Team Ford is about to lose one of its rare female players.
Jaye Robinson, a fiscally conservative freshman councillor, has decided to quit the mayor’s executive committee at the end of the year.
Part of the reason is her desire to reassert her independence. Part of it is the mayor's bungling of the subway file. And part of it is Ms. Robinson's own weariness at trying to be a moderating force on an administration that does little in moderation.
“What is our vision for the city? What is the strategy? What is the plan? That’s been missing in the Ford agenda,” she says. “Unless there’s a significant change in approach – and I haven’t seen any indication of that – then I would not participate on executive in the second part of the term.”
The councillor for Ward 25 Don Valley West is one of only two women at the city's equivalent of a cabinet table. Now, come December and the regular mid-term shuffle, there's an outside chance there won't be any women on executive at all – despite the fact that Toronto city council has a higher proportion of female members than at any time in its history.
The executive's other woman, Scarborough's Michelle Berardinetti, isn't sure she wants to stay on beyond the end of this year. Like Ms. Robinson, Ms. Berardinetti still backs Mr. Ford's fiscal agenda, but she recently quit his budget committee and criticized him harshly for mishandling the subway file.
Ana Bailao and Mary-Margaret McMahon, two potential recruits from the political middle, say they aren't interested in joining executive. TTC Chair Karen Stintz, council's best-known conservative woman, is the mayor's nemesis.
That leaves Frances Nunziata as Mr. Ford’s only rock-solid female supporter on council. She loves being speaker, a role that bars her from sitting on executive.
All of which raises the question: Does Rob Ford have a woman problem?
“This council has more women on it than ever before, which is an incredibly positive step forward,” Ms. Robinson says. “So to not have any women on executive, I think, would be quite damaging for the Fords. You need that perspective.”
The problem goes beyond the bad optics of a male inner circle. One of the biggest knocks against Mr. Ford is his unwillingness – so far, at least – to seek accommodation with his opponents, something that many of the women on council have shown themselves to be deft at.
Ms. Robinson and Ms. Berardinetti, in particular, used their seats on the executive to blunt some of the administration’s sharpest budget cuts, including postponing plans to close four museums and kill a Christmastime “hardship” fund for the poor.
Ms. Robinson, a senior civil servant before winning election, also stood up to Mr. Ford and his brother, Councillor Doug Ford, when they tried to fill the Port Lands with malls and a Ferris wheel last summer.
It was one of the first times a member of the executive spoke out against the Fords and it led to a compromise on the waterfront issue that received unanimous approval from council.
“We bring a much more conciliatory tone to these issues,” says Ms. Bailao, who, in another example of compromise, is leading a task force on whether to sell more than 600 single-family homes to help pay Toronto Community Housing’s massive repair bills.
“I do think that female politicians are more pragmatic and more hands-on.”
As Ms. Bailao points out, however, there’s no guarantee other female councillors would lead the mayor gently toward sunny compromises.
“We had Karen [Stintz]leading the transit file and it didn't work in that instance,” she says.
Although the TTC chair worked behind the scenes for months to dissuade the mayor from pursuing a Sheppard subway with no plan to pay for it, she eventually led a council insurrection that revived a light-rail network and deprived Mr. Ford of control of the transit file.
“Women are a powerful force to be reckoned with, especially on city council,” Ms. McMahon says. “We’re not all Pollyannas.”
(Ms. Stintz declined to be interviewed for this story, as did the mayor’s office.)
Mr. Ford’s lack of female council allies is by no means all his fault.
He has tried to win over the women, if awkwardly, as when he and his brother sent roses to all of council’s women on their first Valentine’s Day in office. Several centrists described him as almost painfully “shy” one-on-one.
“I have found him to be very respectful off the floor of council with me,” said Pam McConnell, a veteran left-leaning councillor who chairs a Federation of Canadian Municipalities committee that aims to increase the number of women elected to municipal governments across the country. “He shouldn't be afraid to have more women surrounding him and trying to find more consensus, but I just think we all come from different places.”
Council’s political composition works against Mr. Ford recruiting more women.
Most of council’s 15 women are committed progressives who don’t fit easily into the mayor’s fold.
Only four represent wards where the majority voted for Mr. Ford: Ms. Berardinetti of Ward 35 Scarborough Southwest, Ms. Nunziata of Ward 11 York South-Weston, Ms. Robinson and Shelley Carroll of Ward 33 Don Valley East. As one of the more serious contenders for the mayor’s chair in 2014, Ms. Carroll isn’t an ideal ally.
It was easier for Mr. Ford’s predecessor, David Miller, to elevate women to important posts because more of them shared his political beliefs. Although there were only 10 women on council in the 2006-2010 term – when the executive committee was created – six held senior roles in the administration.
Mr. Miller made Sandra Bussin speaker, Ms. Carroll budget chief, Paula Fletcher the chair of the parks and environment committee and Pam McConnell and Janet Davis at-large members of the executive. (Ms. Davis joined in 2007, after Mr. Miller booted Brian Ashton from the committee for opposing two new taxes.)
Gloria Lindsay Luby, the only member of Mr. Miller’s executive who could be considered right-leaning, quit in 2009, saying she no longer agreed with his agenda.
But Ms. Lindsay Luby (Ward 4 Etobicoke Centre) doesn’t necessarily agree with Mr. Ford’s approach either.
She doubts Mr. Ford would change with more females on his roster.
“I don’t know how much he accepts the input of others into his decisions ... I don’t think it matters if it’s male or female,” she said. “If he agrees with their opinion then that reinforces his opinion. If they don’t, too bad.”
Some of Mr. Ford’s male allies also criticized him in the wake of his losing a major vote this month to build a subway on Sheppard Avenue East.
“I don’t think Mayor Ford himself sees this in gender terms,” said Myer Siemiatycki, a municipal politics expert at Ryerson University. “I think he sees this – as he appears to see everything – in terms of, whatever view he has is the sole and only truth and any other truth is by definition wrong, dangerous and to be crushed.”
If Mr. Ford softens that stance, and if his political fortunes improve – as they did this week with the settlement of the library strike and the ratification of new collective agreements for most of the city’s inside workers – he still has a shot at winning back the women.
“I think he's trying,” Ms. Bailao says.