Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Ford Family Political Machine

The recent switch of Doug for Rob in the Mayor's race, and Rob for Michael in the Ward 2 race is in a sense shocking, but not surprising. Speculation about this possibility had existed for some time.  I see outraged talk about "feudalism" and family dynasties.  Good.  It's been apparent that the Fords were always about setting up a bona fide old style "Tammany Hall" political machine in Toronto.  Consider:
  • The radio show on CFRB 1010.  This was far underestimated by digital/online types in its significance.  Ford had a multi-hour open mic to the whole city every week, with no neutral "host" to direct the agenda or put any limits, and his brother to co-host.  It was qualitatively different from any previous Mayor's anodyne style of "civic engagement" shows on Cable 10 or CP24, hosted and generally just about run of the mill constituent issues & questions.  The Ford show was openly a dialog to "Ford Nation" and no political punches were pulled.
  • The network of donors, particularly out of the city in the rest of the province. This is the stuff of nightmares for Councillors.  It's pretty easy to imagine this network being given signals to drop a few hundred thousand (collectively) on a couple council challengers to incumbents who have upset the Fords, and maybe drop some more on any friendly councillors in trouble.  Ford wouldn't need to defeat every unfriendly councillor, just enough to scare the rest, especially the ones in marginal wards who won by close margins.
  • The enemies list. Yes, he has a list of councillors he wants defeated.  You don't assemble such lists unless you have plans to do something about it.
  • The robocalls. The radio show wasn't enough, Ford used these as a direct line to constituents. Again, probably undervalued by digital/online types, but for those key most-likely-to-vote older demographics who also aren't as often online, this is a key touchpoint.
  • The permanent campaign. I've written at length about this before, but basically Rob Ford never really stops campaigning. His obsession with constituent services is the most obvious aspect of this.  Numerous people in his city-funded Mayoral staff (like David Price) were focused solely on this.
All of these are the more-or-less visible aspects of the machine operation.  One may speculate, given what we know about Ford's various underworld friends & connections whether there was a much darker portion to this machine, a group of Nixonesque "plumbers" perhaps (think of the prison beating alleged to have been ordered by Ford). 

Once you accept the motivation of establishing a permanent political Ford family machine, many of Ford's policy preferences make sense:
  • Despite a much ballyhooed hatred of "gravy" - Ford has never said word one in opposition to the City program of rebating up to 75% of political donations, even to non-Toronto residents or voters. Even in the 2014 budget process where he was obviously unable to come up with anything like the $50-$60M in savings he promised he could, this juicy plum was left untouched.
  • His various attempts to eliminate the City's accountability officers like the Omsbud & Integrity commissioner. For a guy who makes such hay on the "gravy train" and being so very honest, it might seem strange that he was so vehement in opposition to mechanisms to hold politicians accountable to voters. But even as relatively toothless as these offices are, they have been a regular thorn in his side, and if they don't outright stop aspects of his political machine, they often issue reports ruling they are violations of various rules (like the robocalls to Ainslie's ward).
  • Hatred of 311 and other forms of city employed professional customer service help. Ford doesn't want government to just work, he wants constituents to need his help to get what they need from the city.  A simple, easy to remember number that can provide nearly any city service in one call or email really reduces your need to call your councillor or the Mayor for help with that leaky fire hydrant or unpatched pothole.  Those old enough to remember the "blue pages" part of the phone book may remember a lengthy list of city deparments & agencies one might have to navigate for services, a nightmare of waiting on hold, missed return calls & bureaucratic runaround.
  • Opposition to s.39 and any spending out of it. There are legitimate concerns with s.39 (funds contributed by developers held at ward-level under the direction of that ward's councillor for improvements to the ward) but obviously Ford would not like anything which allows Councillors to get improvements to their ward, and look good to their constituents without his blessing.  The funds do need City Council approval to be spent, but as Ford did not yet have a firm grip on Council as a whole, s.39 was a threat to him and his machine.  In particular, downtown and high density wards with the most progressive councillors tend to get the most s.39 money because they have the most development.
This is a partial list, not an attempt to be comprehensive, but the lens of "aiding my political machine" often allows otherwise strange Ford policy preferences.

The most terrible aspect of this, is that it probably would have worked except for the drug & alcohol problems. Absent that, it really is difficult to imagine he would not be sailing to re-election, and possibly getting a slate of "Ford Nation" councillors elected to solidify his control over council.  It was pretty clear for example, that the scheme with Doug not registering for election was to allow him to continue hosting the radio show this year, a plan only foiled by Ford's crack videos causing CFRB to cancel the program (they tried to resume it with Sun News and then via Youtube, both evidently failures).  The network of big money donors has apparently largely withered away, big money opting instead for the safer alternative, John Tory.  Rather than advancing their control over Council, the Fords were left fighting just to hang on (and losing even at that).

No, we should not be surprised that they "dare" swap Doug for Rob, and opt to have Rob hold the "safe" home base of Ward 2 (Michael was far from a sure win).  The political machine is down but not out, and they will fight ever to restore it unless defeated completely.