As the 2014 Toronto municipal election campaign wound down to a close, opponents of the mayor wondered what went wrong. Once again they had underestimated Rob Ford, the big guy from Etobicoke, and failed to grasp the appeal of his message. The simplistic sloganeering strategy of 2010—“Respect for taxpayers! Stop the gravy train!”—had been iterated upon but not fundamentally changed. In 2014 it was all “Stay the course! Don’t change your horse!”
A campaign based on incumbency was both predictable and predicted. What Ford’s opponents also should have predicted, but didn’t, was the degree to which he would use his record to his favour rather than run from it like the embarrassment they assumed it was. Beginning in late 2011 and escalating in 2012 and 2013, the mayor had lost many key council votes and failed to follow through on his election commitments. It seemed at the time that this was the momentum progressives needed to take the city back.
But throughout the 2014 campaign Ford and his supporters repeated the mantra that they needed to “finish the job” they’d been blocked from doing by a “left-wing, NDP, union-friendly council.” If not for an elitist, out-of-touch council, Toronto would be full of subways by now. Our taxes would be lower. Our debt would be wiped out. The Weapons of Mass Gravy would have been found and eliminated.
Instead, Ford’s team had persuasively argued, Toronto was held back because City Hall was still too full of Millerites. Now, Torontonians were looking set not just to reelect the mayor, but also—tired of the embarrassing and paralyzing in-fighting of the past four years—to send a new slate of like-minded councillors to the clamshell with him.
The most dangerous thing about Rob Ford has never been his political ideology or his vision for Toronto. The most dangerous thing about him is his extraordinary incompetence. If Ford could blanket Toronto with a comprehensive network of funded subways, if he could find efficiencies and reduce spending without harming Toronto’s most vulnerable, if he could personally return every phone call and be a champion for every resident, who would stand in his way? The biggest problem with Ford’s first term was not his choice of objectives, it was that he was completely incapable of achieving them.
If council hadn’t worked against him—or, more definitively, if they’d done what they could to try to support him and achieve his vision—he’d be exposed. There would be no Sheppard subway in the works for 2015 as promised, or maybe at all. Toronto would be spending an extra $2 billion to bury an LRT where it doesn’t need to be buried, serving as a big flashing “hey isn’t this the kind of gravy we thought we were voting against” sign. Above all, Toronto would be a meaner, poorer place, with less child care, social services, community programs, recreational activities, environmental protection and potential for economic development. And he’d have no one to blame but himself.
It’s a horrible thing to contemplate, though. Once implemented, Ford’s plans not only become exposed as wrongheaded or completely unworkable, they also become exposed as genuinely harmful to real people. How could any reasonable councillor of good conscience knowingly vote in a way that would negativity affect so many of their constituents and the city itself, just to make a political point in aid of positioning for a future campaign?
No, fighting back was the only thing they could have done. Still, as October 27th, 2014 drew ever more near and the prospect of another four years of Ford became more and more likely, this time with a more supportive council, it was an inescapable thought. Maybe we’d be better off if we had allowed him to win. And, by doing so, allowed him to fail.