For the past week, the city’s politics have, yet again, been sucked into a vortex of petty bullshit about the mayor.
Since I could have typed that sentence pretty much any week this year, I’ll clarify: On Sept. 10, Rob Ford skipped out on the last five-and-a-half hours of a nine-hour meeting of the city’s executive committee so he could coach the Don Bosco Catholic High School football team in a “pre-season jamboree.” Then it was reported that the mayor’s office and Ford’s football teams appear to share phones, cars, and staff—resources paid for by city taxpayers. This particular episode has caused even the mayor’s most steadfast defenders (The Toronto Sun, the Toronto Taxpayers’ Coalition) to chastise him, since screaming about the evils of spending city cash on personal side-projects was a hobbyhorse Ford rode to victory.
But the mayor and his brother Doug are blowing it off, as they always do: On their radio show, they recruited Canadian hockey legend Paul Henderson to help them bitch about all the “nitpicking” they’re forced to endure. To an extent, I share their frustration: Dissecting conflict-of-interest votes pertaining to a measly $3,150, confrontations with reporters, foul-mouthed 911 calls, and who is or is not the assistant coach of the Don Bosco team isn’t really what I had in mind when I adopted the trade of George Orwell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William Lyon Mackenzie. But here we are.
Whose fault is that? Well, clearly Rob Ford’s the one swearing at telephone operators, voting to save himself cash, picking the former U of T quarterback in the office-staffing draft, and essentially turning the integrity officer into a full-time mayoral prosecutor’s office. But who was it that turned Toronto’s politics into a petty-bullshit-flinging contest in the first place? Oh, right.
Rob Ford built his entire game as a councillor around a single move: pointing out penny-ante spending frivolities. City council paid someone to water the office plants! They ordered meals in for long evening meetings! Some councillors would use their office budgets to buy $200 espresso makers or make $250 donations to children’s baseball teams. Ford documented it all, got scarlet-faced, and swore up and down that this nickel-and-dime spending was the key problem with the city.
And then he turned it into a mayoral campaign, the key planks of which were eliminating the $60 vehicle registration tax, cutting each councillor’s expense budget by $20,000 per year, and making sure no one ever threw a $12,000 retirement party again. He never shuts up about it, even now. Earlier this month, in his speech at Ford Fest in his mother’s backyard, he didn’t mention how his plans for transit, slashing city services and selling off TCHC homes had been overruled—big, non-petty-bullshit items, all of them. He did, however, mention the office expense budgets, the car tax, and that single stupid party thrown by a guy no longer in office.
This stuff was always almost purely symbolic. No one really thought that cutting office expenses was going to make a dent in the city’s budget problems, did they? But the mayor insisted that these symbolic nitpicky details were the most important things. If you take care of the hundreds and thousands, he told us, the billions will take care of themselves. And he won. We bought it. Nitpicky penny-ante details of symbolic importance are now our thing, for better or worse.
And so here are the headlines from your city obsessed with nitpicky symbolism: The mayor blatantly disregards the integrity rules, skips out of work early, and spends his office money on staff for his own private philanthropic and recreational work. And he does this while driving distracted and spewing rage at reporters and phone operators alike.
I have never—as far as I can remember—made a joke about the mayor’s weight. But the fact that he set up a scale in front of his office so that he could weigh himself in public every week, and then bitched endlessly when the press showed up and commented about his weight, is a pretty telling encapsulation of his current situation.
If you ask the public to focus on something, you can hardly complain when they do so. Ford told the City of Toronto to sweat the small stuff. Now he’s drowning in sweat. And that’s nobody’s fault but his own.