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Ford raged against the machine, and now runs it

When he was first elected to city council 10 years ago, Rob Ford took his mother to the city-council chamber. "Where do you sit?" she asked him (according to her account in a television interview on Monday). He pointed to the mayor's chair. "That's where I'll be sitting some day, mom," he told her.

That seemed farfetched at the time. It seemed nearly as unlikely when Mr. Ford entered the contest for mayor in March, a long shot in a campaign that polls showed would go to George Smitherman, a formidable political battler who was recently Ontario's deputy premier.

Today, after Mr. Ford swept to victory over Mr. Smitherman to win election as Toronto 64th mayor, it still seems a little unreal.

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Before he ran for mayor, Mr. Ford was an out-to-lunch city councillor who often failed to understand the issues he was ranting about at city council. As a candidate, he ran on a series of simplistic slogans like "stop the gravy train" that say nothing about the real problems of a grown-up city. His plan to slash $2.8-billion from city spending without laying anyone off or cutting any city services does not come close to adding up.

He won anyway, riding a wave of taxpayer anger to the top job in Canada's biggest city. The message of his victory is clear: voters want change. They are fed up with governments that tax and tax and seem to give little in return. They are done with politicians who seem to feel entitled to the jobs they are privileged to hold.

The taxpayer is always the boss, said Mr. Ford, who hammered his "respect for taxpayers" message over and over. Customer service should come first, at city hall as much as a private business. Politicians should get their heads out of the clouds and deal with the little things first: collecting the garbage, fixing the potholes, clearing the snow, cleaning up the graffiti.

As a councillor, Mr. Ford made a point of personally returning phone calls from constituents - tens of thousands of them over the years, he claimed. In Etobicoke last weekend, I met a man, a Sikh immigrant to Toronto, who had called Mr. Ford about low water pressure at his house. Mr. Ford came over in person to take a look. He never forgot the gesture. In a city - indeed a country - where people are used to brusque, impersonal, tardy service from the agents of government, that stuff is pure political gold.

Politicians across the country are taking note. So are voters, who are looking with a more and more jaundiced eye at those who represent them. What they demand is more open, more responsive, more fiscally responsible, more effectual government.

Whether Mr. Ford can deliver that in the city of Toronto is, to say the least, an open question. In a system where there are no political parties and the mayor's is only one vote among 45, a mayor can get things done only if he can persuade others to join his cause. Mr. Ford has shown none of those political skills. In all his years on council, he never made a real ally, not even among like-minded right-leaning councillors.

His grasp of the issues beyond "waste at city hall" is shallow. Asked about his environmental policy at a mayoral debate, he said that his father always told him to turn out the lights. As for development of the long-neglected waterfront, an aim of every mayor for years, he said: "The waterfront. We can't afford that." The thought of him representing Toronto to Canada and the world makes the toes curl with mortification.

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All the same, Mr. Ford has won - and won big - and that means something. Though the vehicle voters have chosen to deliver it is questionable, the thirst for change is real and heartening. Every political system needs a kick from time to time. Just by beating the odds and winning election, Mr. Ford has delivered a big one. It will be felt from coast to coast.

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