Yesterday, former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford passed away at age 46 from a rare form of cancer.
Superficially, it is easy to equate Rob Ford with Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, as they are much alike on the surface. Both were born well off, both are populist politicians with a strong working class appeal, and both have a proven ability to dominate the media. Both also have the same exquisite taste in enemies. The elites of Toronto hated Rob Ford with the same intensity that the Republican and Democrat elites hate Donald Trump.
It is less known that both rose politically with the same issue – immigration. While Donald Trump famously wants to build a wall along the Mexico border, the role that immigration in Rob Ford’s career is less well known. In the final debate before the 2010 mayoral election, a reporter asked Ford a gotcha question. Recently a boatload of illegal immigrants had landed on the shores of British Columbia. Aware that Ford’s support was centered on Toronto’s multicultural suburbs, he asked Ford if he was in favour of housing those refugees in Toronto. Ford replied, “absolutely not!” Until that point, he and his Liberal challenger, George Smitherman, had been neck-and-neck in the polls. On election night, Ford won in a landslide, absolutely dominating the multicultural suburbs.
This contradiction in Ford’s appeal is encapsulated by this anecdote by National Post reporter Chris Selley:
“Not by design, I wound up moderating the first mayoral debate after Ford came out of rehab. As I pulled into the parking lot, there was a mostly black group of Ford supporters trading abuse with a mostly white group of protesters insisting Ford was horribly racist against black people.”
Donald Trump has that same contradictory appeal, strongly nationalistic while garnering support from the same minorities that he is supposedly racist against.
Nevertheless, I contend that Ford and Trump are really opposites. The first difference between the two men lies in their faults. With Ford, all of his failings were personal. Primarily, Rob Ford had a serious drug and alcohol problem that wrecked his mayoralty. In contrast, Donald Trump is a teetotaller.
Trump has faults as well, but a lot of them are public. Take his relationship with the political establishment. While Trump plays the role of the outsider, he has been gaming the political system his entire life, donating to every Democrat and establishment Republican in sight. Not Rob Ford. Ford was never part of Toronto’s political establishment. All throughout his three terms on City Council, he was always the maverick outsider, often casting the lone dissenting vote. Even his father, Doug Ford Sr., was an outsider. He was a Member of the Provincial Parliament (MPP) in Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservative government during the Common Sense Revolution days. It seems that bucking the establishment was in Rob Ford’s genes. In contrast, Donald Trump is a pay-to-play real estate developer born to a pay-to-play real estate developer.
Take also political consistency. Today Trump is a conservative champion but in the not-so-distant past, Trump held left-wing positions on a whole panoply of issues (some of which are 180° opposite of those he champions today). For instance, he was for illegal aliens before he was against them. Trump comes across as little more than an unprincipled opportunist.
In contrast, Ford was so consistent in his message that one of the criticisms levelled at him was that that he sounded like a broken record. He repeated his election slogans, “stop the gravy train” and “respect the taxpayers” endlessly. But if consistency is any guide, he meant it. As a Councillor, many of those lonely nay votes were against unnecessary spending and he was actually censored by Council because he spent zero money on his Council office (which he funded out of his own pocket).
As Mayor, he was driven by two goals: better services, and less spending. He fought relentlessly to keep municipal taxes low. To save money, he privatized half of Toronto’s garbage collection and weakened the ‘jobs for life’ provision that the previous mayor had placed in the union contract. To ensure critical services would not be disrupted, he declared the transit commission and the paramedics an essential service so they couldn’t go on strike. Most important of all, he championed subways against the neighbourhood-killing streetcar right-of-ways that his predecessor fetishized over. His crusade only stopped when City Council stripped him of his mayoral powers after his crack scandal surfaced. Powerless to stop it any more, the gravy train started moving again. Unlike Donald Trump, no fair-minded person could accuse Rob Ford of being mercenary in his causes.
One of Ford’s best virtues, one that is both public as well as private, was his genuine concern for the average person. This concern was often demonstrated when the cameras were not on. As Ezra Levant relates in this embedded video, Rob Ford loved to coach football and he loved his team, helping the players out if they were in trouble. As Levant asks, how many politicians do you know who would let a troubled youth sleep on his couch if they were in a spot? Not Trump, that’s for sure.
When cancer forced him out of the last mayoral race, he ran for City Councillor in Ward 2 instead. He won 58% of the vote while immersed in chemotherapy. The reason Ward 2’s constituents were loyal to him was that he had been loyal to them. When he was first a Councillor, he took his responsibility seriously. If you had a compliant about city services and called his office, he called you back – personally. And then he fought for you – personally. Stories about his dedication and tenacity got passed along the rumour mill. What the media could never figure out was that this was one of the reasons for his enduring popularity, allowing him to survive scandals that would have totalled the career of any other politician.
Therefore, I think it is fitting that he died completely undefeated. He will be missed – at least by the little guy. And though they might seem alike in superficial style, Donald Trump is no Rob Ford.