EDITOR: In an effort to further understand the landslide Rob Ford victory last week, we’ve offered this guest op-ed column to downtown-loving journalist and photographer Rick McGinnis where he explains his reasons for casting a vote for Ford. Share your thoughts after reading. Photo by Kevin Steele.
I woke up last Tuesday morning to discover that I was supposed to be angry. Rob Ford had just been voted mayor of Toronto to the apparent shock and mortification of much of the downtown and most of the media. We were being told that it was the work of angry voters – angry people like me, apparently, who made our livid way to the polls and stabbed at our ballots with rage. The problem was that I didn’t feel all that angry.
Ford’s victory, we were also told, was a triumph of the suburbs, and by Thursday a map was produced showing us how the city voted, riding by riding. It featured a small, pink inverted ‘T’ of George Smitherman votes hugging the lake, surrounded by a looming blue ring – angry, bellicose blue – of Ford voters hugging the downtown in its crushing embrace. By the end of the day, I was reading Twitter comments like “Can’t wait to finish another work day in #BlueToronto and get back home to #PinkToronto.”
The immediate response to Ford’s victory was an eruption of dismay from “Pink Torontonians,” who didn’t expect Ford’s lead to become so overwhelming less than ten minutes after the polls closed; former Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page, performing at a CP24 live election show, let his feelings slip on Twitter with a now-infamous, wounded howl of “Fuck this fucking city.”
Columnists like Kelly McParland at the National Post tried to give voice to Blue Toronto by mimicking what he imagined were the anguished cries of latte-sipping Smitherman and Pantalone supporters: “Wearily they munched their almond biscottis (sic) and totted up the devastation. Someone would have to contact the holistic, non-profit communal bike-sharing project and warn them the grand opening, scheduled for January, would be delayed.”
I’m a journalist and photographer, and until we moved a block north of St. Clair last year in search of an affordable house, I’d lived in the downtown west end for over twenty years. Neither my wife nor I drive, so transit is a major priority for us, and at a glance you’d call us Pink Toronto, especially if you have a healthy investment in generalizations.
I have friends who’ve worked for Greenpeace and PEN, on Atom Egoyan films, even at Spacing. I once used a Toronto Arts Council grant to try and finish a novel. I’ve shot albums for jazz artists, punk groups and Gordon Lightfoot, had my work published in Toronto Life, the Village Voice and the New York Times, and write about urban issues for blogTO. Hell, I spent 12 years working at NOW magazine! And I love lattes.
And last week, I happily cast my vote for Rob Ford, clear in my own mind that I wasn’t voting against George Smitherman as much as for someone whose agenda was – rare for a politician – painfully explicit. And I know that many people reading these words will consider them the epitome of baffling cognitive dissonance.
Seven years ago, I ran a short-lived blog during the election that made David Miller mayor. I voted for Miller, but with at least one qualification: “If I see Miller preside over the opening of one more precious parkette, like the Yo-Yo Ma musical shrub farm at Harbourfront, carved out of a bit of public space in front of a wall of condos, I’ll utterly regret my vote.” There have, unfortunately, been a lot of shrub farms during David Miller’s mayoralty, and Toronto has been run in headlong pursuit of something that I once just glimpsed, and now know with certainty – a near-fatal excess of vision.
The conventional wisdom is that politicians need vision, and that the quality of a politician’s vision amplifies his legacy. Transit City is a vision, and while I hunger for better public transit like anyone else whose day is either sped along or stalled at the whims of the TTC, I have never been able to convince myself that it was a vision that was either workable or desirable, mostly because the language used to describe it was never totally honest.
Light Rail Transit, or the LRT, was the shiny totem of Transit City – a network of new streetcars running on dedicated lines pushing ever deeper into the suburbs, and (hopefully) providing the downtown with as near as it would ever see to the subway line that was desperately needed but never built. The first problem was that they would never be run as true LRTs – at top speed and on dedicated lines – but as tramways, plain and simple, stopping and starting at the same traffic lights as a bus, car, or bicycle.
