The Great Subway Battle of 2012™ was Mayor Rob Ford’s to lose, and he lost it with such single-mindedness and determination that this episode may well go down in Toronto history as the textbook example of political self-immolation.
Future generations of urban government students and ambitious party operatives will sift through the sorry details for shards of insight on how to avoid IEDs and devastating missteps. Indeed, a new phrase – “they really Forded that issue” – should enter our lexicon.
Scarborough’s long-suffering residents will be encouraged to believe that their craving for rapid transit was thwarted — again! — by a collection of hypocritical downtown pinkos and a small team of ideological turncoats.
But the vector of blame in this case travels only in one direction, and that is towards the mayor. Indeed, there were few strategic or tactical errors the Ford administration didn’t make:
- Alienating and bullying key council allies to such an extent that enough of them were prepared to switch teams;
- Ignoring Gordon Chong’s worldly advice about the need to make a Triple-P deal attractive to investors;
- Failing to engage the city’s senior bureaucracy to prepare options for a realistic funding plan in advance of the council debate, opting instead of outsource the policy analysis and then do the work on the cheap;
- Lobbing transparently partisan threats at Premier Dalton McGuinty, the man with the cash, in the faint hope that a rump group of Scarborough Liberals will over-ride the rest of the cabinet;
- Refusing to build a broad-based public consensus about new funding tools, opting instead to pursue the politics of division (a few thousand names on a petition in a city of 2.5 million isn’t evidence of a public opinion movement);
- Disregarding a wide range of factual evidence about transit technology, choosing instead to cherry pick de-contextualized statistics.
- Dismissing opposing points of view as mere partisan misinformation.
So now what?
Seems to me the mayor has two choices facing him.
Option A: He could view this loss as the unofficial launch of his 2014 re-election campaign. Until a rival formally registers on January 1, 2014, he’ll use some combined caricature of Stintz/Lindsay Luby/Cho/Augimeri as a proxy opponent. This medusa, Ford will tell us, is responsible for visiting the boundless horror of mulish trams on the long-suffering folk of Scarborough and North York.
Thus positioned, Ford gets himself back to his preferred stance as the principled truth-teller and the quintessential council outsider. Moreover, when he tries to press ahead with the balance of his mandate – cutting council in half; eliminating the land transfer tax, etc. – he can again claim victory in defeat. The Stintz coalition, I’m guessing, will put the brakes on these measures, and the Fords, in permanent campaign mode, will continue tilting at windmills with impunity.
Option B: If he makes a herculean effort to move beyond his normal mode, Ford could find the learning to be had in this fiasco and attempt to recast his mayoralty to respond to pointed accusations from his own supporters (e.g. Jaye Robinson) that he’s failed to lead. This realization would mean firing his senior staff and replacing them with seasoned advisors who don’t view the world – which is to say council and the city’s residents — in purely Manichean terms. And it would entail recasting his cabinet to include not just obedient allies (an ever diminishing cast of characters) but also councillors from elsewhere on the political spectrum.
Ford might even establish a small working group – again, local politicians representing a range of views – to develop some kind of high-level agenda for the balance of this term. They could begin with a few broadly supported goals – e.g., the development of a long-term transit funding strategy — that could serve to bring down the temperature and re-establish the crazy notion that people of opposing viewpoints can actually work together to solve problems.
It’s an open question whether the centre-left would participate in such an exercise, but councillors like Peter Milczyn, Josh Colle, Mary-Margaret McMahon and Kristyn Wong-Tam have demonstrated an ability to straddle council divisions.
I think we can pretty much predict which route the mayor and his brother will pursue. After all, Option B requires not just a measure of introspection, but also the ability to listen to those voices on the right who are quietly aghast by the disgraceful way the Bros. Ford have squandered the mayor’s considerable mandate.
But the point can’t be made often enough: Rob Ford is uniquely unqualified for the position he holds. He is a spectacular example of the Peter Principle at work. There’s nothing in his past to suggest he’s going to grow into this job anytime soon.
Addendum (4:20pm): At a scrum in front of his office after council broke up, Ford did indeed say the council decision marks the beginning of the next election campaign. “We’re going to fight streetcars against subways in the next election,” he said. “I can’t wait for that.”