The downtown versus suburbs divide was electoral gold for Rob Ford, but it’s been toxic for the city. Why we need to find a leader who can speak to all Torontonians—and fast.
The evidence suggests that Rob Ford’s current term as mayor is done. His control over the city’s agenda started unravelling as early as last July, when his foul-mouthed fear of CBC comedians coincided with an all-night outpouring of opposition to his proposed service cuts at City Hall. Since then, things have only gotten worse, and this year has been one of consistent defeat for Ford. It’s possible to imagine he could become relevant again, but that would be a tough road: He’s been thrown under the streetcar, run over, and left behind.
To fill the leadership vacuum, a rotating series of councillors, mostly from the centre and centre-right of the political spectrum, have seized the chain of office on an issue-by-issue basis—Jaye Robinson on the port lands, Ana Bailão on social housing, Josh Colle on the budget, Karen Stintz on transit. They’ve championed various resolutions and negotiated with council’s more unified left and centre-left members, led unofficially by Shelley Carroll, Adam Vaughan, and Gord Perks. It’s led to some surprising breakthroughs that couldn’t have happened otherwise, including the OneCity transit proposal brought forward last week by conservative midtowner Karen Stintz and left-leaning Scarborough councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker. The map they put together represents a comprehensive plan to improve transit in virtually every part of the city, and suggests the beginnings of a plan to pay for it.
But this informal mayor-for-a-day system only leads to speculation about a more long-term solution, and our eyes turn to 2014: Who should run against Ford? Who should replace him as our next mayor? Even Ford himself is thinking about it—boasting that he’s already started his reelection campaign.
There’s only one problem. We’re not even at the halfway point of the current term—the election is still more than two years away. People won’t be able to register as candidates and begin campaigning until 18 months from now, in January, 2014. Two years is an eternity in politics. As I’ve written recently, no one would have predicted a Rob Ford win two years before the last election, and David Miller wasn’t considered a contender in 2001. It’s way too early to start handicapping the 2014 race. But it’s reasonable—essential, in fact—to start listing the criteria we need in a mayor before we start interviewing candidates for the job.
Related reading: A guide to the 2014 mayoralty race
The usual suspects and wild-card contenders
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According to the thumbnail sketch that’s emerged, our past two mayors have represented opposite sides of the key divide in Toronto politics: Miller was the mayor of pinko downtowners oblivious to the frustrations of their fellow citizens, while Ford is the mayor of alienated suburban nitwits who want to exact revenge on the city’s prosperous elite.
This characterization falls apart in the details. Miller, for instance, pursued policies that directly addressed many of the problems that exist in the suburbs (transit, poverty, revitalizing concrete-tower communities). Still, voters’ perceptions, simplified or not, are important, and in the different ways Miller and Ford have conducted themselves as leaders, the caricatures hold up.
The son of a single, working-class immigrant mother, Miller (via scholarship) became an Ivy League–educated lawyer living in High Park. He spoke the language of urbanism fluently and demonstrated the kind of cosmopolitan worldview and confidence common among the city’s economic and cultural elites. When he ran for mayor, he spoke of how the city was populated by “citizens,” rather than “taxpayers”—the difference being that citizens are participants in shaping their city, while taxpayers are simple consumers of services who wonder if they’re getting value for money. Miller was an avatar for the communities in Toronto who have shared in the boom times, who have accrued financial or cultural capital or both, who feel they are part of building something. These groups are increasingly concentrated in the most livable parts of the central city, where Toronto’s social and physical infrastructure is strongest and, correspondingly, the rents are highest.
Ford is a university dropout from Etobicoke who is dismissive of sophisticated thinking altogether—his own thought processes tend towards proud simplification, and are almost entirely based on the premise that saving money is the ultimate virtue. He’s a man who inherited wealth and a political machine, but he has still felt like an outsider and rages against being disrespected. His political worldview, if you want to call it that, is based on a laundry list of personal frustrations—with being stuck in traffic, or with neglected concrete buildings, or with a tax bill—which he assumes someone is benefitting from. In his own campaign, he spoke forthrightly of the population as straight-ahead consumers of government: He talked about “respect for taxpayers” and “customer service” to the exclusion of almost all other topics, and his bottom-line message was that the consumers of Toronto were being screwed over. His own bumbling, inarticulate, unsophisticated persona deeply resonated with those voters who felt left out of the city’s growing prosperity and excitement.
The downtown versus suburbs division was electoral gold for Ford, but it has proven toxic to the city’s conversation, and unworkable as the basis for local government. Miller was an astonishingly effective mayor, in the sense that he implemented his agenda while his opponents at City Hall flailed on the sidelines. But he failed to communicate with those councillors outside his constituency—and didn’t care enough about doing so, because he could implement his plan just fine without persuading those who disagreed with him. Meanwhile, Ford, with his in-your-face, with-us-or-against-us rhetorical style and his outright lack of interest in persuasion, has proven in recent months to be a dismal failure. His only argument is that “real people” like his policies, and he says that even when polls show it to be untrue. Miller’s arrogance gave way to Ford’s petulance, and certainly neither trait appeals to voters.
Next page: What we need from our next mayor