The most significant week at City Hall in a generation leaves the mayor on the outside of council’s leadership. He seems to prefer it that way.
Forgive me if I reflect, for a moment, on what happened last week. The news cycle marches on, of course, but the second week of February was the most significant one at City Hall since amalgamation. It began as the week that the city’s largest labour union, CUPE Local 416, was wrestled into submission by the bullying tactics of the mayor’s administration. And then it became the week that the mayor’s administration effectively ended.
On Super Bowl Sunday, Rob Ford’s very favourite day of the year, the mayor got to announce the first bit of good news he’s seen in quite a few months: In a miracle on the order of a Manning-to-Tyree late-game bomb, the city had drawn major concessions from the union and a deal had been worked out to avoid a work stoppage that had come to seem inevitable. But the details of that agreement were still being sorted out when the latest edition in a months-long series of Completely Unprecedented Biggest Meetings Ever took place on Wednesday, Feb. 8.
For the first time in megacity history, a meeting had been called by city council over the objections of the mayor. And that meeting, initiated by the mayor’s own TTC Chair Karen Stintz, was called for the sole purpose of overturning Ford’s transit plan—the largest, most expensive and arguably most important file in the city—and implementing a completely different plan. A bunch of compromises were offered to the mayor that would allow him to claim victory and, maybe more importantly, preserve the most essential elements of his own transit vision.
But rather than accept those compromises and work with a majority of councillors, Rob Ford and his dwindling band of council allies attempted to break quorum by not taking their seats after the lunch break, and thereby shut down the debate. That failed juvenile tactic (broken up, according to one councillor, when an exasperated Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday refused to play along) tells you pretty much all you need to know about the state of the mayor’s relationship to the city’s supreme governing body.
When, just as they had a month earlier in rewriting his budget, city council overruled the mayor and implemented an entirely different transit building policy (details of what the decision was, exactly, and what the two plans involve are here), Ford threw a hissy fit. He declared the council vote “irrelevant.” He said that the premier would disregard the vote—a statement contradicted less than an hour later by the premier, who made it clear he’d already told Ford he would listen to council. And then, rather than having some meetings to regroup and negotiate with council’s centre on how he might regain council’s confidence and implement his own agenda going forward, he got on the TTC and went on a midnight ride in Scarborough, commiserating with random riders about how City Hall is a hellhole of waste and disrespect for Scarborough. (David Hains’s story for The Grid is worth reading for all the gory details of what happened in the weeks leading up to the big vote.)
That sequence of actions explains a lot—good, bad and ugly—about Rob Ford. And it also shows why he suddenly appears to be a lame duck in the mayor’s office. Ever since he entered politics, he has held city council in particular and city government in general in contempt. The kitchen-table wisdom he has always loudly proclaimed—budgets can be balanced by cutting back on plant-watering, services can be improved while revenue is cut—has always been in stark contrast to observable reality. And he has always, always, always preferred to go out into the street and meet with people to share complaints with them about the city’s government than to attempt to try to govern: he told me in 2006 that it was his favourite part of the job (actually, he seemed to consider it the entire job), and he said the same thing to the Toronto Sun‘s Joe Warmington last week.
CONNECTING WITH PEOPLE IN PERSON is maybe the only thing Ford is actually good at. And that strength has served him well in the past, helping elect him three times as a councillor and then winning him the mayor’s office. But getting votes is only one-third of a politician’s job. Another third is reconciling your policy proscriptions with reality—making sure that what sounded good on the stump will actually work to make the city better rather than ruin it. And the remainder of the job is getting shit done: doing the diplomacy, negotiation and persuasion necessary to win the support of those you need to implement your vision—in this case, city council and the provincial government. On both of those latter two essential tasks, the mayor has consistently failed, and seems ever more constitutionally incapable of reversing course.
A wise politician would have looked down into his hands after the meeting Wednesday, seen that he was holding his own ass, and begun a reconciliation with the key members of council who handed it to him, those whose support he needs, and has lost. Instead, Ford and his big brother Doug (who was initially thought to be the moderating thinker of the operation but increasingly serves as the id to Rob’s id) set about immediately setting fire to the few remaining bridges that would allow them to travel back towards relevance and influence. They called Karen Stintz a “backstabber.” They accused Gloria Lindsay Luby of “ducking out” on the vote. They accused Gordon Chong, their own subway advisor, of proposing “just another tax grab” for suggesting ways to raise the astronomical funds needed to consider subway expansion.
Then, the news just got worse. Council is taking over the Ford plan to sell off TCHC houses. A new poll shows the mayor’s approval rating plunging into David-Miller-during-the-garbage-strike territory (53 per cent of those with an opinion disapprove), and his “strongly disapprove” rating double since last year to 35 per cent. The first noticeable result of his budget cuts appeared in the form of a likely $100 increase in registration fees for every child joining a summer baseball or soccer league this summer, a predictable result of the implementation of new user fees that seemed to take Team Ford off guard. Even his “Cut The Waist” weight-loss program has stalled, as he showed no progress as he stepped on the scales on Monday.
