Monday, March 28, 2016

A Forgotten Rob Ford: The Machine Maker

I greatly appreciate the efforts of many of Toronto's better writers and activists to push back against the ghastly effort to recast Rob Ford as some kind of civic champion.  In particular, I recommend this by Richard Feren, the author of Ford's most infamous parody account, Rob Frod, and this by Andray Domise, the former ward 2 candidate & current civic activist.  There are several others, including @cityslikr, Torontoist, Spacing and a few poignant tweets by Desmond Cole.  Plus see some older recaps of his various terrible behaviour by Karen Geier and my own previous contribution on how he was demonstrably a horrible boss to work for.

Lest anyone be distressed about the violation of the polite rule to not "speak ill of the dead" let's be clear:  Yes, these are terribly rude things to say about a dead man, but also terribly necessary and right.  There are worse things than being rude, and letting a harmful political figure's followers try and rewrite the history of the person upon their death is worse than being rude but correct about who that person was, and most importantly:  What harm they did with the great power they held.  Ford chose a life in public office, and decided the policies he pursued or did not, he is not a private citizen for whom we could harmlessly pass on pointing out his flaws in life.  He did a lot of harm with his power over others, and as we want other people wielding such power to behave better, we must make clear how such people will be remembered.

One aspect of Ford's career in office that has been missing though were his alarming anti-democratic efforts to construct a political machine in Toronto.  This machine naturally fell apart as his substance abuse problems overwhelmed him, but before that happened there was a genuinely distressing period where it appeared he was going to get away with a large array of democratically abusive practices in order to set up a fairly old style city-election machine.  The elements I remember:

  • First and worst was the awful weekly radio show on CFRB 1010.  Two sitting politicians, closely allied, given 3 hours a week of free city wide airtime unmoderated and in full control of the agenda to smear their opponents & critics, campaign for whatever was on their minds & riff off whatever calls they decided to take.  This truly was unprecedented in Toronto politics, and hopefully never to be repeated.  A huge incumbent advantage and a form of non-stop illegal campaigning outside the election period.  When Ford's approval numbers did not crater as expected in May of 2013 as the crack allegations appeared, the effect of his radio show in rallying his base cannot be underestimated.  The theory was that Rob would quit the show once the 2014 campaign formally started, but Doug, officially not running would keep it going for most of the year really was quite plausible and again only the crack scandal finally forced CFRB's hand to end the show.  Sun News gave the pair a show after that, but luckily that too fell apart.
  • Ford Fest.  Another form of perpetual campaigning, effectively staging campaign rallies outside the election period.  Ford even began planning more than the traditional annual event though I think his addiction problems curtailed most of this after one extra edition of it held in Scarborough.
  • The donor network.  In 2010 Ford attracted record sums of money from donors outside the city, which Toronto bizarrely allows.  The crack scandal largely dried this up, but had it remained flowing I could easily have seen Ford calling on his donors to donate to various friendly council candidates or challengers to people he wanted removed.  Given the small dollars on which most council campaigns run, it would not be particularly hard to swamp an incumbent or given a candidate in an open race a huge edge by calling for donations to their campaign.  
  • Robocalls.  Infamously, after Paul Ainslie of Scarborough ward 43 changed his mind and voted against the Scarborough subway, Ford had his whole ward robocalled to slag the councillor to his constituents.  This was a form of party discipline to hold over the heads of councillors in areas where he was popular.  Naturally this was done outside the election period and was far from the only instance of it (robocalls were also used extensively to promote Ford Fest)
  • Efforts to defund the accountability officers.  The accountability officers have weak powers, but they did at least regularly point out ways Ford was abusing process and rules to his advantage.  
  • Constituent visits/calls as retail campaigning.  I've come around to the view that Ford did largely enjoy driving about being feudal lord doling out favours to his vassals in the form of fence allowances and pothole repairs, but the extent to which he did this made it beyond any reasonable measure of a senior politician trying to stay connected to the concerns of John Q. Citizen, and became a form of non-stop retail campaigning.  For every "taxpayer" Ford visits and helps, you have to figure 10 or 20 more will hear the story in some form, and in a city, over a span of years, these numbers matter.  How many people know someone who got a returned call or a visit from Ford?  These in person contacts are how true believers are made, people who are not easily swayed by further negative stories in the media.  
Ultimately of course, the Ford family efforts to build a dynasty seem so far to be limited to Ward 2 and currently Michael Ford in the overlapping public school board seat.  But not for lack of trying and it's inevitable that someone else will try something similar in future.  Ford's willingness to flout rules where he saw advantage was part of the general (largely right wing led) erosion of the norms that keep civil society working reasonably well.  Ford was not re-elected so much of the city wrongly concluded this was all fixed, but as a guy like Giorgio Mammoliti can keep his seat despite being known to take personal cheques from people he oversaw on committees, I can't be so sanguine that the next such demagogue will self-destruct before doing even more damage.

This too is Ford's legacy, and what poison fruit it will still bear for us is not known.  

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