For the first time in my adult life I don’t know who to support in an election. And I’m not the only one keeping the Toronto mayoral race at arm’s length. The candidates have been so uninspiring, the issues so dry and the entire scene so depressing, made more so by councillor Rob Ford’s lead in the polls, that it’s been easier just to turn away. This is wrong. There is no less at stake in a dismal election; indeed, there is often more. Not knowing about the candidates and who to vote for is an opportunity in disguise, a great chance to learn new things and take a chance.
If you’ve heard of any of the candidates, you’ve heard of Rob Ford, city counsellor from Etobicoke North. An active supporter of the Salvation Army and high school football, Ford is a Mike Harris right-winger, no friend of unions or bike-lanes, who has promised to clean up the city while cutting taxes. He also has enough scandals to sink a regular politician, but he remains buoyant.
It doesn’t seem to matter to his supporters that he referred to Asian-Canadians as “Orientals” who “work like dogs” and “are slowly taking over”; that he said that Toronto shouldn’t let in more immigrants as “it’s more important that we take care of the people now before we start bringing in more”; that he agreed with a evangelical pastor that same-sex marriage could “dismantle” our civilization; that he said that roads are built for cars not bikers and when one dies his “heart goes out to them” but it was their fault; that, about a proposed transgendered grant program, he said “No. 1, I don’t understand a transgender…is it a guy dressed up like a girl or a girl dressed up like a guy? And we’re funding this for…We’re giving them $3,210?”; and that he dismissed the universality of the AIDS threat by claiming that “if you’re not doing needles and you’re not gay, you won’t get AIDS, probably.”
My problem is not just that I disagree with him. How can someone who wants to be mayor of one of the most multicultural diverse cities in the world be so ignorant and, worse than just that, smugly and indifferently so? How can you not know or care that it’s the hard work of new Canadians that has, rather than be a strain on our resources, kept Toronto’s economy growing? That cyclists, by reducing car pollution in our already smog-choked city, are helping the environment for everyone? And, if you don’t know what transgendered means, look it up.
Columnists like Christie Blatchford have made fun of lefties for foaming at the mouth over a possible Ford victory. I wish I could take it so lightly. Some of his supporters don’t agree with him on everything, but like the idea of a Toronto mayor who’s gutsy and ‘straight-talking’. But a mayor is not a king (or a Conservative Prime Minister): he can’t just do whatever he wants. The mayor’s fate is tied up with a dysfunctional city council, a majority who would hate Ford as soon as he took office.
Mayor Ford would result in a Toronto of wars; a war between the city and the province (who will not shill out more money, despite Ford’s saber-rattling); a war between City Hall and unions; a war between drivers and cyclists; a war between suburban and downtown voters; a war between immigrant groups, artists and queers asking for funding from people who don’t know what transgendered means. All this in a city which already looks like a war zone.
The other candidates, so far splitting the centre and left votes, are flummoxed about Ford’s support and appear to be lost on how to stop him. Brian Topp in The Globe and Mail superbly summed up his campaign so far:
Mr. Ford is a very smart, superbly tuned, disciplined and determined right-wing populist who knows exactly what he is doing. People who attack him as a buffoon underestimate him, and help his campaign by building his brand among the kind of voters he is targeting. He is speaking to the 30-35 per cent of the electorate who are always there for right-wing candidates in Toronto…People who resent Toronto’s elite (although Mr. Ford is that elite’s avatar). People who believe that by cutting the $2-million city councillors spend staying in touch with constituents, Toronto’s $7.8-billion budget will be healed. People who believe that by cutting taxes, there will be more revenue. People who believe that by electing a mayor whose brand proposition is a relentless assault on the honesty and integrity of his city council colleagues, we will have a mayor who can get better results from those colleagues.
Seems unlikely to me. But Mr. Ford doesn’t need to persuade me, or anyone like me. He just needs to hold his franchise, while the two-thirds of the electorate who see the world as a more complex place split their votes between three or four other candidates. Mr. Ford is running a well-scripted, right-wing minority, Karl Roveian, modern U.S. Republican-style campaign. He is seeking to reproduce Stephen Harper’s minority victory in Toronto.
I caught Ford’s closing remarks during one of the endless debates last night. (Another problem with this election has been the multitudes of debates and how early the campaign started. Only the media wants to think about a city election a year before it takes place!) Ford said that he was the only candidate who had both public and private sector experience as a business man, and that this gave him credibility on balancing the budget. He then mentioned his wife and kids, called himself a “family man” and claimed that we desperately needed a “business-oriented, family man” in City Hall. Why? Was this possibly a dig at his main opponent, the openly-gay George Smitherman? Very Karl Rove indeed. Bringing up his ‘family man’ status for no reason is especially odd when you learn that Ford’s wife once called the cops on him and charged him with assault, although she later dropped the charges and he was exonerated.
(Two can play at Rove’s game.)
There’s still time. A couple of the other candidates may drop out and throw their support behind a leading Ford opponent. The newspapers keep reminding us that nobody pays attention to elections during the summer and so the poll numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. But Ford’s core support will stay solid. There are Toronto voters who are conservative, who don’t like taxes, who don’t ride bikes or take the TTC and see Chinatown and the Pride Parade not as celebrations of diversity but as evidence that the Canada they grew up with is disappearing. I get that, and I understand that they want what they think is best for the city too.
But the city’s many problems are not going to be fixed by a bully. Some politicians, the good ones, win by bringing people together, others by tearing people apart. Toronto elected David Miller partly because he was against the Island Airport bridge; let’s not elect a man who will burn all bridges between the diverse communities that make this city a vibrant and wonderful place to live.