THAT LAST ONE, of course, is a purely personal setback, reflecting only his failure to fulfill his own proclaimed goals for his physical fitness. But here’s the thing: the entirety of Ford’s mayoralty so far leads to the inevitable conclusion that where he is concerned, the personal is political. The constant sideshow aspects of his political career—drunkenly berating hockey game attendees, offering to score drugs for a voter, having his own drug-possession and drunk driving mugshot splashed on the paper, flipping the bird to children who scold him for talking on the phone while driving, calling 911 on comedians, cursing at 911 operators and, to prematurely end a list that could go on for pages, his near-constant misstatement of well-established facts—are simply inseparable from the policy and political spheres of his career.
The personal qualities and foibles that define him and, to some degree, endear him to many voters also define his relationship to the rest of the government, a relationship marked by his insistence on shouting down opposition, denying the existence of a reasonable opposing view or the possibility of compromise, and an insensible and unshakeable faith that going out to talk to his beloved taxpayers will more effectively solve problems than any legislation or policy change. It’s an I-win-or-I-blow-the-whole-place-up approach that was uniquely successful in the labour negotiation, where his perceived determination to implement massive firings and attempt to break the union entirely if a deal was not reached persuaded workers to live to negotiate another day. But it has not worked with city council, where Ford has faced ever more open rebellion and now council revolution since at least the summer.
Of course, some of what was bad news for Rob Ford last week was good news not just for his opponents, but for the city. At long last, city council had a long-overdue, detailed, open debate about transit policy, and set a course that will see the first significant progress in serving the growing city with rapid transit in more than a decade. And it is a good transit policy—where Mayor Ford’s subway scheme was one part waste and three parts fairy tale, this one is based on building a lot of transit, quickly, with money already in hand. That’s good news.
Moreover, city council showed that even if the mayor is determined to go to pieces, they can and will take action to move the city forward, with or without his cooperation. A few have complained that this is somehow a failure of local democracy, that in overruling the mayor, councillors are voiding the results of the last election. Which is precisely wrong. In the last election, we elected a council with 44 members and one mayor, each of them charged with evaluating policy decisions, talking to citizens and working together to find the best way forward for the city. The mayor of Toronto is not a dictator—and the absence of executive authority, annoying as it is to supporters of anyone who occupies the office, is a feature of the system, not a bug. Council is our governing body, and last week it showed it can govern. In ideal circumstances the mayor leads council through that process, but if he divorces himself from it, they can go ahead without him.
The almost Shakespearean tragedy of all this for the mayor is that he could still, today, resume command of the process. Even at last week’s smackdown meeting on transit, a compromise was available to the mayor right up until the last minute. Even as they voted against him, many councillors stood to emphasize their general respect for the mayor and their preference for following his lead. They were displaying the kind of basic diplomacy that the mayor has never himself shown, the kind that is the very basis of effective politics. Not just for its own sake, but in deference to the dual facts that Ford was, for better or for worse, elected mayor and that governing the city is a lot easier if the mayor participates in the process rather than tries to obstruct it. It’s fair to say that a majority of the councillors would prefer to have the mayor onside, and would compromise a great deal to have him lead. But they are unwilling to hand him a blank cheque when it’s clear that doing so will be destructive to the city and will jeopardize their own ability to serve their constituents.
Still, the point is that the only thing making the mayor a lame duck is, as his former advisor Adrienne Batra put it in the Sun, his “unwillingness to compromise.” It’s possible that he could soften on this—and indeed, he’s offered some kind of compromise on the sale of TCHC homes. But he’s certainly doubling (tripling? quadrupling?) down on transit, even though he appears to be drawing dead, and his forthright belligerence and angry blaming of former allies seems to indicate that he’d rather not make a habit of negotiating.
Just as he did as a city councillor, he’d rather be a team of one railing against the stupidity of the city’s elected legislative body. He’d rather go out and appeal to regular people on the street, where they are surprised and happy to meet the city’s chief magistrate face-to-face, and where they are quick to agree with his simpleton complaints about taxation and accept his fictional solutions to complicated problems. A conversation on the street involves no balancing of various priorities, no reconciling of budget limits with wish lists, no negotiation of how to best serve a variety of legitimate but competing sets of worthy goals.
Despite the latest polls, Rob and Doug Ford even think this approach will win them the next election—if they let council overrule them on transit and budget cuts and perhaps on eliminating the land transfer tax, they can go out and campaign on an anti–city council populist platform again, just as they did in 2010. But three years is a long time to let your opponents implement their own agenda while you refuse to lead. And an even bigger question is why you would even want to win reelection if you remain, essentially by choice, a powerless outsider after you’ve won.