Give Doug Ford this much: one has to admire, in a grudging way, someone with the sheer lack of self-awareness required to believe that Torontonians are clamouring for a Trumpian mayor after four years of his late brother, nine years of Stephen Harper, and the Category 5 hurricane that is #45’s presidency.
What this city needs, circa 2018, is a middle-aged white male blow-hard who’s going to, uh, make Toronto great again! His value proposition is just so obvious.
Seriously, the most obvious problem with Ford’s bid for a second appearance on the electoral cat-walk is that Mayor John Tory has spent three years proactively scooping large chunks of his future rival’s platform: Tory saved a nearly useless piece of downtown highway at extravagant cost; he blithely ignored the advice of just about every transit expert this side of the Atlantic and proceeded with the Scarborough subway; he’s imposed across-the-board spending cuts, kept taxes low and refused his city manager’s advice to create new revenue tools; and while he didn’t yelp about the war on the car, he nonetheless made it his mission to ensure that traffic keeps moving.
Sure, Tory’s tone is more centrist, polite and conciliatory, and he’s mostly resisted the urge to lash himself to symbolic causes (war on graffiti, gravy train, etc.). But programmatically, Tory’s track record unquestionably hugs the right side of the road. A Ford in Tory clothing, so to speak.
Which means Ford’s campaign will likely rely heavily on a confection of populist half-truths, ominous allegations, and a re-do of the sort of sloganeering that put his late brother in office (such as that he’ll be able to build the Scarborough subway entirely with money from developers; that he’ll freeze taxes; that he’ll cancel something big and allegedly undesirable that’s not really his to cancel; that he’ll contract out the rest of the City’s waste management).
Ford, in sum, will pledge to pull the emergency brake on the John Tory gravy train, all while invoking the memory of Saint Rob to burnish his own less cuddly image.
The fact-checking brigades will be loosed upon the political landscape, and it’s really anyone’s guess whether the inevitable torrent of Pinocchio moments will have an impact on how Ford conducts himself.
I personally think he’s misread the moment. Canadians generally hold a very dim view of Trump-style politics. One need only cast one’s eyes in the direction of poor old Patrick Brown, who is forced to disavow his rump of caucus nutbars and Bible-thumpers on what seems like a weekly basis. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, who is working hard to stress his own dimple-cheeked sunny ways, had to scramble recently to distance himself from Rebel Media, which seemed to have cultivated a rather chummy relationship with the non-Harper before its neo-Nazi outburst during the Charlottesville riot.
Closer to home, a fantasy football Forum Research poll released on the weekend by the Toronto Sun shows Tory with support of 64% among decided and leaning, compared to about a third for Ford.
It’s trite to point out that the election is Tory’s to lose, although it most definitely is. Rather, what I’d say will be the key dynamic is how the mayor positions himself versus Ford, and whether he stays in his lane until election day. Does Tory attempt to tack slightly left in order to shore up his support among those centrist and downtown voters who are often disappointed with him? Does he tack right because his spidey senses tell him that Ford may actually be able to grow beyond that third of Toronto voters who would support a lawn mower if it promised to freeze taxes? Or does he take a Liberal-esque stay-the-course stance that pivots on his ability to claim he delivered on key pledges while getting City Hall off the New York Times home page?
My guess is that if the left doesn’t ante up a challenger, which seems increasingly unlikely, Tory will mostly take for granted all those centre and centre-left voters in the core. He’ll run a steady-as-she-goes centre-right campaign and do so until Ford spooks him into tacking hard right, as happened to George Smitherman in 2010, and which he’ll do even while warning ominously that a Ford mayoralty will inflict draconian chaos onto the city’s beloved municipal services.
I don’t even want to think about what that defensive right-ist drift may look like: another ridiculous transit pledge (we need a subway to Sherway Gardens more than the Relief Line!), aggressive privatization promises, or a moratorium on new revenue tools? Absent a meaningful left-leaning challenger, no one’s going to call out Tory on such policy fiascos.
His positioning will also be determined by the outcome of the June, 2018, provincial election. If the Liberals and Kathleen Wynne get re-elected, Tory’s got plenty of incentive to remain in the centre. But if Brown figures out how to convince voters that he wouldn’t hand the keys to the GTA to a bunch of rural yahoos in southwestern Ontario, I’d expect Tory to mosey his way towards whatever the Progressive Conservatives are saying about housing, transit, and other like-minded issues.
It would be nice to think that by this point in his political career and mayoralty, Tory has learned to be his own man, and to understand how to occupy the political space that he seems most temperamentally inclined to support. Yet there’s much to suggest that he’s nowhere nearly that secure, which is why Ford could yet inflict a tidal sort of gravitational force in a race that he is unlikely to win.
When former mayor Rob Ford was initially diagnosed with a metastasizing soft-tissue cancer, his family set up a website and online guest-book for well-wishers, GetWellRobFord.com. Spacing’s publisher/editor Matthew Blackett submitted a note using a cheeky alias email, firstname.lastname@example.org on the hunch that the email could be put to future use. The website never stated what it would do with the email addrwsses collected. And like clockwork, “Sandro” has received two mass emails from Doug Ford in response, one an invitation to a celebration of Rob’s life scheduled for the first anniversary of his death in March, 2016; and the second last week, inviting “Sandro” to the Ford Fest where Doug announced his mayoralty bid. Both emails could be a violation of Canada’s Anti-Spam laws.
Doug was the author of many of the dirty tricks and rule-skirting that occurred on Rob’s watch. The expedient and undisclosed re-purposing of a condolence book into a political email list would certainly fit into this category. Let’s hope Elections Toronto will be watching.