TORONTO, Canada — If there’s a Tea Party-type politician in Canada, it’s Toronto’s newly elected mayor, Rob Ford.
He bulldozed to victory in late October’s municipal election with a simple slogan: “Stop the gravy train.” By that he meant taking an axe to perks enjoyed by the city’s 44 city councilors, and to a $9.2 billion operating budget he describes as dripping in waste.
The mantra worked. He swept to power with 47 percent of the vote. His closest rival — George Smitherman, a former deputy premier of the province who was considered the early favorite — got 36 percent.
Analysts were unanimous in crediting Ford with tapping into voter anger, of the kind that saw Tea Partyers and Republicans win big in U.S. midterm elections. What voters had to be angry about, however, isn’t clear. (Unlike U.S. banks, those in Canada remained solvent, housing prices didn’t collapse — in Toronto, they continue to rise — and the economy has regained the jobs it lost during the recession.)
In any event, Ford delighted in stressing during his inauguration on Dec. 6 that a new day had dawned. He invited former Boston Bruins hockey coach, Don Cherry, to put the chain of office around his neck.
Cherry, a well-known reactionary and commentator on Hockey Night in Canada TV broadcasts, showed up in a shiny pink blazer. In an address to the newly elected council he lambasted people he alternately called “left-wing pinkos” and “left-wing kooks.” The handful of councilors re-elected from the previous left-of-center administration were not amused.
And so, the face of the biggest and most powerful city in Canada is a 285-pound, 41-year-old once charged with drunk driving and possession of marijuana in Miami.
Few took his candidacy seriously when he entered the mayor’s race last spring. He had spent 10 years as a lackluster councilor in Etobicoke, a suburb in the west end of the city. He was also, to put it politely, economical with the truth.
In 2006, a couple watching a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game accused Ford of being drunk, shouting obscenities and telling the woman to “go to Iran and get raped and shot.” He was eventually escorted out of the arena by security guards.
Confronted by a journalist about the incident, Ford initially denied it happened. He claimed he hadn’t been to a hockey game in months and insisted that “someone’s trying to do a real hatchet job on me.” Days later he admitted he lied and apologized for his behavior at the game. “I’m not perfect,” he said.
During the mayoral campaign, he implied in an interview with the Toronto Star that he had graduated from university, only to later clarify that he had not.
It then emerged that in 1999, Ford was stopped by a Miami police officer for driving at night without headlights. According to a police report at the time, he got out of his car with his hands in the air.
"The def[endant] approached me and took all of his money and threw it to the ground," Miami police officer Timothy Marks wrote in the arrest record.
"The def[endant] was acting nervous. When [he] spoke to me I could smell a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage on his breath. His eyes were bloodshot." The officer also found a marijuana joint in Ford’s pocket.
Ford challenged the officer: “Go ahead, take me to jail.”
Ford was charged with driving under the influence and possession of marijuana. The marijuana charge was later dismissed, but Ford was convicted of impaired driving after pleading no contest to the charge.
When first confronted by a reporter about incident, Ford denied the marijuana charge. He admitted it the next day.
He got in trouble with the law again in 2008, when he was charged with uttering a death threat to his wife. The charges were later dropped.
During the campaign, he said Toronto shouldn’t welcome any more immigrants — a provocative statement in a city where half the population is born outside of Canada. He also suggested Toronto should get rid of streetcars and pronounced an end to what he calls the “war against the car.”
Since taking office, he’s eliminated a $60 vehicle registration fee for residents (it brought in $64 million a year) and promised to freeze property taxes — all without cutting services, somehow. The city budget already had a $221 million shortfall even before the registration fee was eliminated.
Ford also seems determined to scrap an $8 billion transit plan that took years to negotiate and involves funding from the federal and provincial governments. It would provide streetcar service to the city’s suburbs.
And he vows to contract out the city’s garbage collection — a sure vote-getter after a needless summer-long garbage strike in 2009 sunk any chance of the former mayor, David Miller, running for a third term.
His election demonstrated a clear divide in the city: The suburbs voted overwhelmingly for Ford while the central part of the city voted for Smitherman — the first openly gay candidate to run for mayor.
For at least two decades, Toronto’s media has spent much time speculating about whether the city is on the verge of becoming “world class.” Many would instead argue that Ford’s election is yet another sign of a city afraid of its own potential.