Like most Americans, one of the few things I know about Canada is that it’s supposed to be better than us. It’s an almost unbearably functional place, what with its non-collapsed banking system and strongly growing economy and harmonious, cosmopolitan society (Quebec excepted). If Canada had nuclear weapons, it would never flirt with giving Sarah Palin control over them.
But I have bad news for you, Canada: Americans have learned about Rob Ford, and we’ll have no more of your smug superiority.
Ford has been the mayor of Toronto since 2010. This week he’s in the news because reporters from Gawker and the Toronto Star reported viewing a video that appears to show him smoking crack. They also say the video shows him repeatedly calling Justin Trudeau, the leader of Canada’s opposition Liberal party, a “faggot.”
This is probably the most embarrassing scandal Ford has ever faced, but it’s far from his first. The Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail both have good roundups of the last decade of embarrassing Ford incidents. You can read them yourself, but my personal favorite is that a constituent once snapped a photo of Ford reading a printed document while driving on the freeway; confronted about whether he was reading while driving, Ford told a reporter, “Yeah, probably. I’m busy.”
The question I put to Canadians on Twitter today is, how the hell did this happen? Why did Toronto elect this man mayor? It turns out, there’s almost a good explanation.
First you have to realize that “Toronto” doesn’t refer just to the dense urban area that many Americans are familiar with. In 1998, Toronto was amalgamated with five surrounding suburban jurisdictions, greatly increasing its population and setting up an urban-versus-suburban rivalry in city politics. In an e-mail, Ontario-based conservative political consultant Jim Ross explained the rise of Ford this way:
From 2003 to 2010 Toronto was governed by a green-left former councillor named David Miller, and a lot of his initiatives were perceived by suburban Torontonians as favouring downtown over suburbs, and specifically favouring bikes over cars. There was also a well justified perception of wasteful spending and personal overindulgence by downtown councillors, a very expensive retirement party for one of them was often cited. Rob Ford was elected as a reaction by the suburbs against what was perceived as a city hall hostile to their lifestyles and careless with their tax dollars.
While Ford is a conservative, this populist dynamic allowed him to run well in both right- and left-leaning areas outside Toronto’s core. Sean Galbraith, a Liberal who lives in downtown Toronto, puts it this way: “I would compare him in many respects to George W. Bush. Presented a simple message singularly, and tied every issue to that message. No nuance, no complication. He was someone they felt they could have a beer with. To many people, it was a refreshing change from Miller.”
Ford was also helped by the weakness of his opponents. His main rival, George Smitherman, had presided over a disastrous electronic-health-records initiative as provincial health minister, which Ontario’s Auditor General said wasted $1 billion. This played right into Ford’s narrative about profligate government.
Ross adds another point for Ford: “It was also helpful that his personal dedication to customer service had (and still has) him responding personally to calls from people around the city to help with their municipal issues.”
Christopher Bird of Torontoist agrees:
For all his faults, Rob Ford actually is really good at representative service. If you phoned Rob Ford and said "I'm in your ward and I have this problem" he would literally come to your front door and try to help you out with whatever city services were available. One of the major problems with his mayoralty is that he thinks that is still basically his job. His first week as mayor, he tried to replace the city's 311 line (the "call the city to report a problem" line) with a personal phone line to him. If you call that personal phone line and say you have a problem, he WILL call you back.
So in addition to producing a fountain of amusing news-of-the-weird stories, Rob Ford presents a useful cautionary tale for the often-cozy business, government and labor elites that govern large cities. If you allow people in the less-glamorous parts of town to come to believe that you do not care about their interests and needs, they may toss you out and replace you with a populist, “straight-talking” buffoon who energetically demonstrates that he does -- even if he is totally unfit to run a city, and might be the sort of person who smokes crack.
Of course, now there is regret. Nicole Cliffe, a native Ontarian and until recently the books editor at the Hairpin, tells me, “Just as polls of elderly Dallas residents suggest that well over a million people were standing on Dealey Plaza watching JFK get shot, no one will now admit to voting for Rob Ford, who nonetheless received 380,201 votes.”
But maybe Toronto shouldn’t be so down on itself. In Los Angeles, apathetic voters have decided they can’t do any better than their rudderless, out-of-touch elites. Toronto went with Rob Ford. I’m honestly not sure which is worse.
(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)