With council devolving into the rudderless, undisciplined mess he always claimed it to be, the mayor is abandoning city business while he focuses on his next election campaign. But if he refuses to lead the city now, why would he want to run it in 2014?
At around 10:15 last Wednesday morning, as this month’s city council meeting was gearing up, speaker Frances Nunziata uttered a procedural phrase that seemed especially apt. “The mayor has not designated any key matters for this meeting,” she said. No key matters—that’s about the size of things with Rob Ford these days.
The mayor was there in body, sporadically, throughout the meeting. But if he had any particular hopes for what might get accomplished by this council he was elected to lead, he was coy about it. City council itself rejected his inability to prioritize, and voted by a two-thirds majority to have a debate on transit revenue tools that the mayor had tried to keep off the agenda. As city manager Joe Pennachetti got up to speak about how important this debate was—in the professional opinion of city staff and, according to a poll he’d conducted, more than 85 per cent of Toronto residents—Ford got up and left the room.
Rather than participate in the business of governing, the mayor went to the McDonald’s near the Eaton Centre, where reporters caught up with him while he greeted the Hamburglar and posed for photos. He spent a few minutes behind the counter helping serve burgers as part of the corporation’s McHappy Day fundraiser, then he got himself a Diet Coke and, before heading back to work, spent a moment talking to reporters. They asked him about councillors threatening to bring a vote to defeat his will on the question of casinos in Toronto.
“Whatever,” he shrugged.
He said something about hating taxes and people voting for him and then he was gone.
Later, back at the meeting, he ducked out to check the score of the hockey game.
The next morning, as the transit debate he wanted to avoid pressed on, councillor Chin Lee stood up to complain about a lack of leadership at City Hall. “I will put my neck on the line to lead, and not be a coward,” he said. The mayor was not in the chamber.
The meeting devolved into chaos, as a rudderless council divided into 44 individual factions in a two-day debate, eventually voting on more than 50 convoluted motions. They wound up approving nothing of substance on the transit issues at hand. By widespread agreement, it was as low a point as anyone could remember at this council.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Ford told reporters afterward. “This is one of the greatest days in Toronto’s history right now.”
Of course he would think that. For more than a year, he’s repeatedly demonstrated that he doesn’t particularly care if the business of the city gets done. For Ford, chaos might be the preferred course for Toronto’s government. After getting elected, the mayor spent close to nine months intimidating city council into doing whatever he asked. As soon as some councillors started standing up to him last year—burying Ford’s transit fantasy plan and replacing it with an LRT plan he hated—he stopped trying to govern and started campaigning for the next election, which is still 17 months away.
Since then, council has staggered around under the temporary and varying leadership of a shifting cast of councillors, changing its mind on plastic bags, bike lanes, and zoning bylaws; all the while, Ford’s opinion has been absent from the debates, preferring to tell listeners to his radio show that the 2014 campaign has already begun. His fellow CFRB host (and former mayoral candidate and leader of the provincial Conservatives) John Tory has become exasperated by this, recently telling an Empire Club audience that with the election a year and a half away, “the public would have, in my view, every reason to remind the current administration that they were already elected to govern and to deal with issues like transit, not just to get ready for the next election.”
In the meantime—as we heard last week—the mayor is bringing nothing to the table. In recent months, his biggest talking points—perhaps his only talking points on issues of substance—have been about supporting a casino in downtown Toronto and wanting to cancel plans to provide bike parking at City Hall. He was comprehensively defeated in a council vote this week on the latter question, and appears set to be defeated on the former at a special meeting on May 21. Even on those issues, you can’t really say he’s engaged in the debate and trying to lead council. Beyond sloganeering, he has certainly shown no signs of making a case for any of his recent propositions.
The only thing he actually wants to get done is to find himself re-elected in 2014. Everything else, the business of actually governing the city—of building it, improving customer service, watching costs, all of it—is, as he might put it, gravy.
When word first started circulating that council would overrule Ford about the transit debate this month and raise the issue anyway, his chief of staff told the press how excited he was by the prospect of council defying the mayor. He said they’d make posters of the councillors who wanted to have a debate about raising taxes and use them in the next campaign. It seems that Ford is happiest when things are out of his control, and when council explicitly thwarts his will because it will provide another slogan for his election signs. In effect, Toronto’s mayor now acts as the official opposition to the municipal government.
When he won office in 2010, he did so as an outsider ranting about how the arrogant government was led by bums who never listened to regular people like him. And now that he’s proven incapable of changing that, he’s trying to position himself to run as an outsider opposing an arrogant government led by bums who never listen to mayors like him. His demonstrated incompetence at leading those bums, er, councillors, is presented as the key reason to re-elect him. It’s a bizarre proposition. Still, it could be effective. He appears to have a base of about 30 per cent of voters who are rock-solid supporters, and for them, anything that humiliates the mayor only serves to increase their sympathy for him—underscoring their conviction that the elites are out to get them, and him. And he’s carefully chosen which issues to sloganeer on—subways for Scarborough, no new taxes, and so on—to try to pick up a few more disaffected voters along the way.
But why would he want to remain mayor if he never gets to implement his policies? If he’s unwilling—as he’s shown he is—to perform the kind of negotiation and diplomacy that will actually move the city closer to the track he wants it to be on?
That is to say, why run again to lead the city if his defining characteristic is his refusal to lead?
Perhaps he’s already answered that question. When he said that the chaos, pettiness, and rudderless indecipherability that characterized last week’s transit votes made it among the “greatest days in Toronto’s history,” maybe he meant it. Because maybe the city government under Ford’s brand of non-leadership is showing signs of becoming the out-of-touch, selfish, directionless waste of resources he’s always said it was. City council sunk to the level of incoherence and undisciplined short-sightedness that has always characterized both Ford’s rhetoric and his performance. They’ve followed his lead, in a way, all the better for him to complain about the dysfunction and campaign to continue being the complainer-in-chief.
Maybe for Rob Ford and his close advisors, that has been the ultimate goal all along.
The 2014 campaign starts now! (And now. Also, now.)
Oct. 24, 2011
“I’m already out campaigning.” One year into his four-year term, Rob Ford celebrates the
vote to contract out garbage collection by declaring the next race open.
March 22, 2012
“We came up a few votes shy, but this is an election issue. Obviously, the campaign starts now,”
Ford told reporters after city council voted to replace his idea of a Sheppard subway with
the previously planned LRT.
Sept. 7, 2012
“So folks, I’m not going to list all our accomplishments, but I have to tell you one thing!
The campaign for the next election has started today. The next election is two years away,
we have to get out there, bang on the doors,” Ford says at a “Ford Fest” barbecue for his
supporters in his mother’s backyard.
Jan. 14, 2013
“I love campaigning, I love debating, I love knocking on doors and telling people what we’re
doing and then it’s up to [the electorate] to tell people who [they] want,” Ford told CP 24 as an appeal court prepared to weigh in on his possible removal from office on conflict of interest charges.
May 6, 2013
“If 30 councillors want to put their name to implement taxes on the back of hardworking
taxpayers in the city, I’ll hold them accountable in the next election. I’ll guarantee that.” Ford
suggests the battle at City Hall over transit funding is just the backstory of a vote 17 months away.
May 14, 2013
In the midst of a heated community council debate, Ford leaves during deputations to wander the parking lot, slapping “Rob Ford Mayor” magnets on vehicles. When asked by Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale if he thought this behaviour might be considered strange, Ford replies, “Some people might find you strange.”