Monday, November 4, 2013

Rob Ford's Permanant Campaign

A break from his legal troubles to talk about the fact that Rob Ford basically campaigns for his re-election all the time.

Officially, that's not allowed, the election period starts January 2014, but think about:
  • Weekly no holds barred highly political and opinionated radio program for Rob & Doug
  • Handing out Fridge magnets everywhere (including funerals..)
  • 2 "Ford Fest" campaign rallies this year, held in large parks with free food & drink (advertised by robocalls all over the city, I was called and I have never contacted the Mayor)
  • Spending an inordinate amount of time taking constituent calls & visiting voters to address problems
The last is probably worth a few words because it's the most effective form of continuous campaigning Ford does and the secret to his success. It is true that all local policians should do a certain amount of direct constituent interaction, to keep an "ear to the ground" and stay in touch with actual voter concerns unfiltered by staff or consultants.  However everything we can discern from Ford is that he goes well beyond any reasonable amount of time spent on this.  According to this count from mid 2012, constituent meetings were one-third of his agenda.  He proudly brags that he returns every call, and gives out his personal numbers all the time.  He's known to show up and get that pothole filled or that leaky hydrant tightened or whatever small bore constituent concern he can address.

This is all textbook retail politics. Toronto is a big city, 2.5M people is a lot, but spend 10-20 hours a week (guessing here) on this for four years, and you can visit and interact with several thousand voters, all over the city.  Each will tell the story of the Mayor personally attending to their problem to 5 or 10 people, and suddenly you may be talking about 25-50,000 voters positively moved.  Think, a first person account from a friend will weigh more heavily than any newscast or TV ad.  Ford won in 2010 with 380,000 votes, so yes, this matters a great deal.

Why is this a problem?  In general, the campaign period restrictions provide some level of fairness against the natural advantages incumbent candidates have for precisely these sorts of reasons.  Even if it was legal, almost no opponent is going to campaign for four years, most can't afford it, and it's an absurd investment in time when the chances are the incumbent will be sailing to re-election anway when you get to election year.

So in general you are campaigning with no real opponents - sure, some critics on council, but they are not given the same weight in media time as the Mayor.

In addition to fairness, making re-election too easy for incumbents has obvious negative democratic ramifications for the system.  Quality challengers are not going to jump in when the Incumbent looks unbeatable.  Mel Lastman may have been popular in 2000, but to tune of 80% of the vote?  The lack of a serious challenger did Toronto no favours that year.

What to do about this?  The first and third items are clear violations which should have legal enforcement in some form.  The second is kind of trivial, not really worth a big fuss.  The last I am not prepared to propose any kind of formal ban, but I think we should observe it and understand why Ford is so relentless about serving voters one at a time.  This is obviously not an effective way to really solve the problems of the city, and I'd argue Ford's emphasis on it is counterproductive. Think about the city crews that have to be diverted from scheduled, planned work to address spot problems the Mayor wants fixed right away.  The crew fixing a pothole could be systemically moving through a whole neighbourhood fixing every pothole, but get stopped to drive across town to wherever Ford is to fix just one pothole.

If Ford used these experiences to highlight ill functioning city services at Council and allocate more resources or identify actual inefficiencies in their delivery, that would actually be helpful.  Maybe the pothole teams aren't working smartly and could be better organized.  Maybe there's just not enough of them.  Who knows? Ford doesn't bring these experiences back to City Hall to get them on Council's agenda.  He's just out to win voters one at a time. That his efforts might make potholes and worn out street sign problems more serious is no concern of his.

Yes, I'm sure the individual voters he helps are sincerely grateful, and perhaps had a hard time getting help through normal city channels like 311 (something Ford, by the way, made a point of voting against improving in committee).  But Ford's job is not to pick a couple thousand lucky voters to help while millions might suffer a problem, the Mayor needs to be looking at the big picture more of the time.  A CEO who spent 33% of their time taking customer calls or working the factory floor making product would most likely be less effective for their company than one who put more emphasis on turning those sample experiences into systemic fixes that make the whole organization stronger, rather than fixing a few symptoms.

Some of Ford's illegal campaigning should be addressed through enforcement, as a vital service to municipal democracy.  The endless voter visits is in the realm of politics.  We should judge his governing choices and recognize that what seems like acts of civic service are, when taken too far, really just self serving.

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