It is not every day that a mayor threatens to unseat a premier. But, then, it is not every day that you get a mayor like Rob Ford.
With votes going his way one by one and a new poll showing that the public strongly backs his leadership, Mr. Ford is wielding power with growing swagger. The brash former city councillor has emerged as a confident, determined city leader, hell bent on getting his way and quite willing to brush aside anyone who tries to stop him.
That includes one Dalton McGuinty. This week the Liberal Premier had the temerity to refuse Mr. Ford's request for a provincial handout of hundreds of millions to pay for transit operations, road repairs and subsidized child care. When Mr. McGuinty said no - he is facing a $18.7-billion deficit, after all - Mr. Ford was not pleased.
If Mr. McGuinty continues to refuse the city, Mr. Ford said in an interview on Newstalk 1010 on Wednesday, "obviously there's a provincial election going to happen Oct. 6 and I want to work with him, not against him, but obviously if he's not helping out the city I'm going to have no choice to work against him. ... I'll have no other choice but to get out, as I call it, Ford Nation, and make sure they're not re-elected in the next election."
Coming from Mr. Ford, that is more than an idle threat. A new poll suggests that 60 per cent of Torontonians approve of his performance. Mr. McGuinty's approval rating stands at 16 per cent. That makes him the second least popular premier in the country, after Quebec's Jean Charest. Mr. Ford, by contrast, is probably the most popular, most watched politician in Ontario - and he knows it.
Consider events at Toronto Community Housing. On paper, Mr. Ford doesn't have the right to sweep away the leadership of the troubled agency, even after the headline-grabbing mess over spa treatments and gift chocolates. That is the job of city council, not the mayor. He bulled ahead regardless, telling a press conference on Monday that he wants the resignations of seven citizen board members and making it clear he also wants the head of chief executive Keiko Nakamura on a pike. Now that they have defied him (as he put it on radio) by refusing to quit, he is warning he may hold a council vote to get rid of them. He would probably win it.
In his dealings with Mr. McGuinty, he is playing just as boldly. Technically, he is very much the junior partner in any parlay with the provincial government, too. Queen's Park dictates what powers the city holds and pays many of its bills. In pure power terms, though, he now holds the whip hand.
Soon after taking office on Dec. 1, he went to Mr. McGuinty and told him that Toronto intended to kill Transit City, the multibillion-dollar light-rail transit scheme. The Premier meekly bowed to his will, even though his own provincial government was paying almost the whole freight for the project, and despite the fact that Queen's Park still considers Transit City the most sensible answer to Toronto's mass-transit shortage.
A few weeks later, the Premier practically tripped over himself rushing to comply with Mr. Ford's demand to ban transit strikes in the city. Now that Mr. McGuinty is pushing back a bit over the request for hundreds of millions, the mayor appears hardly capable of believing it. "Hopefully he'll co-operate," he said, speaking of the Premier the way a cop speaks about a suspect waiting behind the one-way mirror. "He's been co-operating so far."
Why exactly he should co-operate is hard to understand. Even if Queen's Park had that kind of money lying around, which it doesn't, it would be well within its rights to tell Mr. Ford to take a walk. This is the mayor, after all, who has said for years that the city has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. If so, why is he going begging to the province? If it's all about cutting waste and stopping the gravy train, why does he need Ontario taxpayers to bail the city out?
The demand on Queen's Park's treasury looks especially weak considering that Mr. Ford cut the city's own revenues by around $120-million when he killed the car registration tax and froze property taxes for a year, putting Toronto in a considerable hole. Now he wants Mr. McGuinty to pitch in to make up the shortfall he himself has helped create.
He has swagger, all right. When reporters asked the mayor the other day why he was ducking them, he said that he was "300 pounds of fun" and easy to find. He might have added: and hard to stop.