Farewell to Ford Nation?

Rob Ford's toxic political career grew out of an urban class divide that won't perish with him.

Some three years before Rob Ford became the punch line of late-night TV jokes in the US, he was elected mayor of Canada’s largest city by a landslide victory that surprised many. Less than three years after generating headlines around the world — and after both illness and scandal forced him to forgo a reelection bid — he was dead from cancer.

So what now can we say about Rob Ford?

While the image of a vulgar, crack-smoking mayor at odds with Canadian politeness contains a certain element of truth, it risks casting Ford as either an isolated phenomenon or a political anomaly. Even within Canada, where the experience of Ford is less removed, the swirl of controversy he generated has often masked the political circumstances that produced him.

This was a man, after all, who both secured and retained the mayoralty of Canada’s largest metropole despite a cavalcade of outbursts and scandals that would have instantly sunk any other politician.

These included, but were not limited to: getting kicked out of a sports event after drunkenly berating a couple (“You right-wing communist bastards . . . Who the fuck do you think you are? Are you a fucking teacher? Do you want your little wife to go over to Iran and get raped and shot?”); hiring as a personal driver a man convicted of making death threats (and who reportedly carried around a vial of bed bugs as a weapon); physically assaulting his staff and injuring a colleague on the floor of the city council; commissioning public transit for personal use; using city resources to fundraise for his private foundation; being photographed with his arm around a neo-Nazi and several alleged gang members (another man in the picture who was not gang-affiliated was fatally shot soon after); repeatedly appearing under the influence in public; charging a reporter spotted near his house and slandering him as a “pedophile”; repeatedly skipping work to coach high school football; and, of course, being caught on video smoking crack.

Ford’s appalling behavior, not to mention his frequent displays of racism, misogyny, and homophobia, devolved into a political spectacle that was unprecedented in scale even before it spread across Canada’s borders.

But to overlook the wider context of Fordism, to remain preoccupied with the personal rather than the political, is to misunderstand and misinterpret his mayoralty and his legacy. For far from being the product of mere happenstance or one-time civic stupidity, Rob Ford’s career was deeply interwoven with the economic and political changes that have characterized the neoliberal transformation of Toronto —  and Canada —  since the 1990s.

The Political Context of Fordism

On October 25, 2010, Rob Ford was elected mayor of Toronto, receiving more than 47 percent of the vote and easily defeating former provincial cabinet minister George Smitherman and Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone.

A city councilor representing the suburban ward of Etobicoke North, Ford had received a boost from a variety of events in the final months of the campaign, most notably a thirty-nine-day strike by the city’s unionized garbage workers that was so unpopular it compelled left-leaning incumbent David Miller not to seek reelection.

Accordingly, the Ford campaign, with its reductive but evocative slogans (“Stop the Gravy Train!”, “Respect For Taxpayers”), ran on a classic right-wing populist program that promised, among other things: the privatization of garbage collection, an end to the city’s fair-wage policy (which ensured all workers, unionized or non-unionized, received a union wage), and dramatic improvement in services despite cuts to spending.

His rhetoric, both during the election and his career as a city councilor, had a strong anti-metropolitan streak. He targeted public funding for the arts, bike lanes, city bylaws protecting trees (which he decried as “communism”), and ostensible symptoms of downtown largesse like council office budgets.

Notably, one of Ford’s key campaign promises was to cancel Mayor Miller’s signature achievement — an extensive upgrade to the city’s transit networks and the construction of new light rail networks — and replace it with costly new subway lines.

For all of his claims of being a populist outsider, Ford swept into office with considerable establishment support. Months before he entered the campaign, Marcus Gee, city columnist at Canada’s newspaper of record, wrote a column begging him to run and filled with rhetorical tropes that would soon become emblematic of establishment support for Ford:

Every big, lumbering organization needs a gadfly, someone with the temerity to tell the hostess the salmon mousse tastes off before the dinner guests succumb to food poisoning . . . [Mr. Ford] has established himself over 10 years on city council as the champion of the little guy, that overtaxed, fed-up denizen of Etobicoke or North York or Scarborough who cares more about getting the potholes fixed on his street than putting a green roof on City Hall, who thinks that shiraz-sipping downtown professionals have far too much sway in the city and who would like to see Mayor David Miller hung by his toes above the skating rink at Nathan Phillips Square.

While Gee noted Ford’s history of “troubling behaviour,” he cited the “pizazz” and “entertainment value” it would bring to the election. The paper’s editorial board, while stopping short of an endorsement, praised Ford’s record as a councilor and his tax- and budget-cutting agenda.

He would eventually earn the endorsement of two major city papers (the Sun, a populist tabloid, and the National Post, the newspaper of Canada’s right-wing intelligentsia) and was hailed in Maclean’s Magazine as a “political genius.”

The liberal Toronto Star — which had sharply criticized Mayor Miller’s left-leaning policies at the end of his term and which had torpedoed the surging candidacy of his would be-successor Adam Giambrone by breaking news of several affairs — campaigned strongly against Ford and endorsed Smitherman.

While Ford may have capitalized on ephemeral shifts in public mood, the growing presence of conservatism in Toronto politics (less than a year later, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives would sweep much of the Greater Toronto Area in the 2011 federal election), and the legitimacy the establishment conferred on him, these factors alone do not explain the decisiveness of his victory or his five-year stranglehold on the mayoralty. Nor do they account for his less popular brother Doug’s near-win in the 2014 mayoral election, in which he flew the Ford banner.

Austerity and the Neoliberal City

As Paul Cohen and others have noted, the real roots of Fordism transcend the politics of 2009 or 2010.

