On July 19, Mayor Rob Ford pulled into a Scarborough neighbourhood in a brand new black Cadillac Escalade, and parked himself right in the middle of another debate about whether his commuting behaviour constitutes a story.
The Toronto Sun ran a short piece under the headline “Ford now a Caddy man,” in which the mayor said he saved “a lot of money” to purchase the vehicle, which lists between $63,170 to $82,770.
The Toronto Star followed up with a report that the car was actually a gift from his two brothers, Doug and Randy, and a column opining that the expensive luxury car belied the mayor’s “of the people” credentials.
City councillors were asked to weigh in, a check of the Escalade’s license plate revealed the SUV is registered to the Ford family business, people were told to “go to hell,” Twitter lit up, online commenters began throwing around phrases like “union made” and “none of anyone’s business.”
The car got so much ink that a picture of the mayor posing alongside a white supremacist at the New Year Levee actually seemed like a welcome change of topic.
Like it or not, the mayor’s ride has become the definitive emblem of his leadership, thus far. If you want to know how someone feels about the guy, try bringing it up.
“It’s a very quick way to make a judgment of someone, even if it’s not a fair one. We attach personalities to vehicles,” said Duncan MacLellan, associate professor of politics at Ryerson University. “When people look at politicians they latch onto things they can find commonalities in, or that they can use to criticize.”
The Mayor’s commuting habits seem to cut a distinct and torturous line through the city psyche, much like Dundas Street West – reportedly the Etobicoke resident’s preferred route home from City Hall.
On one side, you have those who see his commute (during which he has been accused of flipping off a small child, driving past open streetcar doors and talking on his phone) as evidence that he is environmentally insensitive and anti-transit and cycling.
“Rob Ford now drives an Escalade,” Tweeted Madeline Marovino this week. “He’s clearly determined to ‘off’ each cyclist in the city one side swipe at a time.”
To others, including Mayor Ford, the ultimate display of privilege would be employing a personal driver. He has prided himself on paying for his own transportation, even as other politicians accept a driver as a perk of public office. To some, the fact that people even talk about the kind of car Mr. Ford drives, let alone criticize him for it, shows a liberal elitist bias and downtown double standard.
“Leave the guy alone … if he wants to drive an Escalade, let him. Does it really matter?” David MacKinnon posted on AutoBlog Canada. “Next, they will be complaining because he accidentally threw a pop can in the garbage and didn't recycle. Geez.”
But for those who think scrutiny of the Escalade is unfair, history reveals that Mr. Ford is not the only leader to have information about his personal transportation made public.
Mayor David Miller was driven around in a Prius after his 2003 election, later trading it in for a Chevrolet Malibu hybrid, which his staff were sure to point out uses the “most Canadian parts of any hybrid.”
John Sewell rode a bicycle as mayor; David Crombie rode the subway.
In 2006, Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion, then 85, drove into a signpost and considered getting a chauffeur.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, founder of the organic juice company Happy Planet, rides his bike to work, according to his staff.
It’s only occasionally that a politician’s personal conveyance is out of step with their image.
In Calgary, Mayor Naheed Nenshi drives himself to and from work, a 25 minute commute, and uses integrated Bluetooth.
“He does not cycle but respects those who do. During the day, he generally travels around the city to appointments using a mix of transit and driving,” said his spokesperson Daorcey Le Bray. “He does use a driver on occasion, particularly around the Calgary Stampede, when he could have 20 events in a day. But, generally, he prefers to drive himself.”
For years, Mr. Ford has driven to and from City Hall in an aging minivan, and he told his brothers he was uncomfortable behind the wheel of the flashy new car.
City councillor Doug Ford told reporters he hoped the Escalade would prompt his brother to get a driver.
Of course, there are still ways to get in the news, even if you’re not behind the wheel.
Earlier this summer, the black Chevrolet Suburbans used to ferry around New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg were featured in the New York Post.
His security staff was seen outfitting the SUVs with window air conditioning units, plugged into City Hall with an extension cord. Apparently Mr. Bloomberg has been criticized for letting the cars idle with the AC running, in violation of the city’s three-minute idling limit, and was experimenting with a more environmentally friendly way of keeping his ride cool.
“We do this all the time with politicians. There’s a whole narrative we develop when we see public officials driving a Smart car or riding a bike, like Jack Layton used to do, or driving in a limousine with a driver,” said Mr. MacLellan. “We think it communicates something, even if it doesn’t.”