselves from the pack by being anti-Ford—they and a majority of Torontonians are already united on that. So, instead of a referendum on the incumbent’s behavior, this election is shaping up to offer serious discussions about transit (and how to pay for it), and whether we need steadier management or a city-building vision. We’re just starting to see that debate emerge, but the themes are becoming visible, and they don’t involve glass pipes or expandable batons.
Ford bobbles along, more famous than ever. Meanwhile, in meetings at City Hall and in the campaigns of wannabe mayors, real talk about Toronto’s future proceeds. What Ford thinks about the airport—or anything else—has become pretty much irrelevant.