Who's to blame for the mess in Toronto?

Let's start with the anti-elite, anti-downtown, anti-transit, anti-everything-frankly vote that swept Rob Ford to power

The most surprising thing Rob Ford has ever done isn’t his belated admission that he has smoked crack cocaine. It’s the fact he became mayor of Toronto in the first place.

Traditionally, Torontonians haven’t paid much attention to their municipal politics. It was at once the most visible and least exciting level of government. City council, and way back when, Metro council, were populated with the usual mix of business-friendly types and earnest reformers. And our burgermeisters—with the notable exception of  the professionally erratic Mel Lastman—were dull and mostly competent. David Crombie was “tiny and perfect.” John Sewell made headlines for wearing blue jeans. And June Rowlands is best remembered for taking offense at the Barenaked Ladies.

But Ford never fit the mould. As a three-term city councillor, starting in 2000, he was a constant sideshow. He declaimed the “gravy train” and paid his office expenses out of his own pocket. He voted against a suicide barrier along the Bloor Viaduct on cost grounds. He said city cyclists who were killed by vehicles had only themselves to blame. He proudly voted against funding AIDS prevention initiatives and all sort of anti-poverty programs. He made ignorant remarks about minorities. And he got drunk and belligerent in public, even managing to get himself ejected from a Leafs game on one occasion. Then he lied about it.

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When Ford announced his candidacy for mayor in March 2010, he wasn’t just a long shot. He was the comic relief in a crowded field of contenders. A no-hope, guaranteed loser. It was inconceivable that he might win.

But the six-month-plus campaign unfurled in ways no one had anticipated. Front-runner George Smitherman, a pitbull as Ontario’s deputy premier, was uninspiring on the hustings, shrinking in stature by the week. TTC chair Adam Giambrone—the left’s great hope—imploded in a office-couch sex scandal, leaving the bland Joe Pantalone to carry the orange banner. Other candidates of ballyhooed quality, like Rocco Rossi, failed to launch. And by early September, polls showed Rob Ford to be comfortably in the lead.

What was his appeal? It was surely more emotional than rational. His loopy promises to find “billions” in waste down at City Hall, balance the budget while cutting taxes, increase program spending and build “subways, subways, subways,” were at best delusional. A civic vision constructed from rainbows and unicorn farts. But his everyman rage struck a chord with voters, especially in the amalgamated city’s former suburbs. Despite his own privileged Etobicoke upbringing—the family label manufacturing business is worth millions—Ford was embraced as a blue-collar champion. And the anti-elite, anti-downtown, anti-transit, anti-everything-frankly vote he tapped into swept him to power. The election, three-years ago this week, wasn’t even close, with Ford taking 47 per cent of the overall vote, to Smitherman’s 35 per cent. And a full 80 per cent of ballots with an X next to his name were cast in the former burbs.

So who is to blame for the mess the City of Toronto now finds itself in? The enablers that make up “Ford Nation,” for sure—many of whom still stubbornly cling to the belief Rob is just a regular guy, doing his best and fighting the good fight. Smitherman and the machine that backed him also deserve a heaping helping of scorn for their inability to provide a reasonably attractive alternative to an outright buffoon. And let’s also throw former mayor David Miller under the bus. Bruised by the public and media backlash against a lengthy garbage strike in the summer of 2009, he chose to quit rather than fight on. By the next year, polls suggested he could have easily beaten Ford.

Rob Ford clearly has problems, and they’ve been apparent for quite some time. One hopes his admission of crack use is a prelude to finally confronting them. However, empathy for his plight should be tempered by the existence of all those blacked out boxes in the 465 pages of police surveillance evidence released last week by the courts. This story is not over.

But the city he has purportedly lead for the past three years also has some pretty big problems. Traffic gridlock has become monumental, even on weekends. The transit system remains uncomfortably packed and unbearably slow, while politicians at all levels bicker endlessly about projects that won’t come on-line for decades. And explosive growth means the issues worsen by the day. Bridges and roads are crumbling. Toronto Community Housing has a $862-million backlog in capital repairs. Nearly a quarter of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. And more than 5,200 are officially classified as homeless.

When Ford was elected, it was always difficult to envision how the city was going end up being better four years down the line.

Let’s just not allow people—and above all his political allies—to pretend that the the way it ended up is somehow a shock.

If you elect a clown, you don’t get to act surprised when the circus comes to town.

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