Let’s shift our fascination with the details of Mayor Rob Ford’s train wreck to a consideration of how he got here. How could our system of selecting leaders choose someone like Rob Ford as mayor?
The field of mayoral candidates in 2010 contains one clue. Ford’s main opponent, George Smitherman, was a well-known provincial Liberal and a minister under Dalton McGuinty. Smitherman had managed campaigns and had been an adviser to prominent federal and provincial ministers. Another candidate, Rocco Rossi, had been an energetic and admired fund raiser for health care charities, also a campaign manager, and a director of the federal Liberal party. Neither of these candidates had sat on Toronto City Council.
Joe Pantalone, who finished third in the election, was a long-serving city councillor with solid experience as chair of many committees, an effective head of the Canadian National Exhibition, and Deputy Mayor.
Rossi and two other candidates withdrew before the election, and Ford ended up with 47% of the vote. He had served on council since 2000, but his contributions to that body for those ten years led many to consider his candidacy as something of a joke. His public drunkenness, meagre input into council, and short fuse were already known to followers of Toronto city politics but probably not to most people who voted for him.
Because of amalgamation in 1997, Toronto’s mayor has by far the largest constituency in Canada, two and a half million people. At this scale, it takes big money and exceptional expertise to mount a credible campaign, resources accessible to few sitting councillors, although they have better credentials for the job than fund raisers and provincial politicians. Moreover, while the mayor has more powers than the average councillor, she or he is primarily a symbolic leader. It is not surprising that by 2010 the mayoral election attracted candidates more interested in this symbolic side to the office than in how cities and their governments work, let alone in how Toronto works.
What is essential to be a mayor, however, is an ability to run a campaign with a simple message that pushes the right buttons. Despite the increased capabilities of small electronic devices to record silly behaviour on YouTube, a careful campaign can still make almost any candidate appear warm-hearted and intelligent, at least for a few months. Ford and his handlers did just that, promising more subways and less gravy – i. e., tighter spending practises. It was obviously an effective campaign.
These are familiar techniques, but those techniques take their toll. Genuine campaign issues are reduced to vapid slogans and half-truths in service to the electoral process. Individual personalities become polished media images. The larger the constituency, the more persistence needed by voters to reach past media hype and inform themselves about the nuances of candidates’ personalities and positions on a multitude of issues.
Rob Ford’s personality and policy positions are hardly nuanced, but he demonstrates the yawning chasm between reality and the ideals of so-called representative democracy. London, England, is divided into 32 boroughs of 150,000 to 300,000 people. These boroughs are responsible for most municipal services and have councils with 50 or 60 members, meaning each councillor has three to six thousand constituents. In such a case, it is more likely that friends and neighbours would know about (and remember) problems with alcohol or behaviour in council, certainly after someone has been sitting for ten years.
Rob Ford is a symptom of the problem with local government in Toronto. It is not a local government at all; it needs to be a federation of smaller units, each with autonomy over many important services. This way, elections would draw candidates who are more likely to have a real affection for their neighbourhood and to be known informally before they ever run for office. As in London, the chair (or mayor) of the whole federation could be elected by borough delegates to the federated council – Metro Toronto worked this way before amalgamation. It’s not foolproof, but it might have avoided the present circus.