WORTH CLOSE SCRUTINY
City politics deserves strict attention even when Doug Ford isn’t running for mayor,
History repeats itself . . . even if the history is just three years old.
Last week, Doug Ford came in from the cold oblivion of his political wilderness to announce he’s going to run for Toronto mayor in the October 2018 election.
His core supporters in the lately latent “Ford Nation” greeted the announcement with tremendous cheering at the Ford Fest barbecue in his mom’s spacious Etobicoke backyard.
To most everyone else paying attention, there were groans of Ford fatigue: didn’t we just go through this?
Among those who aren’t paying attention, there’s the usual general indifference to city hall matters altogether. Of the three levels of government, the city one has the lowest voter turnout, even though the municipal level affects our dayto-day lives more than the provincial or federal ones do.
The Toronto municipal election has always been a marathon. It’s on a par with the yearlong U.S. presidential election.
But it is shorter this year. Back in 2014, election campaigns could begin on Jan. 2. Blessedly, this year, the start date, when nominations open, was pushed to May 1.
So we’ve got a six-month election, not a nine month one. Still pretty long, and Ford’s declaration last week jumps the gun by three quarters of a year and risks trying the collective patience and limited attention span of the city.
Elections are democracy in action and the exercising of rights and obligations, but they can also be entertaining: they can feature competing visions, debates about ideas and occasional scandals.
A rematch of Doug Ford versus John Tory might be hard-pressed to generate widespread excitement; the 2014 battle between Ford and Tory wasn’t so much between two distinct ideological armies, but, rather, an argument among people more or less on the same side of the political spectrum.
Consider Rob and Doug Ford’s biggest campaign plank between 2010 and 2014: the Scarborough subway boondoggle.
So compelling was it, that Tory spent considerable political capital as mayor trying to make the dream happen, even as costs rise and expert projections warn of failure.
Heck, the dream was so compelling, even Ontario Liberal and NDP folk were “subway champions.”
Tory specifically picked a number of deputy mayors who were Ford loyalists, although he did have to dismiss one of them, Vincent Crisanti of Ward 1 (Etobicoke North), this week, after Crisanti declared his support for Ford at Ford Fest.
In Ontario, we don’t have political parties at the municipal level, so councillors can’t be “whipped” into supporting the party line, as they can in upper levels of government. So allegiances shift back and forth, usually toward whoever has power. Just look at Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, whose recent loyalty to the Ford brothers was just one stop on a back-and-forth mortal-enemy to best-friend boomerang trip over decades.
“Mammo-who?” an average person might ask. “Oh, he’s the one who took his shirt off in council once to protest a clothing optional beach? I heard about him.” (As they did with Rob Ford, the sensational stories brought new people into city politics for a spell, although not everybody stayed engaged or looked beyond those stories.)
We have short memories and unless you follow city hall closely, political memories are even shorter. Consider last month when a group of Scarborough residents protested the proposed subway when they heard the current stops between Kennedy and Scarborough City Centre would be eliminated. All of this was known before. But such surprises are the price of not paying attention to city hall.
Over the summer a smart, generally engaged teacher friend of mine casually said to me, “not much happening at city hall these days, eh.”
At first, I was a bit shocked, even angry, ready to list off important things, but I forgave my friend’s lapse as being typical of so many busy people; as long as the city seems to be working, it’s easy to overlook city politics.
So what to do about the disinterest? Perhaps talk about civic issues in places you usually don’t, with people you think aren’t so engaged. Find a way to connect what happens at city hall with the daily life of the person you are talking to.
That’s easy, just have them describe their day and they likely have hourly interactions that involve some kind of civic issue that could be improved.
Don’t argue with a person’s politics (yet), if you disagree. Go to a city council meeting, if you’ve never been, and bring a pal. Or even a date. (Please don’t email me if you try this on a Tinder date and it isn’t romantic.)
Despite finishing two degrees in political science, I never once set foot inside my hometown’s city hall until I was finished school and had moved to Toronto.
As many people today are, I was always looking to higher, more “interesting” levels of government, both domestic and international, where the stakes seemed higher.
I’m a bit ashamed of that; lives are changed for better or worse at the city level daily.
A city council meeting is some of the best political theatre around. And it’s open and accessible to all; you can’t just walk into the Ontario Legislature or Parliament as you can city council.
I bring my University of Toronto first year civics students to see a council meeting each term. At first they, just as I once was, are largely unenthused, expecting some kind of boring boardroom meeting. However, every year without fail, I watch students get into the drama, even if the debate we happen to see is over banal technical items.
The sometimes witty, mildly confrontational back and forth is compelling. Watching on TV isn’t the same, as you miss out on all the side drama: which councillors are whispering in each other’s ears; which lobbyists are in the gallery and who wanders up for a chat; and who’s giving either dirty looks or shady body language to whom.
Don’t pay too much attention to Doug Ford and the mayoral race just yet.
But do pay attention to everything else, and pull somebody else into it, too.
It’ll make for a better election, once it actually rolls around. Shawn Micallef writes every Saturday about where and how we live in the GTA. Wander the streets with him on Twitter @shawnmicallef.