(Warning: This column contains explicit football puns.)
With the mid-way point of Rob Ford’s term fast approaching, I have one fundamental question about the mayor’s rapidly growing collection of political off-sides: Why won’t Team Ford review his game tapes and figure out how to improve their offense?
Some of Ford’s failures since 2010 stem from his recklessness (e.g., last week’s much ridiculed “fumble”), while others arise from his contempt for any sort of rules or restrictions. And then there are those that can be attributed to his perverse disinclination to use the considerable political machinery that the voters of this city conferred on him on October 26, 2010.
Consider, for example, this alternative version of the football foundation melodrama:
Early in his mayoralty, Ford stands up in council to unveil his plan to cut $700,000 from councilor office budgets, as per his gravy train pledge. With the savings, he continues, he proposes to establish a fund allowing high schools without football programs to apply for grants to buy equipment. He explains the work his foundation has done, and notes that the need seems endless, ergo the use of public funds. The applications would be judged according to local demand, and a council sub-committee would monitor the process to ensure accountability to taxpayers.
To get this plan going as quickly as possible, Ford tables a motion asking that his proposal be vetted by the city’s bureaucracy and the relevant committees, with an eye to approval in time for the first full school season of his term.
Every mayor arrives into office with pet projects (remember Miller’s “clean and beautiful city” campaign), so this one would hardly stand out as exceptional. But his relatively inexpensive scheme also has the virtue of responding to a real issue. It marries Ford’s personal interest in football with his genuine desire to help underprivileged teenagers who – from his own experience – benefit tangibly from the combination of teamwork and physical discipline.
The ensuing bureaucratic and political scrutiny adds a few extra layers. But Ford, still early in his term and riding a wave of public support, knows he’s got the support from council and also from voters, who applaud his volunteer work.
Once launched, the Mayor’s “Sports Initiative for At-Risk Youth,” as this program will be called, proves popular, inexpensive, and high-impact. Many schools apply, much equipment is purchased. The school boards are grateful. Parents are grateful. The kids enjoy their new opportunities.
Come the first anniversary of the program – and the start of a new school year – Ford (upon the advice of his advisors) invites 200 football players down to City Hall to fill the bleachers of the Council chamber. The members of the media are invited to meet these kids and hear them tell stories of how their attitudes to school turned around because of one man’s passion for football.
All this could, and should, have been encapsulated in a one-pager for Ford a year ago, when the horizon had far fewer storm clouds than it does today. With almost no effort, he could have avoided the endless humiliations and the legal imbroglios. At no political cost, he could have moved the ball down the field. It is almost impossible to imagine serious political objections.
I admit there’s a heavy wish-fulfillment element to my fantasy football scenario. Ford has little time or interest in the policy development process, and his ideas about the use of public funds verge on the bizarre.
Yet as these increasingly damaging episodes pile up, it is reasonable to ask why his closest political advisors – starting with chief of staff Mark Towhey – have done so little to persuade their boss to front small but politically resonant initiatives that would re-cast his mayoralty. They are, of course, in a murderously difficult situation, because their counsel is routinely thwarted by brother Doug, who only believes it’s been a good week if he’s poured more gasoline on the fire.
But the upshot is that Team Ford seems incapable of taking control of the agenda, running the operation with even a modicum of discipline, and anticipating political sacks – even when the other team keeps running the same play.
Indeed, the ongoing football foundation saga is an almost perfect parable of the tragedy of the Ford mayoralty, because it reveals, perhaps more vividly than anything else, his enormous talent for squandering his political capital.
The mayor’s office, at the moment, resembles the Alamo – surrounded, under siege, abandoned by all but its most dim-witted allies. From where I sit, Ford’s advisors could have given their man the tools to turn the football foundation story from a drubbing into something that symbolically defines his mayoralty. But until someone starts calling better plays, they’ll never put the numbers on the board.