Toronto’s municipal election, the day after

If you don’t live in Toronto, or you live under a rock in Toronto, you may not have heard that last evening we elected a new mayor and 44 members of council (as well as school trustees). The big news is the changeover in ideology and personnel at City Hall, with many incumbent councillors being upset and a fully right-wing mayor being elected after two terms of left-of-centre David Miller.

While many in my circle (which is young, and generally more liberal) are outright shocked and appalled by the result, especially in the case of mayor. But we shouldn’t be shocked– polls have been predicting either a really tight race between George Smitherman (the progressive runner-up) and Ford, or an outright victory by Ford. So if we shouldn’t be shocked, should we be appalled? Perhaps.

Rob Ford has been described as many things. But I have not once heard him described as “progressive”. His platform reads like the basic conservative-minded handbook: he’s promising to cut taxes, cut spending, reduce the size of council by half(!) and, one of his favourite flourishes, “stop the gravy train at City Hall”. These points were repeated over and over and over again during the campaign. Political analysts are pointing to this as an example of how staying on message, no matter how ridiculous it may seem, can win an election. Rob Ford was able to frame the debate of this overly-long municipal campaign around frivolous expenses and disrespect for taxpayers (the slogan on his campaign signs was “Respect for Taxpayers”). Once he got started on that solid footing, it was an easy row to hoe. Despite his lacklustre and Stephane Dion-like platform videos on YouTube, which featured him reading his full-of-gigantic-holes policies stiffly and awkwardly, he still seemed to win the hearts of the majority of Toronto’s electorate.

Why was this? Some suggest it really was about ending the “gravy train” at City Hall. Others, meanwhile, suggest that it is part of a greater Conservative movement sweeping across the country (Ontario in particular) like the Tea Party in the United States. However, results in other Ontario municipalities, and Calgary last week, would suggest otherwise. The most common thing I heard about Ford is that he was “human just like us”. Early on in the campaign, Ford admitted to a DUI charge and posession of marijuana in Florida nearly a decade ago. For any other candidate, like Adam Giambrone, a scandal of that magnitude would have likely scuttled his or her campaign. However, for whatever reason, Torontonians saw it as not something that put into question Ford’s ability to lead a large city, but rather, evidence that he makes mistakes just like us. From then on, Ford’s handlers were able to write a story that included trials and tribulations but also dedication to service of community (Ford has famously claimed to have answered 200 000 calls from constituents during his time in public office).

Smitherman and Joe Pantalone, the other competitive candidate, were unable to make similar personal stories stick and connect with voters. Smitherman was easily framed as the former provincial cabinet minister that helped waste $1 billion on an electronic health records initiative; Pantalone, as a decades-long councillor and deputy mayor in the outgoing administration, was more of the same. As a result of his early lead in the polls, Ford was subjected to attack by Smitherman and Pantalone, taking them off-message, and giving more press to Ford in the process.

If so much of Toronto is pleased with Ford’s victory, what does that say about my circle of friends and colleagues? Are we out of touch? “Toronto Elites”? Or are we truly in the minority in terms of progressive thinking? I have thought about this, and it may be too quick to judge, but I have a strong inkling that Toronto’s seniors and baby-boomers were the ones who by and large voted for Ford. These are the folks most concerned about money– seniors are living on fixed-income pensions, baby boomers are trying to raise a family in the city, and the city’s taxes (seemingly) pile up while their own income does not. They are concerned about the future, but that future falls within the existing framework of the city. Everything “progressive” is seen as extra and frilly: green roofs, social services, waterfront revitalization, bike lanes, Transit City, and streetcars, as a few examples. Whereas I would tend to see these things as investments in the future, seniors and baby boomers are more concerned with their immediate future. They are less concerned with the general direction of the city in the 21st century, and more concerned with getting their fair share of services and keeping elected representatives on a short leash.

I am not saying that almost no one below the age of 30 voted for Ford. What I am saying is that I believe the numbers will show the vast majority of people under 30 did not. We know from previous elections that seniors tend to vote in greater number than young folks, which means the results become even more skewed toward Ford. It was interesting to see television coverage of the Twitterverse reaction to the results– hosts reacted with shock that, by their estimation, 90% of the Twitter reaction to a Ford mayoralty was negative. After last night, I am even more inclined to believe that Twitter in the Toronto context is mostly an orgy of liberal-minded people, that is nowhere near representative of the city. (After all– who is the average Twitter user? Certainly not your 58-year old baby boomer nearing retirement). Whereas Twitter and Facebook were seen as crucial to Calgary’s election of Naheed Nenshi by getting out the youth vote, social networking did not seem to affect Toronto’s election in the least.

So if progressives want someone to “blame”, who or what should it be? Is it Pantalone, who by staying in the race to the end, split the progressive vote? (Smitherman would have defeated Ford if all of Pantalone’s votes went to Smitherman, but that is a big if.) Is it the Liberals of Toronto, who failed to draft a suitable candidate worthy of defeating Ford? Is it David Miller and his so-called “gravy train”? Or is it simply an anti-incumbency attitude? To me, it could be a combination of these things. But my initial reaction is that Toronto’s seniors and baby-boomers, who are short-sighted, ideological rather than idealistic, and grumpy, have shown up in droves and shown the door to progressive thinking in the mayor’s chair in Toronto, for at least four years.

I am now wondering what an ageing population means for future elections. Are we youth, who are mostly progressive, going to be suppressed in future elections by the senior majority? Or is this just a flash in the pan?

It will be interesting to see how Ford as Mayor plays out. He has got a council with a lot of new faces, but the ideological balance remains mostly the same. Upcoming battles with the province over Transit City in the context of the 2011 provincial election will be the most interesting thing to watch in my opinion. More on that in a later blog post.

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