Toronto's youngest councillor is noticeably different compared to his uncles.
On a sunny September morning in the parking lot of Etobicoke’s Woodbine Mall, Toronto’s newest city councillor stands greeting his constituents, business cards in hand. “Today’s our Community Environment Day,” says Michael Ford (“Mike” or “Mikey” to his friends, family, and everybody else in the city). “The City of Toronto hosts Environment Days starting in May and running to about October across the city. Today’s our day for Ward 2….”
A car pulls up. “Sir! How are you? Michael Ford, council for Etobicoke North.” He pulls out a business card and hands it to the driver. “Thanks for coming out today! If you have anything to drop off, go around that way, and it’s just over there…”
Another car pulls up, and Ford produces another business card. “How are you, sir? Michael Ford, council for Etobicoke North.” The elderly driver looks a little stunned. “I’ve seen you on TV,” he says. Michael Ford chuckles. “So, thank you for coming out to our Environment Day…”
The car drives away. “Do people get starstruck when they see you?” I ask. “Because you’re kinda famous.”
Ford chuckles and shrugs. “Ayyy…. Y’know what? We’re just everyday people just trying to help out, make a difference. But y’know, some people say, ‘Hey, I’ve seen you!’ and yeah… nothing too big.”
“Do you like the constituent work?”
His face acquires a new seriousness. “I love it,” he says. “It’s a great way of touching base with people and really keeping an eye on what’s going on in the neighbourhood. Hey sir, how are you, Michael Ford…”
Few politicians have enjoyed as quick a rise as Michael Ford. At age 20, while his uncle Rob was battling for re-election as Mayor of Toronto, Michael announced his candidacy for councillor of Ward 2, Etobicoke North. Before he had given any interviews or revealed any policies, he was polling at over 50 per cent. The well-publicized shake-up (no need to rehash the details here) had Michael running instead as a Toronto School Board trustee, a race he handily won over an incumbent. In July, he won the Ward 2 byelection triggered by his uncle Rob’s death, filling the seat that a member of the Ford family has held since 2000. At 22, he is the youngest council member by a decade.
In 2014, Michael Ford was widely dismissed for his inexperience, seen as both a puppet for his domineering family, and a symbol of their hubris. But then a funny thing started happening: he became the Ford that even Ford haters kinda liked. He has described himself as “responsible about money but passionate about social issues.” His colleagues at the TDSB praised him as hard working, respectful, and wonkish, and the Globe and Mail called him “everything Rob and Doug are not.” He is friendly with the media, including representatives from left-ish publications such as, well, this one. If you expect him to evolve into the role of council’s Grandstander-in-Chief, it will not come easily.
“Did you go to any of the previous Environment Days?” I ask.
“I did with Rob, when he was the mayor. I was out at a few of them.”
“Did he like these? Because I know that he would sometimes, y’know, vote against them, but they weren’t certainly his environment…”
“Ehh, he supported them, and as far as I’m concerned he was always out at them and always championing them. He was always, y’know, shoveling waste and helping out. But yeah…”
“By the way, how is it as a city councillor now? I know you haven’t had much of an opportunity to…”
A car pulls up. “How are you doing?” asks the driver.
“Good! How are you doing? Right around the side…” He pulls out a business card. “And if you need anything from my office, give me a call.”
“I think I will!” says the driver.
“Absolutely—not a problem!” says Ford.
The car drives away. “So yeah, but back to your original question, I think the constituency work is one of the most important parts of the job, because we interact with our residents every day, right? And there’s no better way to have a good understanding of what’s going on in the community.”
“I feel like people are still trying to figure you out,” I say. “I’ve seen interviews with you where you say you’re kind of socially liberal, fiscally conservative…”
He nods. “Yep!”
“Where does environmental stuff like this enter into your agenda?”
“Well, I think it’s very important to be taking care of our environment—that the city plays a crucial role in that, right? So I think days like today give people the opportunity to properly dispose of waste and what have you, and not put it into our recycling and garbage collection—which is very important.”
There was a time fairly recently when the Ford family had Torontonians talking about Who We Are As A City. But the uncomfortable revelations of the Ford era—that huge sections of the city are alienated from each other; that the suburban working class feels excluded from the growth of Toronto; that racism, xenophobia, and homophobia are alive and well in Canada’s most cosmopolitan city—have been tossed aside. These days, Canadians are smugly tweeting a GIF of Bugs Bunny sawing off the U.S. from Canada, as if Trump is a uniquely American phenomenon and the Ford era never happened.
There’s plenty of reason to hope and expect that Michael Ford will serve as a more positive presence in council than his uncles. Regardless, meeting him left me with two revelations, neither of which should be shocking: 1) In the parts of the city downtowners don’t visit, the Ford brand is alive and well, and 2) A simple way to create a powerful political brand is to be nice to people, and listen to their concerns.
On October 5, Michael Ford will attend his first council meeting. “Are you nervous?” I ask. “Because you’re really young.”
“You know what? I look forward to it, and I look forward to representing our community on council, and at the end of the day, I’m there to speak on behalf of these great residents, and I look forward to doing that.”
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