A Victory of Lowered Expectations
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A Victory of Lowered Expectations

Mayor Ford's opponents insist he must go, but they failed to explain why at the first televised mayoral debate.

Screenshot from CityNews debate.

The first televised mayoral debate reinforced an important truth: even Mayor Rob Ford’s strongest political opponents struggle to name and describe his unparalleled misconduct, and to tell voters why he is unfit to serve.

Karen Stintz, Olivia Chow, John Tory, and David Soknacki all hinted at Ford’s apparent missteps and scandals during last night’s CityNews debate, but they mostly left it to the audience to fill in the blanks. They avoided any mention of drugs, criminal associations, and an ongoing police investigation into Ford, leaving him to explain, under direct questioning from CityNews reporter Cynthia Mulligan, that “people have heard the story.”

It was the first major opportunity for Ford’s opponents to connect the mayor’s shocking lack of personal and professional judgment with his aspiration to be re-elected—and they balked.

Stintz gushed before her closing statement that “it’s a refreshing change to talk about policies.” However, the format—a series of one-minute statements on broad topics, followed by cacophonous, unmoderated three-minute exchanges between all five candidates—didn’t provide much in the way of new or interesting policy discussion.

Ford repeated a litany of fallacies about his record and the state of City finances; Tory promised to save money by consolidating City real estate divisions, but provided no savings estimates; Chow repeated her promise to boost bus service, but failed to articulate how much relief such a move would provide. Stintz preferred platitudes to policy: she employed the phrase “kitchen-table common sense” in three consecutive sentences, for example. Soknacki demonstrated the most depth in discussing policy, particularly public transit.

Candidates got the chance to question one of their opponents, and those exchanges proved more interesting and indicative of campaign strategies. Tory questioned Chow on contracting out garbage collection east of Yonge Street, and suggested she was reluctant to do so because of her connections to organized labour. “You’re hidebound to your union friends,” Tory said. “That’s the difference between you and me.”

Ford likely surprised many attentive viewers by asking a question of Soknacki, who is polling well behind Chow and Tory. Soknacki held his own on the issue of City budgets, but came off as somewhat agitated and aggressive in comparison to the grinning, defiant Ford. The mayor seemed eager both to cast Soknacki as a spendthrift from the era of former mayor David Miller, and to avoid direct confrontation with his seemingly more formidable opponents.

Also notable was Tory’s continued struggle to condemn Rob Ford the man, while promising to carry on the Ford agenda. “The problem with you, Rob, is that that you will just make decisions on any host of subjects without any of the facts in front of you,” Tory asserted at one point. Yet a short time later, Tory borrowed a questionable Fordian argument—that the TTC’s overall budget has increased—to dodge a question on specific cuts to bus service. Tory, perhaps more so than Stintz or Soknacki, is angling to position himself as Rob Ford without the crack cocaine and police feuds.

Except, of course, that Tory and others found it too risky or perhaps too impolite even to mention these things. Ford was the biggest target, as is usually the case for incumbents, but his opponents never told us why they are so seemingly disappointed in his leadership. The debate’s messy and often incomprehensible exchanges (which CityNews moderator Gord Martineau didn’t even attempt to control) meant the mayor could muddle through without often being challenged. Some say Ford won the debate outright, in part because of the low expectations he’s managed to establish for his mayoralty.

Ford suggests his accomplishments as mayor are singular, but it is his reckless indifference to the office he holds that makes him truly special. While some of the controversy surrounding Ford’s personal life may be irrelevant to the campaign, a great many of his past and ongoing acts are too troubling to be ignored or minimized.

Candidates have to tell voters why Ford’s controversial conduct—his public drunkenness, his foul condemnation of the police chief, his bizarre relationship with alleged extortionist Sandro Lisi, his many racist and homophobic remarks—should disqualify him to lead our city. Absent that, Ford is still standing, and still a strong bet to return to the mayor’s chair on October 27.