The second problem was that these call-them-what-you-want-but-they’re-not-LRTs would be built by the same people responsible for the upgrade of the St. Clair West streetcar line to a dedicated tramway. I left Roncesvalles Avenue just as the local pain of the streetcar upgrades was starting to bite, and moved to St. Clair at the dregs end of the years-long, over budget construction there, where the anguish of shopkeepers and residents was painful and prolonged. As visions go, you can’t blame voters for suspecting that it might be more in the nature of a nightmare.
We were offered LRTs as a consolation prize for the subways that David Miller and TTC chair Adam Giambrone said would never again be built, and while all of the other candidates running this year (Joe Pantalone excepted) promised subways, often in profusion, Rob Ford only promised to complete the circuit connecting the Sheppard line to the Bloor-Danforth line in Scarborough, an idea that downtown was presumed to have rejected as outlandish and insulting.
Ford’s plan would probably do almost nothing for me, but once I let my self-interest slip, I realized that, in an imperfect world, it was probably the best idea out there. A line along Queen or King would be infinitely preferable to me, but apart from being wildly expensive and disruptive, it would drain resources away from servicing that part of the city where transit use ranged from the inconvenient to the purgatorial.
Without a car or a license, I spend a lot of time traveling on transit through the suburbs on assignments, so I’ve developed sympathy for Torontonians forced to rely on the TTC for work or shopping, and I can sympathize with their gratitude at finally hearing a mayoral candidate tell them that precious resources will be spent making their lives even marginally easier. Much the same way that drivers were astonished to hear a candidate say, in plain words, what every one of them knows: Streetcars have made downtown rush hour travel hellish.
There’s been a surprisingly half-hearted attempt to paint Ford’s abrupt softening of his anti-streetcar stance in the days after his election as a flip-flop; I know I’m not the only one who was actually relieved that he anticipated the fiscal hit and poor optics of purging streetcars not only from the dysfunctional King, Queen and Dundas routes but from the right-of-ways along Spadina and St. Clair. There’s something for everyone in this apparent pull-back, though the only people it must disappoint are the ones who were darkly looking forward to four years of Ford as political bull in a china shop.
All this talk of transit makes me sound like a single issue voter, and perhaps I am. I can’t speak to why the other 380,200 people voted for Ford, though there has been no shortage of serious analysis of the root causes of this apparent phenomenon, most of it praising Ford for the simplicity of his message, and criticizing George Smitherman for abandoning his own in favour of the obvious fact that he wasn’t Rob Ford. Viewed through the lens of my transit obsession, my vote for Ford could probably be seen as a vote, not against Smitherman or even David Miller’s vision, but against TTC chair Adam Giambrone, whose own mayoral campaign was intense but mercifully brief.
Many people who voted for Ford might explain that they wanted to pay fewer taxes, and while that would be nice, I’m enough of a pessimist to assume that it’s in government’s nature to assume an ongoing entitlement to your largesse. After years of concentrating on his message of municipal waste, Rob Ford might not lower my taxes, but I can at least anticipate that the money City Hall gets might be used more carefully. That said, every vote is an expression of the purest pink-cheeked hope and optimism, and a part of me is, as ever, prepared to be disappointed, but what I don’t expect is ever more expansive – or expensive – vision.
The most stubborn criticism against Ford, though, is that he’s a bully and a clod, inept, uncouth and stupid. In tone, it most resembles the more vicious attacks made on Sarah Palin, and the similarity has inspired tenuous attempts to link Ford’s victory with the Tea Party in the U.S. On the most practical level, it’s undercut by Ford’s three successive terms as a councillor, and his apparently unaccountable failure upwards to the highest municipal office, against every expectation and the furious opposition of much of the city’s media.
What Ford clearly lacks is eloquence, and for that I’m grateful. Vision is given wings by eloquence, and history is full of poor ideas given inadequate criticism thanks to a carapace of pretty words. We’re long overdue for a debate over what government should and should not provide, and what our own city can and cannot afford, and since that debate will be harsh and uncivil at times, I have no problem with my choice for mayor.
For the first time in decades, municipal government looks like it’s going to be interesting, and voter turnout in this election – higher than it has been since the city was amalgamated – suggests that voters agree. Rob Ford might say some rude or even silly things in the next four years, but I’m certain he won’t be trying to sell me his vision.