Mayors of Toronto are often tempted to influence the outcome of provincial elections. The city relies heavily on Queen's Park to help pay for big expenses such as transit, so it matters a lot who sits in the premier's chair. As leaders of the country's biggest city, mayors can't help but feel they should be a political force to be reckoned with.
That sense is especially strong for Mayor Rob Ford. He swept to power last October on a populist wave and seems to feel he still has an army of voters awaiting his command. When Premier Dalton McGuinty turned down a city request for more money in March, Mr. Ford famously threatened to unleash "Ford Nation" to defeat him in the next election.
That election is now here and the mayor is showing dangerous signs of succumbing to the belief he can be kingmaker. Like some backroom boss of old, he has held meetings with each of the party leaders to demand what they would deliver if elected.
"I want to hear what all the leaders are going to do for the city of Toronto. That's who I represent," he said recently. "And if I decide in the last couple of days to endorse someone, I will." That is what happened in the federal election last spring, when Mr. Ford claimed to be staying out of it, then came out in the end for – surprise! – Conservative Stephen Harper.
The risks for the mayor and the city are plain. If he blows the bugle to rally Ford Nation for his favoured candidate and the nation fails to appear, he looks weak and loses political momentum. There is no guarantee that the phenomenon that brought him to office will repeat itself in the provincial race.
If, on the other hand, Ford Nation did answer the call and rose up en masse to vote for Tory Leader Tim Hudak, Mr. McGuinty might win regardless. Having backed the loser, Mr. Ford would be in a poor position to represent the city's interests to Queen's Park. Either way, it is a dodgy business for a mayor to try to meddle in elections at another level of government.
Far from being kingmaker, Mr. Ford risks becoming the kiss of death. Mr. McGuinty may be rebounding in the opinion polls partly because voters have heard all the talk about drastic service cuts under Mr. Ford and want to avoid putting another Ford in the premier's office. Hard-core Ford supporters are likely to vote Conservative even without the mayor's say-so, while middle-of-the-road voters who backed him out of frustration at city hall are becoming disillusioned.
Most voters are sophisticated enough to know that different levels of government do different things. What works on the civic level may not work at the provincial. People who feel that city hall is bloated may not feel that health or education spending needs to be cut. Recognizing that, Mr. Hudak promises to keep spending on both.
Mr. McGuinty, meanwhile, is running as a kind of anti-Ford, the guy who will maintain, not slash, responsible spending on key public services. He shows no sign of being afraid of Mr. Ford or his nation. When the mayor came barking at his door for millions of provincial dollars for the Sheppard subway scheme, the Premier shook him off as easily as he would a puppy chewing on his pant leg.
So Mr. Ford's influence over the provincial election, limited in the first place, is much less than what it might have been if the vote had been held six months ago. Politicians at all levels tend to exaggerate their power to sway voters with their endorsements. Voters, like cats, resist being herded. Just because they like a politician doesn't mean they will vote blindly for whomever that politician anoints.
Mr. Ford would be wise to stay out of the provincial race, except to say he looks forward to working with whoever wins.