For his first few months in office, Rob Ford had nearly ironclad control over his allies. But after a string of political setbacks, we have to wonder: is the mayor losing his grip on council?
Mayor Ford emerged from his waterfront cash-grab gambit (or maybe it belonged to his renegade councillor sibling?) with his brand new consensus suit a little ill-fitting. Rhetoric notwithstanding, it was an undeniable setback. But this Monday, just a few days after last week’s fiasco, he stood before a special meeting of council—convened to discuss the Core Service Review and proposed budget cuts—more than a little feisty. Spit and vinegarish even.
Clearly over the weekend he and his advisers, with the first real debacle of his mayoralty still fresh and favourability numbers dropping precipitously, decided that the taxpayers of Toronto preferred the mayoral candidate Ford to the actual Mayor Ford. And so he reverted to election mode, all vitriolic rhetoric and new pithy catchphrases. In the speech he gave to kick off the proceedings, he stood and called out the ‘loonie left’ councillors who dared to defy his wishes. Stay The Course was the brand new mantra, chanted over and over again. Under questioning, he blustered, rambled, frequently contradicted himself within a single sentence. Just like the glory days out on the hustings in 2010.
The mayor even cited some new, unofficial polling data. According to people he met everywhere, 90 per cent told him, begged him, exhorted him to Stay The Course. Suck on that, Ipsos Reid. Maybe you need to take your random samplings from the lineups at Tim Horton’s.
But for all the chest-beating, name-calling, and bully-boy posturing, the tone at council had shifted noticeably. While never exactly orderly, Team Ford had until recently been able to deliver a rough-hewn obedience, always managing to wrangle a majority of councillors into its corner on important issues. This week? A sense of disarray descended. Tried and true allies tested the waters of independence. Items and amendments came fast and furious, some from very unexpected corners. I’m sorry, was that deputy mayor Doug Holyday introducing an item on road tolls? Yes, yes, I get that it was nothing more than an attempted poke in the eye of Councillor Josh Matlow, who had put forth his own motions asking for a review of a road toll idea, but it put the mayor on the defensive, forcing him to explain (in idiotic fashion, frankly) his opposition to the concept of generating revenue through this particular type of user fee.
The biggest eye-opener, however, was Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby (Ward 4, Etobicoke Centre). A fellow Etobicokian and self-proclaimed right-of-centre suburbanite, she openly stood up and questioned the mayor about the entire process they were being asked to undertake. “Flying blind,” she called it, having to make consequential choices without any numbers in front of them, sounding almost like unrepentant pinko Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park) at times. She didn’t wilt under withering but ultimately ineffectual show-me-the-money questioning from the budget chief Mike Del Grande (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt). When it came time to push through the items she had introduced, Lindsay Luby gleefully flashed a thumbs up, sitting right next to Team Ford QB-clown Giorgio Mammoliti and his downturned thumb of mayoral disapproval.
That said, Mayor Ford suffered no devastating setbacks during the two-day meeting. There was no knockout blow, as the pundits like to say. Yes, the cuts he was hoping to inflict in the process fell woefully short of the intended mark—the $28 million or so worth of cuts he did get through don’t even rate as a drop in the bucket compared to the size of the City’s budget. It’s also the case that the Voluntary Separation Program—which Perks called a “coerced” retirement offer, extended in an unfriendly environment with a threatened 10 per cent across-the-board reduction to all departments hanging in the air—was passed by council with few significant changes. It gave the mayor a jump on the budget process, initiating cuts by stealth under the guise of attrition rather than layoffs or firings.
As the mayor insisted (somewhat disingenuously), trying to quell fears of the slashing and burning taking place, few decisions were made this week. It was all about reviews and studies. In other words, Ford remained in place, knocking down the easy to reach, low-hanging fruit. It’s equally true that Team Ford is bleeding support and the tough choices remain to be made.
Not only were stalwarts like Councillor Lindsay Luby drifting, so were Executive Committee members Michelle Berardinetti (Ward 35, Scarborough Southwest) and Jaye Robinson (Ward 25, Don Valley West). The mushy middle stopped being cowed. As one longtime City Hall observer, Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler, pointed out to me, even more worrisome for Mayor Ford was that conservative Chin Lee, representing heavily Ford-friendly Ward 41 in Scarborough, quietly but decisively voted against the mayor on a surprisingly large number of items over the last couple days.
Supporters jumping overboard even before the ship hits really choppy waters. An already tenuous majority grown skittish. A summer of discontent turned to an autumn of disregard. All the ingredients for a disastrous budget process and a severe blow to the tattered mandate flag Mayor Ford keeps trying to hold high.