Mythology: Ford Nation, one year later
by Trish Hennessy
Like any myth, the power is in the repetition.
And so it is with Ford Nation, that legendary block of voters who elected maverick city councillor Rob Ford mayor of Toronto just a year ago and are presumed to be so loyal, all he has to do is beckon and they’ll turn into political attack dogs.
Ford Nation has been written about and repeated so often, many observers accept it as a reflection of reality, rather than a political invention.
During the Ontario provincial election this Fall, the idea of Ford Nation mushroomed into a political threat. Prime Minister Stephen Harper mused about the potential of a Conservative ‘hat trick’ in the backyard of a Ford summer barbecue party. Rob Ford himself was quoted as threatening to ‘sic Ford Nation’ on the Liberal provincial government.
With the provincial election now behind us and Toronto voters having revealed Ford Nation had no coat tails on which to ride, it would appear the political invention is starting to unravel.
Ford’s own popularity has plummeted, according to a Forum Research poll, which pegged the mayor’s public support at 42 per cent, down from 60 per cent in late February.
In contrast, Calgary’s progressive new mayor, Naheed Nenshi, enjoys an 86 per cent approval rating and doesn’t appear to be bogged down by the level of controversy that has defined Rob Ford’s first year in office.
Ford Nation might be a political figment of imagination, but what was behind the phenomenon of Rob Ford’s mayoral victory only a year ago? And, regardless of your political leaning, what can we learn from it?
In mid-September, we engaged Environics Research to conduct focus group research with a total of about 60 Torontonians from every corner of the city. Our goal was to learn more about why they voted for Rob Ford.
Our criteria for participating in the focus group research: You had to have voted for Rob Ford as mayor.
What we learned might be of surprise to some political observers.
As regionally divisive as the election of Rob Ford might appear, most of the Ford voters we listened to identified as being Torontonian first. Most have either lived in different parts of the city or have to cross the city for work and they feel some responsibility for Toronto as a whole.
Rather than wanting to see their city fall into decline, these Ford voters expressed a hope and vision for the city that is positive, united, safe, clean, green, diverse, welcoming, vibrant and easier to get around in. Some even dream of having more bike lanes, as long as they’re safe for both cyclists and drivers.
They want a city that works together, for a common purpose.
They still believe in the value of public services, and many want better public services – especially when it comes to public transit, which is becoming a symbol of a city in need of a fix.
Judging from our focus group experience, the things Ford voters want for Toronto are really not that different from what the rest of Torontonians want.
Like a lot of Torontonians, Ford voters in our focus groups expressed frustration over the city’s overcrowding and traffic congestion. Public transit service frustrations were a running theme. Everyone seems to have a story of a streetcar that never came, a bus route that had been cancelled, or a pungent, crowded subway ride. It’s why some of them drive a car – to avoid the inconveniences of public transit.
There is a simmering sense that they have been paying more taxes and user fees while getting less or worse public service in return.
This is a source of mounting tension and it was a motivator for some Rob Ford voters who were looking for do-able answers in last year’s municipal election. Whether the facts add up or not, some felt building a new subway line was more achievable than David Miller’s grander plans for Transit City.
What’s clear is that the longer Toronto’s public transit and congested road problems remain unanswered, the more impatient Toronto’s electorate could become. We may be approaching a tipping point on this unresolved issue.
The focus group participants also worried that the city was getting dirtier, that youth programs were being cancelled, that crime was an issue (women worry about this more than men) and that the city’s budget had spiraled out of control.
People were seeking solutions to the problems that ail us and, a year ago, they looked at the slate of candidates and saw something in Rob Ford that inspired them. While there is no blind allegiance to Rob Ford, many of the participants in our focus group research expressed a strong personal connection to him because they believed he was willing to fight the establishment on behalf of the people.
They understood his fallibility. But the rougher around the edges he appeared, the more believable he seemed. The more embattled he became during the electoral campaign, the more they came to sympathize with his cause: to clean up City Hall.
