“People are sick of the elites and artsy people running the show. It’s time for some lunch pail, blue collar people.” Don Cherry on Rob Ford
It is ironic that Don Cherry would describe Rob Ford and people like him as “lunch pail, blue collar people.” Both Cherry and Ford are millionaires. We might add that both are plugged into the elite group of Conservatives around Mike Harris who ran the province for eight years.
What is true, however, is that Rob Ford is a distinctly different type of politician than has dominated Toronto politics for the last seven years. David Miller immersed himself in policy details when he was mayor. It is true he liked to hang out with “artsy people,” but he was not close with the power elites that were “running the show.” His goal was to deliver the best government possible. The important question is, why did the people move away from an informed, enlightened politician like Miller and vote for a man like Ford who is the very opposite in every respect?
Miller’s political roots are in the left, while there is little doubt that Ford is a politician of the right. He brags about his family’s Conservative origins. During the election he advocated shrinking government and attacking waste. “Spending is out of control,” he claimed despite the fact that Miller had always balanced the city’s budget. “End the gravy train at city hall,” was his most popular slogan.
Ford is opposed to bicycle lanes. Roads are for cars and trucks. He attacked transit city because it would bring LRTs, or streetcars as he insisted on calling them, along streets in the suburbs. Subways were the answer, in his view, because they got rid of surface transit altogether and left the streets for cars.
During the campaign Ford did not put forward policies based on prudent financial projections. In speeches he got his figures wrong and seemed uninterested in the details of government. His election platform was a series of simple slogans attacking those that ran the city and their policies. So the question remains, why did Ford win, and win so decisively?
The Toronto Star map of the ward by ward voting for the three major mayoral candidates, published on October 29, 2010, is one part of the story. It shows Ford won virtually all of the wards in Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough. His vote stretches through the suburban reaches of the city like a large arc surrounding the downtown. Smitherman, his chief opponent, won the downtown and a few of the wealthy wards that stretch up Yonge Street to about the 401.
Unlike many North American cities, upper income people in Toronto tend to live downtown while poor and working class people live in the surrounding inner suburbs. (The term inner suburbs is used to describe the Toronto suburbs and distinguish it from the suburbs of the GTA.) We call this division the major fault line in Toronto, the Toronto Star article called it “the two solitudes,” and Myer Siemiatycki, of Ryerson University, said, “It’s a tale of two cities – within a city.”
All of these descriptions are saying the same thing: Ford’s vote came from people who lived in the inner suburbs, and the core of his votes came from people of lower socio-economic status, as social scientists call it – people who have lower incomes, occupational prestige and education.
Unfortunately we do not know of a detailed voting study of the 2010 election but Ekos conducted a poll on the Mayoral campaign on October 20 to 22, just days before the election. It proved to be very accurate. You can find it at this address http://www.ekospolitics.com/wp-content/uploads/full_report_october_24.pdf
Ekos found little difference in the voting intensions by gender but age made a major difference. Sixty-three percent of people over 65 years said they would vote for Ford, and 54% under 25 supported Ford. Education also made a real difference. These are figures from the Ekos study.
Ford Pantalone Smitherman
High school or less 63.6% 7.2% 25.9%
College or CEGEP 48.4% 21.6% 28.5%
University or higher 29.0% 19.6% 45.5%
This table shows the difference between wards won by Ford and those won by Smitherman on a number of census variables.
2006 census variable Wards Ford won Wards Smitherman won
Mother tongue English 45.5% 60.6%
Visible Minorities 52.8% 29.5%
Immigrant 1st generation 64.7% 44.9%
University education 24.5% 39.7%
Unemployment rate 8.1% 6.7%
Employment Manufacturing 14.6% 6.3%
Employment Professional 8.6% 14.8%
Average household income $73,691 $90,778
% work trips by auto 69.8% 47.1%
These figures show that wards that Rob Ford won tended to have lower socio-economic status, lower incomes, lower levels of education, more workers employed in manufacturing and higher levels of recent immigrants. Smitherman won in wards where there were far fewer immigrants and visible minorities, where incomes were higher and jobs in the knowledge economy more prevalent. The people in the wards that Ford won are much less economically secure, and interestingly enough, they use their cars much more than the supporters of Smitherman.
While these figures tell us a lot about the 2010 mayoral vote, there is nothing new about a right wing candidate sweeping Toronto’s inner suburbs. In the 1998 election – the first megacity election – Mel Lastman, a Conservative and an outspoken populist who was often accused of being brash and intemperate just like Rob Ford, defeated Barbara Hall, a Liberal, in the Toronto mayoral contest by sweeping the inner suburbs of North York, Etobicoke and Scarborough. Hall, like Smitherman in 2010, won virtually all of the wards in the city. The outcome of the recent election is almost an identical story to what happened in 1998.
The Lastman’s victory was attributed to the fact that his political roots were in North York while Barbara Hall had been mayor of the City of Toronto before amalgamation, but the real reason for Lastman’s victory in 1998 and the victory of Rob Ford in 2010 was the imposition of the megacity by the Mike Harris government. Harris and his Conservatives created megacity by amalgamating the inner suburbs that were then part of Metro Toronto with the downtown. Megacity was created so that the more conservative voters of the inner suburbs would swamp the liberal voters of the downtown. Even today megacity and the long arm of the Harris Conservatives continue to determine the outcome of Toronto municipal elections.
