Toronto Mayor Rob Ford: A User’s Guide

Everything you need to know about Toronto’s awful mayor.

By now many of you have probably heard of the rather incredible story of Rob Ford, the mayor of Toronto, having a relaxed and rather intimate conversation — and even allegedly appearing to be smoking crack cocaine — with a couple of drug dealers. In the cell phone video, the mayor is heard to make crude homophobic remarks about the young leader of one of the country’s major political parties and disparaging comments about the ethnicities of the high school kids in the football team he coaches.

Who is this guy? Is he really doing what people are saying he did? Even in the weird world of bourgeois politics in this neoliberal era, isn’t this sort of thing, well . . . different?

Who is Rob Ford?

Rob Ford is the right-wing populist mayor of Toronto, the fourth largest city in North America. With almost three million people, it’s also one of the most culturally diverse urban spaces in the world.

Ford was elected mayor in November 2010. Prior to that, he was a Toronto city councillor for a decade. He comes from a family with deep roots in right-wing politics and the main centres of the Canadian capitalist class. His father was a cabinet minister in the Progressive (don’t let the name fool you) Conservative government of the 1990s, which rammed through a major neoliberal restructuring of the state and attacks on the poor and working people in Ontario. Ford’s family owns DECO Labels, a multinational labelling and printing firm based in Toronto and Chicago. It makes pressure-sensitive labels for plastic-wrapped grocery products, with estimated $100 million annual sales.

Ford and his brother Doug (himself a city councillor) still maintain close ties to the Progressive Conservative Party, now in opposition in Ontario. Tim Hudak, the party’s leader in the province, touts a platform featuring US-style right-to-work laws and massive cuts to public sector workers and services. Doug will be a Progressive Conservative candidate in the next Ontario provincial election, whenever it is called. The brothers are also close to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s federal-level Conservative government. Both Fords have a cozy relationship with the right-wing and establishment media in Toronto, and they have a regular program on a local right-wing talk radio station.

Rob Ford is like the crotchety, obnoxious relative who embarrasses everyone at family gatherings, belching and farting at the table. Somehow, though, he became the head of the family.

As a city councillor, Ford crafted a persona as the guardian of “the taxpayers” through obsessive opposition to government spending on anything other than policing, the office budgets of other city councillors (those who weren’t independently wealthy like him), and anyone who argued against sprawl and called for public transit to replace car use. He was known as an effective “pothole-fixer” who doggedly followed through when constituents raised complaints about city officials and services. He even continues to coach a high school football team in Etobicoke, a suburban district on the western reaches of the greater Toronto area.

He has long had a penchant for embarrassing anti-social gaffes and minor illegal actions. He was escorted by security guards out of a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game for being intoxicated and insulting others around him. He once claimed at a City Council meeting that there should be no funding for AIDS prevention, since “only gays can catch it.” He claimed that “cyclists are a pain in the ass” and insinuated that sooner or later they would be injured. Over the years, he was charged with a number of minor substance abuse infractions.

After his election, things got worse. His opponent in the 2010 mayoral race accused him of grabbing her rear end at a political gathering. He was caught using his cell phone and reading the paper while driving his car on the highway. And he was convicted in a conflict of interest involving his youth football foundation, but wasn’t ultimately punished for it. He is known to regularly play hooky from his City Hall job in order to coach his football team. He also was caught using city maintenance services to do road and drainage repairs outside his business headquarters before its fiftieth anniversary party. The police were called to respond to a “domestic dispute” with his wife as well. The list is far longer than I can fit into this article.

So these crack-smoking shenanigans are just the latest chapter in the long, sad history of Rob Ford.

Ford’s Political Base

Ford ran for mayor in 2010 on a right-wing populist platform. Like most politicians of this sort, he appealed to a range of demographic-political blocs: suburbanites living in areas that had been annexed to the urban core, but still tied to car-dependent lifestyles; business interests from real estate development and finance, concerned with restructuring the governing institutions of Toronto along neoliberal lines,  labour costs, spending and access to new areas for investment; small business people concerned with taxes and law and order; and elements of the working class, many of them from across the ethnic spectrum of the diverse Toronto population. The latter — especially those living in the inner suburban areas — identified with the rants against the “gravy train” being wasted in the central core, reflecting the historical neglect of their communities.

Ford’s opposition to paying taxes and spending on services for the poor, as well as the demonization of unionized public sector workers, was also aimed at attracting votes from precarious workers and the unemployed, who saw tax cuts as a way to supplement their meagre incomes. A number of the taxes Ford targeted for elimination, such as the vehicle transfer tax and the tax on housing purchases, touched on the desires of working people for personal car and home ownership.

Ford also styled himself as a “man of the people,” playing off his rather gruff and unkempt persona as many right-wing populists often do, in spite of his personal wealth and ties to the economic and political elites that rule the city and province. He claimed that once elected, he would get rid of waste without any cuts to services.

Ford’s election victory was significant. He picked up votes from across the city — including the urban core — and across class and ethnic boundaries. He interpreted that win as a mandate for his right-wing agenda.

Ford as Mayor

In the past two years, Ford has embarked on a rather ambitious program. He privatized half the garbage pickup; took away the right of transit workers to strike; cut bus routes; forced key concessions from public sector workers; refused to provide needed shelter for the homeless; and opposed spending on new and much needed transit investments, arguing that the private sector would willingly pay for it all if the proper sorts of partnerships were created. He opposed any new forms of surface mass transit, seeing it as part of the “war on the car.”

There were also different forms of resistance to Ford’s program from social movements and unions across the city, as well as a moderate social democratic political opposition on City Council.

But well into his mayoralty, his incompetence, hypocrisy, obnoxious behaviour and contempt for those who disagree with him has angered and embarrassed even many of his right-wing allies. These include significant elements of the right-wing coalition in the City Council, the so-called centrists, and many of the movers and shakers within the most important sections of the capitalist class, many of whom want to initiate massive new infrastructure investments that require forms of taxation that Ford opposes.

What Now?

There is a very real possibility that this latest embarrassing episode will signal the desertion of key components of Ford’s coalition of supporters, particular the main bastions of big capital, and their media spokespeople. Perhaps it will force him to resign, as they look for alternative champions for their agenda. More likely he will hunker down and look for ways to strengthen the resolve of his most loyal constituencies, who seem to support him no matter what, hoping that the next election in 2014 will split potential opposition. These kinds of politicians have a knack for political survival.

The social movements and unions remain weak, and there are efforts by social democratic politicians to look towards an electoral challenge. Unfortunately, the socialist left in Toronto is small and fragmented, is not currently capable of mounting an effective challenge of its own.

Much of the opposition to Ford remains centered on his personal foibles. A lot more needs to be done to target and dismantle his broader political program. Toronto won’t be rescued from his destructive right-wing agenda by a crack pipe and a grainy cell phone video.

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