Bloody revolutions happen more often than the defeat of Canadian municipal politicians. Canadian councillors defy that old axiom that all political careers end in “death, defeat or dishonour.” Few die in office. Most simply climb the political food chain to provincial or federal politics or fade into retirement. Yet the tumbrels rolled down city streets in half a dozen Canadian cities this October. The heads of politicians with decades of seniority fell in Ottawa, Hamilton and Calgary and many places in between. This is Canada, however, so the vast majority of old councillors were happily renewed.
But it was the smashing victory by a political outsider in Toronto — a renegade even within his own political tribe — that made national, even international news. Rob Ford, an overweight, angry, part-time councillor with a record of exactly zero legislative achievement over nearly 10 years in office, swamped a field of six competitors and humiliated the entire city establishment. Two newspapers, several former mayors, most of his council colleagues and an array of celebrity endorsers — including Justin Trudeau, for heaven’s sake — pleaded with Torontonians to elect his final challenger, former deputy premier George Smitherman. Nearly half those who came out to vote — giving the political finger to the city’s elites — chose Ford.
Toronto’s parks, ravines and tree-lined boulevards were ablaze in red and orange when the first whiff of rebellion came out of Calgary a week earlier. Another even more improbable insurgent overwhelmed that city’s political establishment. An Ismaili Muslim of South Asian background, an immigrant son, a Harvard-educated, handsome young university professor, of all things, talked at length about his 12-point program — a mix of left, right and unconventional — and talked himself into the mayor’s chair in a massive sweep of the city. From Hogtown to Cowtown, these two mayoralty elections were the Canadian political story of 2010.
Naheed Nenshi, a 38-year-old business professor, whipped a veteran alderman supported both by the Harper machine locally and by much of the city’s business community, and Barb Higgins, a popular TV anchorwoman managed by Ralph Klein’s former chief of staff. It appears that Nenshi rallied a coalition of voters not normally engaged by city politics, including the young, the poor and new Canadians.
Unlike Toronto’s year-long slugfest, Nenshi’s victory was not marked by bloody street politics. In Hogtown, most of the artillery was aimed at Ford with increasing intensity as his poll lead refused to shrink and the city’s panicked establishment cast about for ways to avoid a return to the humiliation of the Mel Lastman era. Only seven years earlier the city’s elites had heaved a sigh of relief when the discount-refrigerator salesman, prone to off-colour jokes and a style of government best described as repressed hysteric, had been successfully nudged into silent retirement. Repeated muttering could be heard for many months at good dinner parties across all party lines: “Thank God and never again.”
“Never” turned out to be only two frustrating and disappointing terms of David Miller as mayor.
Like other progressive politicians David Miller never understood that how you perform and your tone of voice matter as much to political success as what you do. Barack Obama after his midterm “shellacking” acknowledged he had learned the lesson too late: “You know, I think that over the course of two years we were so busy and so focused on getting a bunch of stuff done that we stopped paying attention to the fact that leadership isn’t just legislation. That it’s a matter of persuading people. And giving them confidence and bringing them together. And setting a tone. And making an argument that people can understand. And I think that we haven’t always been successful at that.”
David Miller frequently blamed others for his failure to communicate. He ended his humiliating year-long lame-duck mayoralty with an angry attack on the media for its fascination with trivia over policy. Any time a politician blames the media for his failure to communicate effectively, you know he is in the wrong business. His record of policy achievement was considerable; his defence of it, abysmal. His ability to assemble a winning coalition of councillors and to turn a sometimes recalcitrant bureaucracy to his agenda were triumphant. His misunderstanding that those achievements were merely the beginning of his political challenges — that they needed to be sold successfully as well — was fatal.
Miller’s aloof and often emotionally distant style, his refusal to play at the theatre of politics — especially at times of tragedy, such as the successive summers of violence that took the lives of many teenage boys — allowed his enemies to cast him in the starring role of a city government that had simply lost touch with its people. Curiously, his serene public distance was married to a regular red-faced private rage at friends and colleagues.
David Miller frequently blamed others for his failure to communicate. He ended his humiliating year-long lame-duck mayoralty with an angry attack on the media for its fascination with trivia over policy. Any time a politician blames the media for his failure to communicate effectively, you know he is in the wrong business. His record of policy achievement was considerable; his defence of it, abysmal.
The mayor wasn’t personally responsible for the multimillion-dollar boondoggle of reconstruction that afflicted two of the city’s main arteries for years, month after month after month of rubble and disruption that bankrupted small businesses and enraged neighbours. But his refusal to feel their pain made him the target of their rage. The unreliability and filth of the city’s transit system is the product of years of neglect; Miller’s refusal to acknowledge the decline made him the system’s political owner.