But all of this does not explain why people of lower socio-economic status vote for conservative, right-wing politicians? In the case of both Lastman and Ford it was not their links to the Conservative Party that attracted these voters. In fact these very same people vote in high numbers for Liberal and NDP candidates in federal and provincial elections. What attracted them was Ford’s populist appeals and his Don Cherry like attacks on the effete elites who allegedly dominated city politics.
Ford’s appeal during the election was to people who felt alienated and powerless, and he gained their support by talking about waste at city hall, high taxes and the arrogant feeling of entitlement of the downtown politicians. The more he talked about the downtown politicians who rewarded themselves with perks, the more he inspired the powerless to vote for him as a way to get back at those “elites and artsy people running the show.”
People with higher socio-economic status have different political concerns than those that are less economically secure. Their issues, as reflected in municipal politics, are things like pollution, protecting neighbourhoods, quality of life, culture, control of development, good planning, bicycle paths, traffic congestion downtown and transit. These concerns have led to a high level of political participation in organizations like environmental and rate payer groups that flourish in every downtown neighbourhood, and voters in these neighbourhoods support progressive politicians who share a concern about these issues.
The political concerns of people living in the suburbs are quite different. A significant number live in single family houses and many find it difficult to pay their property taxes. Unemployment and poverty are at higher levels and tenants in the suburbs pay high rents. The issues that are prominent for the suburbanites include cost of living, employment, property taxes, crime, education for their children, housing, safety, transit and traffic congestion. Perhaps the issue that tops their list of grievances is a festering anger born out of the belief that city hall ignores them and uses their tax dollars to improve the downtown while ignoring their suburban neighbourhoods.
Rob Ford was able to win the mayoral election on this type of discontent. Ford did not propose solutions that might help the working class. What he did was tap into their anger by saying he would “stop the gravy train.” He hit small but highly symbolic issues like the cost of retirement parties for city hall councillors and espresso coffee machines. His solutions, when he did bother to talk about them, were things like expanding the subway system or doing away with streetcars – both modes of transit that give good service to people in the downtown while those in the suburbs have to depend on an inadequate bus system or driving to work. His proposal for subway expansion was not costed out and he ignored the fact that the costs of building subways are three times the costs of David Miller’s transit city proposal. But none of this mattered.
Like it or not Ford is a rare politician that has great appeal to low income people because his election campaign expressed the frustrations of the politically alienated. His denunciation of the “downtown political elites,” was particularly telling. He was identifying himself, and people like him, as political outsiders, and David Miller and the left wing councillors who dominated the city’s political life for the last seven years, as the elite.
This must have been a surprise to Miller and his supporters on council because in the past they had positioned themselves as the outsiders attacking the business and political elites that they claimed were controlling the city. Ford’s campaign created the political narrative that cast him and people from the inner suburbs as outsiders – the rebels – attacking Miller and his group as the fat cats of the establishment. The examples Ford used of politicians who voted themselves perks reinforced that point of view because working people rarely get similar perks. Ford’s identification of himself as an outsider must have had great political appeal to the people who felt marginalized politically and socially.
In the eyes of his lower income supporters Ford was not a Conservative Party politician. They cared little for his politics or his policies or even his outrageous behaviour in the past. In their eyes he was standing up for them – the little guys who have no power in a political system controlled by the experts, bureaucrats, professionals, the well educated and the politically sophisticated all of whom gave the impression that they know better than the uneducated masses. By voting for Ford they could express their anger and frustration against politicians, bureaucrats and a system that pays no attention to them.
Ford is the populist raging against a political system that has marginalized large numbers of people. In that sense his support is much like the support that the Tea Party Movement in the United States has captured. The populist message has great appeal to people whose engagement with politics is casual or episodic and there are many people like that living in Toronto’s inner suburbs, across Canada and everywhere else.
In past elections left wing political leaders have been able to capture marginalized voters like this by their denunciations of the business and political elites that govern the country and the city. As left wing politicians have become closer to the mainstream, and have even taken over governments, they have become identified with the very system that they once denounced. That certainly happened in the case of David Miller and his left wing group that has dominated the government of the City of Toronto in the last seven years.
Miller was the author of some of the most enlightened policies ever designed by a municipal politician in this country, but in the last four years he found it difficult to connect with voters. Increasingly he seemed to be isolated and out of touch with the people he represented. Smitherman, Ford’s main opponent, was never able to connect with the people in the election. His approach to politics was to enunciate policy, much like Miller, but when Ford’s popular appeal exploded during the election he had no idea how to respond.
The election carries a message to politicians like Miller and Smitherman: be wary of being too closely identified with government, or you will be seen as the enemy by the very people you hope to represent.
To people in the downtown, knowledge workers, trend-setting urbanites, identity shapers and mergers, consumers and creators of symbols, Ford was the antithesis of the leader they felt that Toronto needed. To them, he appeared unsophisticated and unaware of the complexities of “their” global city. But Rob Ford’s appeal to the people of the inner city suburbs was very effective. Don Cherry’s, “lunch pail, blue collar people,” won the day.