Last winter, soon after Toronto City Council overturned Mayor Rob Ford’s subway pledge and ripped the transit file from his clutches, Coun. Shelley Carroll led a long and detailed discussion at the Academy of the Impossible. There to talk about how to run an effective political campaign, Carroll, a likely 2014 mayoral candidate, touched on a lot of topics and made some strong points.
But I mostly remember this one: ”Right now [council is] living in a political world where the conversation is, ‘How can we stop this thing from happening?’ We’re at a tipping point now, though — we’ve had a couple of victories stopping bad things from happening. My own view is that very soon [that same coalition] better make some good things happen or we’re done as a coalition.”
If the most recent council meeting was any indication, that group of councillors—the ones who worked so effectively to protect the interests of Toronto’s transit riders—are done as a coalition. They’re not making good things happen.
Last week’s council meeting—City Hall’s first since July—was a return to the chaotic early days of Ford’s tenure. Left-leaning councillors needlessly stood on grandstands to make long, impassioned speeches on doomed items. The so-called “mushy middle” tossed votes in every direction without any apparent rhyme or reason. And, of course, the Ford-allied conservatives continued to govern based on a seeming mix of spite, anger and paranoia.
When one of the biggest stories to come out of a council meeting involves one councillor musing about simultaneously punching a colleague in the face while kicking him in the groin, the political conversation has failed.
It’s easy to blame just one side. That group of councillors on Ford’s Executive Committee did explore new political lows, especially as they lined up to attack the City Ombudsman for having the gall to release a report investigating complaints about council’s public appointment process. Criticizing staff for doing their jobs is quite the rabbit hole for politicians to throw themselves down—it’s not hard to understand why that inspired such anger.
But to cast blame only on the mayor and his allies is a cop-out. Councillors of all political stripes proved earlier this year that they are capable of coming together on issues even when their views conflict with Ford. They know how to sideline the mayor—and his single council vote—and provide leadership. Most importantly, they know how to at least resemble an organized and professional political body that is capable of getting important work done—even if it means compromise.
Or they used to know, anyway. Maybe they forgot over the summer break.
By most measures, Ford is an unpopular guy who has a good chance of losing his seat in 2014. But the mayor is at his best when he’s handed a political situation he can rail against with slogans and soundbites. Council, if they continue to look as weak and aimless as they did last week, will give Ford and his team of funders, advisers and campaign strategists exactly the platform he needs to argue for a renewed mandate—and a more sympathetic slate of councillors—in 2014.
The messaging is easy. The mayor can just get up on his soapbox and point to obstructionist and angry councillors who revel in blocking his plans while providing none of their own. He can shout about a fractious council that spent two years mostly killing time, taking shots at his mandate and racing to be the first to get quoted in the stories about the latest mayoral gaffe.
Shelley Carroll hinted at that truth last winter, in front of that crowd at the Academy of the Impossible. Still speaking about the transit issue, she noted that the group of 25 or so councillors who supported LRT “had something in common in that we all disagreed with something.”
But, she cautioned, “If we don’t find out what those 25 people agree on and make a wonderful thing happen, we’re all going to fall back into our usual groups of friends.”