He rages in private still about the disaster of the city’s garbage strike, and the unfairness of how his role has been cast in history. He believes he did everything possible to prevent the summer-long conflict in 2009 that doomed his mayoralty. The media, the unions involved and even many of his own allies believe he precipitated it through miscalculation and arrogance. He might have survived even this failure to tame the city’s unions — despite being a mayor those very unions played a key role in electing and reelecting — if he had not attempted to cast the embarrassing strike outcome as a victory.
Today’s cities and their leaders face an unenviable challenge. They are the most visible service provider among governments: cops, roads, schools, transit, housing and public health are a city’s burden along with a very much longer list. Potholes, gunshots, homeless beggars and poop in the park all land at a mayor’s door.
Cities are also the most visible taxer of any level of government. Only cities send a tax invoice to your home, demanding payment by a looming due date. Ottawa and the provinces hide their take in the form of invisible slices of your paycheque, your gas bill and every bottle of wine. Most people get a property tax bill, but from Ottawa they get not a demand notice but a rebate cheque. The province gets its revenue not through enraging parking tickets and water bills but silently, from every cash register and credit card slip.
Then there is our eunuch-mayor system of government: you get all the accountability and none of the power to enforce shared responsibility in most Canadian cities. Montreal and Vancouver are somewhat better than most; there, the mayors are elected with a team of loyalists. Toronto is marginally better than it was as a result of some empowerment by the province of the city’s executive committee and the mayor’s power to choose and direct it.
For those worried about the democratic consequences of the concentration of power in the office of a prime minister or a premier, a Canadian big city mayor’s office is a “be careful what you wish for” cautionary tale. The mayor of Toronto controls a budget larger than that of four provinces, with less power to determine its expenditure than a junior cabinet minister in any of them.
Mayor Ford can nibble at the margins, using the bully pulpit of his office to talk down some costs, but the vast majority of the money “flows like the Don” past his office 24 hours a day in the form of salaries and transfer payments he has no ability to even slow down, let alone block. However, His Worship owns every wasted consultant dollar when a campaign comes. Rob Ford made great sport of this reality in his sneers about City Hall plant waterers. Four years from now, he will be repaid in full by his opponents.
There never was a golden era of municipal service delivery, of course, but the mists of history help nostalgics conjure one. Toronto has never had great parks or a beautiful waterfront; it’s too Presbyterian a community to have wasted money on such frippery. There is nothing remotely like Montreal’s Mount Royal Park, the 600-acre jewel in the middle of the city designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, architect of New York’s Central Park and Washington’s National Zoo. Toronto streetcars have always been both late and dirty, and municipal service more often surly than not. The Toronto Sun famously ran a picture of a Toronto subway ticket seller asleep on the job. That said it all.
Like Ford’s pledge to “stop the gravy train,” this is a dangerous riff for mayoral hopefuls. Ford can’t stop councillors wasting a few thousand dollars on local patronage. More importantly, he can do nothing about the millions spent on immigrants, arts, Gay Pride and Caribana, because he will not have a majority on council. All of this will deepen the rage of talk radio hosts and the man in the street, and further debase the reputation of municipal democracy.
Rob Ford may be able to take one tactic from his time as councillor to the mayor’s office with great effect: that of the councillor as service deliverer, a role he played with enthusiasm and considerable impact. To listen to the new mayor in campaign debates or interviews, being grilled about tax or budget policy, was like enduring an approaching police siren — he simply whined louder and faster until you wanted to run, pleading for mercy, from the room.
However, when a voter rose to complain about rats in her public housing apartment, or gunplay near a schoolyard, or a city official who failed to respond to a call for help, Ford was transformed. He slowed down, calmed down and focused on the person and the problem, granting dignity to the complainer, serious attention to the grievance and apparently genuine promises of help.
“Give your name to my colleague there, please, ma’am. We have dealt with dozens of cases like yours. I know who to call at the housing corporation. We’ll come out with a health and safety inspector in the next few days. Don’t you worry, ma’am, I love sorting out these kinds of problems, and we’ll get your problem fixed, too. That’s a promise.” The most hostile audience would burst into first hesitant and then loud applause.
Ford’s peculiar need to exaggerate — he claimed over and over to have made more than 200,000 phone calls in his years on council, a rate of one every 10 minutes, 12 hours a day for a decade — unnecessarily made him a laughing stock to many. The truth was more compelling: he really did resolve hundreds of citizen grievances annually, and was feared by social services and housing bureaucrats alike. And he really did bail out his errant young football team players when they were in trouble, sometimes at 1 a.m.
Critics who sneer that he can hardly play that role as mayor should be cautious. The power of a symbolic intervention in one case can be transformative. The message to the system in getting an angry call from the Mayor will be interesting to observe.
His smart, tough young campaign manager and now chief of staff, Nick Favoulis, will no doubt focus a political spotlight on the homeless or hapless victim of the month as part of building the Ford legend. It is the sort of populist political theatre that Miller never understood and many progressive politicians foolishly dismiss as exploitive.
