On Thursday of this week, the proceedings of Toronto city council came to a sudden halt when a group of babies, toddlers and parents flooded the council chamber to stage a demonstration. Sympathetic left-leaning councillors crowded around, accepting apple slices and Cheerios in return for a pinky-swear pledge to protect daycare. Their opponents sat and grumbled.
Frances Nunziata, council’s brusque speaker, who is often an ally of Mayor Rob Ford, tried to re-establish order. “We have to continue with our agenda,” she bellowed.
That will be a tall order.
Mr. Ford swept to office last October on a wave of annoyance at city hall, but the last couple of weeks have been the roughest yet for him. Fights over service cuts and the waterfront have slowed his momentum, raising doubts about whether he can achieve his ambitious program of subway building and trimming the size of government. Even the Toronto Sun, whose opinion pages often champion Mr. Ford, published an article wondering whether he has “lost his mojo.”
But out of the chaos comes opportunity: A chance for Mr. Ford to learn about the necessity of building consensus and cultivating allies. There are glimmers of a changing approach to teamwork. He extolled the new deal on the Port Lands, under which the city will work with Waterfront Toronto on speeding up development. “I don’t think it was a change of heart,” he said after the waterfront climb-down this week. “I think we are working on a compromise. We have listened to the people.”
Toronto Transit Commission chair Karen Stintz says the deal to make peace on the waterfront may be a model for the mayor, showing how differences can be bridged. “Who would have thought we would have got that kind of consensus out of Rob Ford?”
It’s been a harsh education for the mayor. But will he take those lessons with him for the remainder of his term at city hall?
A new set of tools
Singing Kumbaya does not come naturally to Rob Ford. As a city councillor for 10 years, he was the ultimate lone wolf, sniping at city hall for its supposed extravagance then ducking back to his Etobicoke base. He had no real allies, even on council’s right, and seldom worked with other councillors to get measures through city council.
Even now, he is not inclined to reach out personally to city councillors, instead spending many hours a week on a habit leftover from his days as an Etobicoke councillor: returning phone calls from residents with complaints.
“His head is somewhere else,” says downtown councillor Adam Vaughan, a frequent critic of the mayor. “He is not engaged. He’s the mayor but he is not running council. He is not initiating the compromises.”
In his first half-year as mayor, when he had the wind at his back, bridge-building seemed unnecessary. With a fresh mandate and a new council still finding its feet, “you could just bulldoze your way through,” says an aide of the mayor who asked not to be identified by name.
And the mayor did, acting swiftly to kill the car-registration tax, start privatizing garbage and have transit declared an essential service. With those easy wins out of the way, Mr. Ford is facing much tougher decisions on everything from budgets to transit. Now, says the aide, “the things we are doing require a different set of tools and a different approach.”
Consensus is key
There are no political parties at city hall, thus no party discipline, no cabinet solidarity, no majority rule. On paper, the mayor’s vote is only one among 45. He can’t just win an election then govern. He has to win and win again, issue by issue, day by day, persuading fiercely independent city councillors to vote with him.
Saying that building consensus is important to being a successful mayor, remarks former mayor David Crombie, “is almost like saying air is important for breathing. It’s the job.
“We get into this kind of thinking that somehow the mayor is the chief executive officer or president. He’s not. If you walk in and say, ‘Excuse me, new sheriff in town, here is how we are going to do things,’ you will find people dig in.”
Yet that is precisely what Mr. Ford did. On day one of his mayoralty last December he declared the multi-billion-dollar Transit City plan dead. No vote on city council. No consultation. Dead.
When a spending scandal broke out at Toronto Community Housing Corp., the mayor arranged to oust the board and chief executive. When Toronto Transit Commission chief general manager Gary Webster questioned the mayor’s unfunded plan to build a Sheppard subway, the Ford administration made noises about getting rid of him, too.
“It was the same approach: ‘I don’t like the answers I’m getting, so I’m just going to fire the people who are telling me what I don’t want to hear,’” says one city hall insider.
It finally backfired on the waterfront, when Mr. Ford and his brother Doug took on the respected Waterfront Toronto agency and alarmed many Torontonians with their flashy vision for the Port Lands.
Councillor Jaye Robinson, a member of Mr. Ford’s powerful executive committee, broke ranks with the mayor over the Port Lands after getting hundreds of e-mails and messages of protest from constituents. Even if she is on the executive, she says that, as an independent councillor like all the rest, she owes her greatest allegiance to the people of her ward. When they spoke out, she says, she had no choice but to respond. Neither did the mayor.
“I think it’s been a bit of a tipping point this week,” she said. “Any leader will take their cues and move forward based on their learning.”
A softened vision
Though the waterfront fight erupted at a bad time and in a messy way, his officials insist that it has in no way crippled or even discouraged the Ford administration. They say they are winning most of the time on most of what they want.
But getting things done is becoming a lot harder.
On Monday, Toronto city council will sit down for one of the most anticipated meetings of the year – the closing act of the epic review of core services that has gripped the city for the past two months. It should have been a moment of triumph for Toronto’s penny-pinching mayor, a chance to do what he pledged so often on the campaign trail: Stop the gravy. Instead, it is likely to produce a watered-down assortment of half-measures.
Under pressure, and with many councillors getting cold feet, the mayor has already promised to keep libraries open, spare subsidized daycare spaces and maintain standards for grass cutting and snow clearing.
He may be mayor, but to succeed, he needs to win over his independent-minded council colleagues. That is the reality of city government, and for Rob Ford, reality bit this month.