In the early 1990s, Canada’s federal Liberal government decided to tackle the country’s deficit by way of an austerity program that dramatically restructured public programs and put an end to the nominally social-democratic postwar consensus. Finance Minister Paul Martin, announcing the Canadian equivalent of Bill Clinton’s “the era of big government is over” proclamation, declared:

It is now time for government to get its fiscal house in order. For years, governments have been promising more than they can deliver, and delivering more than they can afford. That has to end. We are ending it . . . Over the next three years, for every one dollar raised in new revenues we will cut five dollars in government expenditures.

The cuts were swift and deep. As Michal Rozworski notes, between 1993 and 2000 spending on federal programs and transfers to provinces, cities, and individuals declined by more than five percent of GDP.

These changes profoundly reshaped the internal politics of Canada’s provinces — especially in Ontario where in 1995 Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservatives trounced the left administration of NDP Premier Bob Rae to form a majority government. Harris’s government, among the most conservative ever elected in Canada, deepened austerity still further with its so-called “Common Sense Revolution.”

Responsibilities for public health, housing, and social assistance were downloaded onto municipalities that, with limited discretionary taxation power, had little financial room to adapt, improve, or even adequately fund many services.

The new arrangement ensured that Toronto’s city government — or anyone else attempting to use it as an instrument for progressive or egalitarian ends — would have few genuine revenue tools at its disposal.

Only politically noxious property tax hikes or user fees remained realistic options (the Miller administration’s $60 Vehicle Registration Tax, for instance, would be seized upon by Ford as a campaign issue, and was repealed early in his term), and Toronto’s weak mayor system would make even those measures a heavy lift.

In 1998, in perhaps its most dramatic move, the Harris government unilaterally amalgamated municipalities across Ontario (reducing the total number from 850 to 443) despite considerable grassroots opposition and a Toronto referendum that found 76 percent of voters opposed the plan. While amalgamation failed to achieve its stated purpose of reducing the size of government, it succeeded in permanently reconfiguring Toronto’s political landscape with far-reaching consequences.

The austerity domino effect initiated by the federal Liberals and intensified by the Harris PCs effectively consolidated a pattern of uneven and unequal urban development that created the conditions for Ford’s 2010 ascendancy.

Twenty-first century Toronto resembles a metaphor for the neoliberal city writ large. In the core, an affluent and rapidly gentrifying downtown houses a mostly middle-class (and disproportionately white) population with superior access to transit and other public infrastructure. Here, a university, the headquarters of Canada’s national public broadcaster, the provincial Parliament, and the country’s largest financial district find their homes amongst ever-increasing condo development and construction.

As David Hulchanski has shown, wealthy neighborhoods are now exclusively clustered around the old, pre-amalgamation City of Toronto (a complete reversal from the 1970s), while the outer neighborhoods are overwhelmingly poor (and getting poorer).

In an image of almost perfect political symmetry, a map showing the distribution of Ford’s 2010 vote almost exactly mirrors the boundaries of Toronto prior to amalgamation and the distribution of income across city neighborhoods.

ford voters

More than any fleeting political event, it was this profound urban class divide that produced the Ford mayoralty and its accompanying mélange of toxicity, civic dysfunction, and brutality.

The political constituency that came to be known as “Ford Nation” wasn’t so much united by a series of concrete aims as by a desire to see downtown Toronto’s elitist equilibrium violently disrupted.

For the poor voters in peripheral neighborhoods, excluded from the bustling metropole, it didn’t matter that Ford’s expensive plans for new subways were at odds with his penny-pinching ethos. What mattered was that, for once, the patrician denizens of pre-amalgamation Toronto might not get what they wanted.

The Mayor, the Man

Ford’s conduct, frequently blurring the line between public and the private, also reflected the neoliberal city in its own twisted way. It was often hard to tell where his personal favors to friends stopped and his service to constituents began — Ford himself didn’t see any difference.

As a councilor and even as mayor, he spent much of his time coaching football to ostensibly troubled high school students. He saw no problem with using city letterhead to solicit donations for his football foundation, expensing office supplies to his own family business, or chartering a city bus to transport his football team. Just before his election as mayor, Ford had even been caught on tape offering to help a constituent buy drugs.

The mayor’s regular “Ford Fest” gatherings, invariably held in the city’s peripheral wards, attracted huge crowds, drawn by the free food and the opportunity to see “the Taxpayer’s Lord” in person.

Treating political office like a familial commodity, Ford passed his old council seat in Etobicoke to his brother Doug in 2010 (who easily won the election) and reclaimed it when he left the mayoralty (his nephew Michael, who had planned to contest the seat, stepped aside and won a seat on the city school board instead). By doling out favors, forging local alliances, and making use of their considerable wealth, the Ford family effectively built a small private fiefdom in Toronto’s west end, complete with its own popular base throughout the city.

What ultimately united Ford’s own personal ambition with his right-wing politics was a patrimonial attitude that elevated his family’s desire for power above the traditional rules of political conduct — and really, most any other legal or ethical constraints.

While his violent behavior and personal dysfunction may have been his own, they reflected a city of deep fissures where the growing class divides wrought by decades of neoliberal politics have engendered a profound sense of exclusion and anomie outside of the downtown core.

That Toronto’s ruling establishment initially not only tolerated Ford but welcomed him is testament to the strength of the neoliberal consensus among many Canadian elites. Having implemented it on a national level, they were only too pleased to see it implemented in the heart of the country’s largest metropole.

That its figurehead became a person like Rob Ford tells us a great deal about how cruel and destructive that consensus truly is.