Ford’s peculiar need to exaggerate — he claimed over and over to have made more than 200,000 phone calls in his years on council, a rate of one every 10 minutes, 12 hours a day for a decade — unnecessarily made him a laughing stock to many. The truth was more compelling: he really did resolve hundreds of citizen grievances annually, and was feared by social services and housing bureaucrats alike.
Conservative pundits were keen to claim that Ford’s victory was a revolt against government spending, rising taxation and waste. Again they should be cautious, because it seems clear that those are merely code for a deeper and more challenging voter contempt. Talk radio callers and tabloid letter writers regularly use those labels as an entry to a deeper anger: the lack of respect they are shown by a distant and arrogant leadership elite and their coddled civil servants. The fatigue and quiet rage that voters feel about battling over a missed garbage pickup with an uninterested and unpleasant voice at City Hall is corrosive. Voters’ revulsion that a councillor would spend thousands of their dollars on his own retirement party is a protest as much against the insult and the entitlement it conveys as it is against the spending itself.
Many Canadians have a visceral contempt for high living at the public trough. It rises to bizarre levels at times of political anger. Miller was attacked for renovating his office as part of a broader retrofit to the nearly 50-year-old City Hall. He should have known better. Stephen Harper, much more sensitive to being labelled a public profligate, works in an office building, the Langevin Block, that has seen better days, and lives in a house that is so leaky much of it is unusable in heavy rain or Ottawa winters. Despite Auditor General Sheila Fraser’s recommendation of a $10-million renovation for 24 Sussex, and the political cover she thereby provided, nothing has been done.
The four Toronto daily newspapers agree on little, but outing even the most trivial spending excess by a public official — or, worse, a consultant — is one reliable old chestnut they each drag out at least monthly. Not only does it sell newspapers; it also feeds a deep reservoir of Canadian public contempt for the rich and famous, especially those in power or close to it.
Many reporters and political opponents sneered at Ford’s claim to be able to save tens of millions on a bike lane that actually cost a few gallons of paint. They hooted with derision at all of his helium-inflated cost-cutting claims. It is true that he will not be able to save anything like the amounts he claims, or cut the taxes he’s promised, let alone balance a capital expenditure budget. But as frustrated progressives have discovered federally and provincially and during the George W. Bush years, conservatives can get away with tax cutting rhetoric while hiding huge spending hikes and massive deficits for a long time.
Most voters don’t really expect that Rob Ford will cut the cost of living in Toronto, but they will cheer the symbolic slices in the most irritating charges, and the slaps at the expenditures of privileged councillors, union members and their friends. “Cheap populist theatre,” editorial writers will sniff, as Mayor Ford’s tough political staff stage a photo op of His Worship watering the flowers at City Hall himself. When combined with a genuine sympathy for the drudgery of life that is the fate of most voters, populism works.
And when the mayor receives the tearful thanks of a mother whose son Coach Ford has saved from a short bloody life on the street, as he will, many voters will forgive him his last boastful, angry tirade — and some will recall that David Miller would not have been seen in the same photo.
Both the “Responsible Conservatives” on council (who supported Ford only in the closing days of his march to victory) and the Liberal/NDP majority have a minefield to navigate with this upstart. If they are successfully tagged with obstructing Ford’s effort to cut spending, he will make sure they pay. If they are seen to fight for their own staff budgets and local patronage funds, the Mayor will find it hard not to chortle at their inevitable comeuppance.
But traditional city establishments in Toronto, Calgary and elsewhere have been handed a yellow card by voters. They’re mad at being taken for granted. They’re furious at declining services and rising taxes. In Toronto, if you buy a $400,000 house, you pay a “housing transfer tax” of $24,000, nearly half of it a municipal welcome tax which Ford has vowed to abolish, though it’s not clear where he’s going to find the money. In downtown Toronto, homeowners also pay over $400 a year in taxes just to park in their own driveways. They resent the appearance of privilege for public sector union members, politicians and their allies. It has been a long slow slide from the days when the city fathers — and they were all fathers — could depend on a broad coalition of business, church, academe and the professions to support difficult civic choices. Today’s citizens are engaged but skeptical, well informed and impossible to fool, easy to enrage and hard to please.
This little municipal insurrection has sent shock waves through the Canadian political establishment. A Canadian Tea Party, or even a serious intraparty revolt, is improbable. But Conservatives would be unwise to take comfort from Ford’s sweep, and Liberals should not see a pink — let alone red — Calgary in their future. Each new mayor was chosen by voters angry at traditional choices, slighted by the distance between their lives and those of the permanent government that runs every large city, and determined to be heard.
Governing is not for true-believing amateurs, as Americans and Canadians have had the painful experience to observe. There are few governments more complex to manage than that of a megacity like Toronto, or a boomtown bursting its seams, like Calgary. Their two outsider mayors, neither well equipped for the enormous tests they now face, may fail.