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How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: Rob Ford

Toronto circa 2014


The Ford “Revolution”

Somehow, I’ve ended up relating to two groups I never expected I would: strategic swing-voters and American Republicans. What a weird election.

In every past one I can recall, I knew who I was supporting early on. As a New Democrat, I’m used to my candidates losing, but you should always vote for the person you believe in. Voting strategically, holding your nose and casting your ballot for the perceived ‘lesser of two evils’, often doesn’t work and results in political leaders no one actually likes.

But this election the stakes seemed much higher to stop Rob Ford. Not since Hillary vs. Obama had my parents been divided, with my Mom supporting lefty Joe Pantalone and my father arguing that only George Smitherman could save Toronto from the embarrassment of a Ford mayoralty. Unlike at the provincial or federal levels, when there’s multiple viable candidates and parties can build on past successes, mayoral races are one-time shots, and my Dad worried that a Ford victory would send the alarming message that even in Toronto rightwing candidates can win by mindlessly chanting “lower taxes” over and over again.  

I was leaning towards Pantalone as the torchbearer for David Miller’s Toronto (and no, Miller’s tenure wasn’t the complete disaster the papers think it was) but also because I resented that Smitherman squandered his early lead by not representing anything, by not articulating why he wanted to be mayor and that his campaign ultimately boiled down to ‘Anyone but Ford’.

In the last day I realized that I was doing what I didn’t want to do, voting against somebody rather than for.

Still, polls were tightening and I always liked Pantalone when I read about him or saw his cute diminutive frame on TV.  

I honestly didn’t know who I was going to vote for until I was standing in my old high school’s gym, looking down at all the names. I waffled back and forth before drawing the black line with the sharpie.

My candidate didn’t win, but I’m comfortable with my choice.

It was ridiculous how quickly ‘CP24’ called the election for Ford. Eight minutes past 8.00pm, when the polls closed. They cut straight to his family home in Etobicoke, where the already red-faced Ford turned even redder and distractedly answered questions as his family jumped around him.  Watching his large, blonde brothers (even his nieces looked a bit like him) I started to feel that here was a different side of Toronto not usually represented in downtown politics.

I felt the same way watching his rambling victory speech, when the rag tag group who surrounded him on stage appeared intent on distracting attention; a baby in the back wailed; a weird dude, before being instructed to step off by security, placed a Hawaiian lei around Ford’s neck, which he wore for the remainder of the speech; and a man in a black leather cowboy hat, perhaps a brother, tried to give him a shoulder massage before being scolded by the formidable Mama Ford herself.

Because it’s 2010, and old media feels the need to shamelessly suck up to new media, election-themed twitter tweets scrolled the bottom of screen, which, while divided in their allegiance, were unified in their breathlessness. (Ironically, by #ing ‘CP24’ twitterers were sucking up to the old media which so wants to be like twitter in order to be on TV. Some tweets even ended with “Can’t believe Ford won! Say goodbye to Transit City! Hi Lindsay!” making it clear that twitterers are the new people standing outside City TV or ‘Good Morning America’ waving ‘Hi Mom!’ signs.)

There was a certain naiveté about the pro-Ford tweets, a grandiosity mixed with dangerously vague generalizations. Much about how Torontoians had “voted for change”, had “demanded respect” and “taken back their city”. Ford had tapped into a real sentiment and received a mandate (at the end of the day, even if you added all the Pantalone votes onto Smitherman’s, ‘Furious George’ would’ve only barely won), but what exactly this revolution is about, other than “lower taxes” and “stopping the gravy train”, is pretty unclear.

Generalities work in an election campaign, but not so much in governing. And when you combine them with an enthusiastic voter base, many of whom never voted before, and a hostile, often-dysfunctional council, you’re looking at the potential to disappoint a lot of people, and fast.

Which is what Obama learned in the two years since his unifying calls for “hope” and “change” swept him to power but left Democrats divided on what to do.

Like Republicans watching Obama’s victory speech in Chicago that historic night, I watched the Ford celebration unable to ignore the excitement of his passionate supporters but with the sinking feeling of not knowing what comes next.

My predictions: with all eyes on him now, Mayor-elect Ford will not be as focused as Candidate Ford and will have a stumbling transition, quickly angering activist groups (womens’, queer and immigrant ones, my guess) and unions, and will see a major strike within a year. If Ford is held accountable for it (as Miller was for the garbage strike) or rather seen as the tough-talking defender of voters’ tax money will depend on the media, the public mood and how Torontoians respond viscerally to the new mayor.

All is not lost. Although some new right-wingers were elected, the basic diversity of city council stayed the same, and Ford will have to work with centrist and leftwing councillors (and, hopefully, moderate his positions) in order to get anything done. All the columnists agree that he won’t actually be able to get rid of streetcars, which (perhaps oddly) became one of my biggest fears. If he doesn’t “keep his promises”, as viewed by his core supporters, he has a tough re-election in four years.

Four years…God…

And lastly, sometimes you need an ‘enemy’ to galvanize people, to shake them out of their complacent slumbers and fight for what they believe in. Feminists, LBGTQ-activists, immigrant advocates, environmentalists and even cyclists (especially cyclists!) should start mobilizing now, today, and get ready to cause a fuss as soon as Ford missteps or misspeaks. Our goal should be to create a progressive flipside of the American ‘Tea Party Movement’ (the Herbal Tea Party, anyone?), who, although much less influential than Fox News would have us believe, succeed in having their displeasure at ‘Obama-nation’ heard.

Congratulations, Rob Ford. As my parents, veterans of the dramatic ups and downs of politics, said last night, “It’s all downhill from victory night.”

Mad as Hell


People are angry. Or at least they are according to those in the media, who love recounting drama more than a fourteen-year old Twitterer. In the States, newspapers and TV anchors crow about the ‘insurgent’ Tea Party protestors ad nauseum, continuing to legitimize a movement, which supposedly wants smaller government but didn’t blink an eye at Bush driving the country into debt, as grassroots despite the essential financial support from shadowy billionaires who stand to make fortunes more from lowered taxes and deregulation.

Helped along by the over-caffeinated 24-hour news cycle, a frustrating forgetfulness has descended like fog down there (the United States of Amnesia, Gore Vidal has called it) as this midterm election has voters wanting  to ‘punish’ the Democrats for not quickly-enough cleaning up the mess that Republicans left by…electing Republicans. According to CNN jabberers, party affiliation often doesn’t matter: an incumbent in the House or the Senate represents ‘Washington’ and the ‘status quo’ and voters just want to ‘clean house’.

Because they’re angry.

And we shouldn’t feel smug up here. The man who is currently at the top of the polls for mayor of Toronto is largely running on anger; anger over the disappointments of Miller’s tenure; anger over taxes and waste at City Hall; anger over the TTC and bike lanes. You could easily believe that this was a horrendous place to live instead of one of the best in the world. But when people have their baser instincts indulged they turn to leaders who act as angry as them.

We all know what it’s like to be angry. Getting into an argument with a friend or family member, you feel hot in the face, your emotions increase exponentially and hurtful words spill out of your mouth at an uncontrollable rate. Although you sense it happening, you’re unable to stop all logic and reason flying out the window.

It’s the right moment to pause, take a deep breath and remind yourself what’s really important. It’s not the time for making a sound and well-informed decision about who you should vote for and the future of your city or country.

Angry voting results in angry politicians; ones who would rather grandstand and shout than work with their opposition, and who will continue to tap into voters’ childish emotions rather than encouraging us to see something bigger than ourselves.

Being ‘mad as hell’ only leads to one place.  

Something about Rob Ford


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.