Rob Ford awoke on Friday morning to the following headlines: “Toronto Mayor’s Support Falls As Residents Overwhelmingly Reject Service Cuts: Poll.” “Ford’s Waterfront Vision Sinking Quickly.” “Two More Ford Allies Reject His Port Lands Vision.” “Arts Community Unites To Fight Ford.”
It was enough to put even the most robust politician off his cornflakes. And that was just one day’s worth of bad news amid an awful week for his faltering mayoralty.
Less than a year after sweeping to office, Mr. Ford suddenly finds himself in deep trouble. Polls suggest his public support is plummeting. Key allies are deserting him. His plan to slash city spending is meeting fierce opposition. His biggest plans, from the Sheppard subway line to development of the Port Lands, are going nowhere.
What makes it worse is that he brought it all on himself. In his first half-year in office, he went from triumph to triumph, killing the car-registration tax, getting transit declared an essential service and starting the process of contracting out garbage pickup.
Then came a series of fumbles. His unofficial boycott of Pride Week gave off a whiff of intolerance that soured many voters. His decision to consider a host of service cuts despite an election pledge to avoid them, “guaranteed,” left people wondering whether they could trust his word. His lavish plan for malls and monorails in the Port Lands made him look like a two-bit real-estate huckster.
The ham-handedness of it all is breathtaking. Why drop the Port Lands bomb in the midst of a big fight over budget-cutting at city council? Why kick over a hornet’s nest by attacking Waterfront Toronto, the respected development agency? Why muse about closing libraries, a cherished service with a legion of supporters, including a little-known scribbler named Atwood? Why even consider lowering the axe on a beloved institution such as Riverdale Farm, where half the parents in the city have taken their kids. Mr. Ford did not just shoot himself in the foot. He took careful aim at each toe.
A cannier politician would have tried to bring Waterfront Toronto and other interests on board before springing a new Port Lands scheme on an unsuspecting city. Instead, he and his brother, Doug, browbeat the agency, brought in pricey consultants on the sly and plowed ahead.
Now the plan is blowing up in their faces. Three key city councillors, Jaye Robinson, Karen Stintz and now Deputy Speaker John Parker, say they will not support it as it stands. Two Ford allies, Peter Milczyn and Michael Thompson, are backpedalling on the scope of the plan. The leaders of a group of 147 professors and urban experts call it a “reckless” plan that would make Toronto a “laughingstock.”
A wiser politician would have delivered a high-profile speech laying out the case for sensible, cautious cuts to end the city’s annual budget crisis. Instead, the mayor told reporters on Monday that there were no cuts, only “efficiencies.” Later in the week, he tried to scare voters by warning that they faced a 35-per-cent property-tax hike if the city didn’t close its budget gap.
Slippery talk and scare tactics aren’t working for him. Recent opinion polls show a big surge against the cuts and a big drop in his popularity. His political momentum is slowing just when he needs it most, on the eve of important meetings next week and the week after to decide what services go under the knife. Even Ms. Robinson, a Don Valley West councillor and member of Mr. Ford’s executive committee, says she is leery about making decisions about service cuts before she hears the results of studies on user fees and more efficient service delivery.
The sad thing is that most voters probably still support Mr. Ford in his drive for leaner city government with better customer service. They might support a sensible plan for rethinking waterfront development, too. It’s not just what the mayor is doing, it’s how he does it that rankles.