Voters for Ford aren’t bored

Rob Ford’s support is indicative of a broader trend of voter anger in Canada and the US

If you’ve read an article or seen a news segment on Toronto’s mayoral race in the past several months, you’ve probably heard the prevailing line: the race’s frontrunner is Rob Ford, Canada’s answer to the Tea Party.

Almost any reference to Ford’s success—the fiscally conservative city councillor from Etobicoke entered the race in March and has since led opinion polls by as much as 24 points—is sure to invoke a comparison to the Tea Party, America’s grassroots libertarian movement.

But many of the comparisons are disingenuous. Rob Ford’s polling numbers have as much to do with his similarities to Barack Obama as with his similarities to the Tea Party.

A black-and-white picture of Rob Ford as Canada’s equivalent to the Tea Party does a disservice to thoughtful political discourse and fails to capture why the vocal football coach-turned-councillor is leading the race for Canada’s biggest city. So why the comparisons?

One reason is that there hasn’t been much excitement on Parliament Hill or at Queen’s Park this summer.

If the biggest issues of the day are changes to the mandatory long-form census and the harmonization of excise taxes, then it’s safe to say we have a fairly dull political scene.

In contrast, the US Congress debated the Gulf oil spill, overarching Wall Street reform and the direction of the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Washington” is synonymous with an expansive government, grandeur and political excitement, and the Tea Party is another colourful actor in the American political theatre.

Reports on Toronto’s election are likely to build more excitement by slapping the uniquely American Tea Party label on Ford.

Canadians love comparing themselves to Americans, so perhaps we should view this trend as journalists engaging in our national pastime.

But a simple political simile cheapens discourse and lets us make all sorts of inferences without thinking for ourselves or researching policy platforms.

Less flattering analogies of Ford and the Tea Party claim substitute education with volume. How can it be that someone without a university degree could become the mayor of a cultural powerhouse like Toronto?

Such a claim is wrong-headed on two counts. The first is that Tea Partiers are actually a very well-educated group, and a greater share of them are university-educated than the general population.

Alumni of illustrious schools like Harvard, Yale and Duke’s medical school are among the Tea Party-backed candidates for Senate.

Second, it may surprise people to know that Ford’s main opponent, George Smitherman, has less education than Ford.

Smitherman dropped out of high school, while Ford was two credits short of graduating from Carleton University before he left to help his sister deal with personal issues back home.

Comparisons of Ford and the Tea Party also conflate Ford’s Red Toryism with the most right-wing element of American conservatism.

Ford doesn’t have the radical libertarian ideology or subtle social conservatism of the Tea Party movement, and his plans to build more subway lines would likely sit poorly with Tea Partiers who are instinctively opposed to any publicly-funded services.

Granted, Ford is also weary of decision-making by bureaucratic “elites” at City Hall and places an enormous amount of faith in the commonsense wisdom of the ordinary citizen.

Yet none of these similarities can really explain the incredible momentum of the Ford campaign. To do this, we need to look back at Obama’s 2008 campaign, which ran on one central theme: “Change.”

Obama offered American voters the choice of a clear and marked change from the Bush-run White House. There was palpable anger with the Bush administration at the grassroots-level and the campaign successfully tapped into voter frustration to mobilize support.

There is similar anger with Toronto Mayor David Miller’s city hall. Toronto taxpayers are incensed with wasteful spending and poor services while municipal taxes continue to rise.

Voters who commute by car or public transit are frustrated with a woefully-inadequate transit system.

Naturally, Ford’s promises of cutting spending at City Hall and revamping the transit system resonate well with an electorate yearning for change.

Obama’s message was consistent, clear, and simple. He had long opposed the Bush agenda, and thus came off as more genuine than Hilary Clinton—who supported invading Iraq—when promising a break from the previous eight years.

Obama’s message in the general election was painfully simple: he stood for change and his Republican opponent would be “four more years of George Bush.”

Similarly, Ford has long practiced what he’s preaching. He doesn’t spend a dime of his $53,000 city-funded expense account and pushed the city to publish all councillors’ expenses online.

His promises of fiscal restraint come off as much more earnest than those of George Smitherman, who squandered $1 billion of taxpayer funds while serving as provincial Minister of Health.

Rob Ford’s message is equally as simple as Obama’s: he’s vowed to “stop the gravy train” at Toronto’s city hall.

The US presidential race in 2008 is like Toronto’s mayoral race in another critical way. The contest is between a frontrunner advocating for change and a contender on the side of status quo.

John McCain, the grey senator who’s served in Congress since 1982, was the quintessential anti-Obama, offering experience instead of a more ambitious reform agenda.

Likewise, Smitherman has been putting himself forward as the anti-Ford, emphasizing his political experience in Ontario’s cabinet and his cautious plans for the city.

It’s clear that these factors—a grassroots desire for change and a simple and effective message—are what propelled the Ford and Obama campaigns.

That’s why the 2008 race was really a choice between change and the status quo; Obama or the anti-Obama.

That’s why the election for Canada’s most powerful mayor will become a choice between a new city hall or a continuation of David Miller’s city hall; Ford or the anti-Ford.

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