Editor’s Letter, October 2010: Rob Ford’s powers of persuasion

Editor’s Letter, October 2010: Rob Ford’s powers of persuasion

In 2008, I bought a house in a neighbourhood not far from downtown. The land transfer tax cost me thousands of dollars, and I didn’t like it much. The follow­ing summer, I was disposing of my own garbage, my community pool was closed, and my subway ride on the Yonge line was so packed that my commute became an exercise in ritual humiliation. After the strike, the union pretty much got what it wanted, and, a few months later, the price of a single subway ride went up to $3.

This is why I understand the appeal of Rob Ford. The citizens of Toronto are angry. They’re paying more and getting less. David Miller’s ineffectual leadership laid the foundation for this discontent. The city was visibly deteriorating, and he didn’t seem to understand why everybody was so pissed off. In a galling speech he gave last February, just before he presented his proposal for the 2010 operating budget, he reminded everyone that Toronto has the lowest residential property taxes in the GTA. He also boasted that program user fees in Toronto are competitive with those charged by surrounding municipalities. In other words, shut up and be happy.

As any management theory best-seller will tell you, a successful leader does not clobber his troops over the head with data that illustrates success. He makes them feel successful. Throughout Miller’s two terms, I waited for him to give Torontonians a visceral sense of the city as something to be proud of. Most of the time, when he made the news, he was complaining about the feds and the province, which was demoralizing. He always made me feel like I lived in a city of impotent beggars.

Ford, on the other hand, is now resonating with voters who crave a leader with nerve. Don’t get me wrong; I wouldn’t want to be friends with the guy. Even if you could forgive his xenophobic outbursts and many lies (a giant “if”), he has an angry, monomaniacal streak that’s disturbing. He’s also not particularly personable. I met him briefly this summer at a public lecture. He shoved his card at me, said, “Hi, I’m Rob Ford,” didn’t make eye contact, and then shuffled off without ever asking me for my name.

And despite my own civic discontent, I won’t be voting for him. Gerald Hannon’s profile of Ford lays out a strong case for why he’d make a lousy mayor. It also reveals the source of his campaign’s momentum. Ford is embraced as the working man’s man, a populist who promises to spend less and reduce taxes. (He’d do everything in his power to nix that land transfer tax, for example. So if he wins, and I decide to sell my house, I may not be out of pocket several grand again. That’s awfully appealing.) But Ford’s Everyman is a bit of a stretch. For one thing, he’s wealthy. He’s the CFO of a label manufacturing firm founded by his father that employs 250 people and reportedly earns close to $100 million in annual revenues. Meanwhile, George Smither­man, who is also from Etobicoke, whose father had a Grade 6 education and started his own trucking business, has been cast as the establishment man.

Over the summer, as Ford became a front-runner—despite some epic gaffes—Smitherman kept losing his cool. During one debate on CP24, he was so shaken by Ford that he lost the ability to speak in coherent sentences. After alluding to Ford’s homophobia, he lobbed this doozy at him: “You divide people up, and you make people belittled.” I sort of understood his point, but just barely.

It was enough to make this voter wish at least one of the candidates was hyper-articulate, someone who wouldn’t embarrass us on the world stage, maybe someone with a law degree from Harvard. Oh, wait. We voted for that guy twice already, and look where it got us.

(Photograph by Nigel Dickson)