Watching the first Toronto mayoral debate, I was impressed by the ability of Mayor Ford to stay on message, and I was disappointed by the inability of the other candidates, especially during the discussion of leadership, to hold him accountable for his behavior. What we heard were euphemistic criticisms of the “circus at City Hall” or of Ford being a “poor role model.” With softball criticisms like this from the other candidates, it wasn’t hard for Ford to stay on message. The polls after each segment of the debate clearly indicated that Ford still has strong support from the members of Ford Nation who were texting their approval.
If the Toronto mayoralty election was a race involving a small number of well-financed candidates, we would likely see Ford’s opponent running attack ads to keep reminding the public of Ford’s behavior, making it harder for him to keep claiming that it was simply yesterday’s news (“rewind, rewind, rewind,” as he put it). The candidate herself could then take the high road and not attack Ford personally.
This is not the way the campaign is currently constituted. The four challengers (Chow, Tory, Stintz, and Soknacki) in the debate were all taking the proverbial high road, likely hoping that one of the others would launch a sustained attack on Ford. None did.
While I don’t have public opinion polls to prove it, I’m convinced that there is an Anti-Ford Nation in Toronto, a large group of people who are fed up with Ford’s antics and drama and who want to see any candidate other than Ford elected. Hence they are more concerned about the leadership issue than about other issues such as transit or taxes, and they are waiting to vote for whichever candidate is most likely to defeat Ford.
The question for the four major challengers is how to win the support of the Anti-Ford Nation. It seems logical to me that the best way to do this would be to launch the most aggressive attack on Ford’s leadership, as a way of drawing the sharpest possible contrast with his or her own integrity.
At the second debate, held the following night at Ryerson University, John Tory came closest to realizing this, and dialed up the tone of his attack on Ford. Quoting from the Globe and Mail, he said “it is not acceptable to have a mayor who shows up late and sometimes doesn’t show up at all … and most troubling and unacceptable of all, a mayor who has admitted multiple and continuing relationships with convicted criminals and gang-types.”
The two major candidates who are now furthest behind and therefore have the least to lose by attacking Ford are David Soknacki and Karen Stintz. Soknacki has a very comprehensive and thoughtful position on mayoral transparency and ethics on his website (see my post of Jan. 21, 2014) and should have summarized and referred to it in the debate. Stintz, regrettably has decided that the election is “not a referendum on Rob Ford” and has urged voters to focus on the other policy issues. My analysis is that she’s absolutely wrong. (Personal disclosure: I had one encounter with Ms. Stintz when she was running for councilor that convinced me she tends to operate on transmit more than on receive.)
A sustained attack on Ford would make reference to his absenteeism, alcoholism, drug use, relationships with criminals, homophobia, racism, and sexism. A sustained attack on Ford would ask why he is even running for mayor rather than entering rehab. And such an attack would raise the considerable possibility that Ford’s future would be radically transformed if he were indicted for a criminal offense.
This recitation of Ford’s failings would establish a contrast with a challenger’s discussion of how he or she would do the work of mayor with focus, honour, and integrity.
As much as Ford attempts to deal with his drunkenness, drug-taking, and consorting with criminals as “rewind, rewind, rewind” it is highly likely that there will be more such incidents happening during the campaign. A challenger who continues to attack that behavior will find that these incidents will powerfully underscore the validity of those attacks.
My conclusion: there is an Anti-Ford Nation waiting to be led, and it is not yet clear which of the major challengers has the boldness to take up the leadership of that nation.