He made them feel hopeful that positive change was coming; that he was going to punch a hole into the bubble of the elites.
When they talked about Rob Ford, they often spoke in appreciative, glowing terms – in the same way they spoke about another well-loved politician, Jack Layton. In the focus group discussions, they saw little ideological divide between Jack Layton and Rob Ford. Rather, they felt the two men had in common a sincere drive to take on the struggle of the people despite great odds.
Some still hold out hope Ford will live up to the promise.
The promise has been encapsulated in the now well-worn phrase gravy train. But in our focus groups it became clear the gravy train wasn’t a political meal ticket to just anywhere.
In our focus groups, the gravy train was considered a symbol for city finances in need of restraint, for people at the top of the city hall food chain abusing power – the ones they read about in the newspaper, who earn six figure salaries, expense lavish dinners, or ‘have chauffeurs’. Whether it’s real or not, the perception is that such abuses exist, and Rob Ford was just the man to put an end to them.
Here’s what the gravy train was not: The gravy train was not permission to slash and burn community services the public relies on, cuts that affect people or leave low-paid city workers (such as city building cleaners) worse off.
Many of his supporters believed Rob Ford when he said he could cut government waste without affecting city services. Others recognized it as politicking but gave him the benefit of the doubt.
Many of the people in our focus groups are still in the phase of wanting to believe that they did the right thing in voting for Rob Ford. When he cancelled the Vehicle Registration Tax, they saw it as a sign that he would make good on his promises. Few associate the cost of that tax cut with the city’s budget woes today. Most believe Rob Ford inherited a deficit, when in reality, David Miller handed over a surplus budget.
A few of the focus group participants have turned against Rob Ford already but most are still at the “bargaining” stage, willing to give him time to make the changes he promised, especially given the opposition they see him as facing even in the mayor’s chair.
But their faith in him has limits.
There is such a thing as going too far. While participants support the notion of some service and job cuts to balance the budget, they raised several points that indicate most won’t support across-the-board massive cuts. In terms of job cuts, their expectation is that Ford would go after the people ‘at the top’ of the scale. They were much less supportive of cutting the jobs of people at the bottom.
And while they are willing to give up some public services as part of requirement to achieve a balanced budget, they don’t want to see their city go into decline, they don’t want the cuts to go too far, and once the budget is healthy, they want better public services.
For some, there is also the hint that he may be in a little over his head or that he could be taken advantage of. It’s a feeling they can’t quite shake, even though it’s at odds with some of their other beliefs about him. When asked who supports Rob Ford, most participants say the well off, the business community – but they view Ford as standing up for the people, to be a man of the people, which is why they themselves voted for him.
This is an important finding. If Ford supporters already acknowledge that his policies favour the well-off, there is the real possibility that they ultimately could end up seeing Ford as someone who didn’t stand up for the little guy but, rather, played the kind of politics they despise.
Finally, every single focus group raised one common issue as being the biggest ‘knock’ against Rob Ford, the mayor: his refusal to make an appearance at the Pride Day parade. While they found his candor refreshing enough to lend him their vote, now that he’s mayor, they’re beginning to apply a higher standard – one reflective of the office.
The question is only Rob Ford’s to answer: can he live up to the expectation?
A year into his mandate, some are already expressing voter’s remorse. As one focus group participant put it, voting for Rob Ford was “the worst and biggest mistake of my life.”
For political observers who assumed a vote for Rob Ford meant a vote for more Conservative-style politics, that wasn’t necessarily the case. Some of them voted for Rob Ford in the October 2010 municipal election then voted NDP in the spring 2011 federal election and saw no problem with that, because their vote for Ford wasn’t considered partisan. In some cases, a vote for Ford meant the same thing as a vote for the federal NDP: a shakeup.
For progressives thinking a Rob Ford vote is a lost vote, the focus group research would suggest it’s wise to reconsider that assumption. Ford Nation was a political invention and remains one. Meanwhile, there’s a city in need of leadership and an electorate hungry for solutions.