Listening to the candidates running to be Toronto’s next mayor you would think they were campaigning against the city they aspire to run.
Never has Toronto been described in such Gomorrah-like terms — a city badly broken, filthy, corrupt, penurious and gang-ridden.
Torontonians go to the polls on Monday to choose outgoing mayor David Miller’s successor. The surprising front-runner for his job is a controversial city councillor named Rob Ford who says he is so embarrassed by Toronto that he would advise prospective visitors not to bother coming.
Behind a campaign slogan of “Stop the Gravy Train”, Ford has tapped into a rich vein of resentment – especially in the suburbs – over rising taxes, traffic gridlock, crumbling infrastructure and a perceived culture of waste at city hall. He rails against “downtown elites” and claims recent bicycle-friendly initiatives constitute a “war on the car”. Critics have likened Ford to a northern franchise of the Tea Party movement now burbling across the United States.
Alarmed at Ford’s early 20-point lead in the polls, his rivals’ campaigns began to take on a similarly negative thrust. In doing so, however, they effectively allowed Ford to set the tone of the race. Now, alarmed that he continues to lead, two of the five original candidates for mayor have dropped out to support George Smitherman, the only hopeful whose poll numbers indicate he has a chance of beating Ford.
The “Anyone-but-Ford” movement has had no shortage of artillery to throw at the admittedly boorish front-runner, including a 1999 drunk-driving charge, his past opposition to funding AIDS prevention programmes, and comments that it is cyclists’ own fault if they die in an accident with a car.
None of the bad press has dented Ford’s numbers, however. Half the population is excitedly cheering him on.
His platform is by now the boilerplate stuff of populist taxpayer revolts. He promises to reduce taxes, sell-off assets, drastically slash spending, tame the city’s unions, and eliminate government perks. And he will do all this, he says, without affecting a single service that citizens now enjoy.
Never mind that the dystopian light in which Ford has painted the city is sharply at odds with a number of surveys (though not Monocle’s) that consistently rank Toronto in the top 10 or 20 among global cities for liveability.
Contrary to Ford’s description, the city is neither on fire nor is it bankrupt. It’s hardly without problems, but for all the dire predictions of financial collapse, Toronto enjoys an enviable AA1 credit rating. Last year it posted an operating surplus of $350m.
Then again, facts haven’t made a tremendous impression on this campaign.