Monday, 25 July 2011

Learning from Rob Ford to Defeat Rob Ford

In his first eight months as mayor, Rob Ford has had a relatively easy time passing the motions he has prioritized with a handful of minor setbacks. While people theorized during the campaign that there might be enough opposition to Ford to effectively run a shadow mayoralty, that has not materialized. Team Ford has run a tight ship, whipping councillors to get in line and swaying just enough of the mushy middle to get more controversial items passed such as turning down provincial funding for two public nurses.  It's worth looking at how Team Ford has accomplished this, and what this in turn means for the right response to counteract the policies put into place.

Ford has been able to pass motions for three principal reasons:

1) Strict Messaging
2) Whipping Councillors when needed
3) Capitalizing on Perceived Popularity
Ford on election night, Ian Kelso for Inside Toronto
 1) One of the most remarkable aspects of the mayoral campaign was how disciplined Ford was at staying on message. Repeating the 'gravy train' and 'respect for taxpayers' mantra ad nauseam was effective in framing the debate and instilling quick, memorable ideas in voters' minds. This strict messaging from the campaign is maintained in the administration in the face of easily falsifiable claims, as The Grid's Edward Keenan has pointed out lately. But most observers don't follow politics closely enough to know they're being sold a bill of goods. Hey, even Stephen LeDrew doesn't call him on it!

2) As is oft-repeated, councillors have the vast majority of power at city hall while the mayor only has one vote. Things haven't worked out this way during Ford's brief time, with most moderate councillors being resistant to the idea of standing up proposed policies. Part of this is out of the fear of reprisal, as with Josh Colle voting for the removal of the Jarvis Bike Lanes perhaps due to an extortive hold put on a development project in his ward by Mayor Ford. Others may want to keep their committee assignments or don't want to be made targets like Mike Layton and Kristyn Wong-Tam were for the Fort York Bridge and Jarvis Bike Lanes. The administration has so far demonstrated a vindictive and spiteful side to it that is perfect for whipping councillors against standing up for their principles.

3) Moderate councillors are not only looking for their cues from the Ford Team due to point number two above, but also because of Ford's perceived popularity. Not only did Ford receive a healthy pluarlity for his mandate, but he has framed himself as a straight-shooter who is in touch with the common man and woman. When he speaks, he speaks as though he knows what all taxpayers want, claiming that the silent majority connects to him through his magic divining rod of a cell phone that no one can dispute. Other councillors want to deliver 'what the people want' regardless of the fact that their constituents also voted for them to follow their principles. But the moral suasion of the mayor's office carries public significance and it's tough for many of the moderate councillors (a number of whom are rookies) to feel comfortable challenging that.

Where Team Ford has been successful in crafting a message and image that allows quick and successful passage of their goals, opponents can use what they do well against them. This is a much more difficult task in the absence of formal parties or co-ordinating tools for the opposition in Toronto's city hall structure. But it's still possible to make a lot of headway.

1)    Consistent Messaging Alternatives
2)    Pressuring the Mushy Middle both positively and negatively
3A) Connecting with communities
3B) Raising Ford's negatives

1) Ford's amazing consistency with phrases and terms has had an impact on the language that is used in Toronto's political discourse. As Downtown Pinko Elitist as this sounds, those terms matter, such as the difference between a taxpayer and citizen. Heck, even Mark Towhey and Nick Kouvalis would admit that. As has been pointed out before, citizen implies a a dual relationship, a contribution to the community and using the benefits of it. Taxpayer only implies the latter, and that's a pretty lousy vision. 

Team Ford also uses 'entitlement' language to speak derisively of things like the Riverdale Farm, low-income nutrition and childcare subsidies. It's pretty effective language, but language that can be co-opted and subverted. After all, what's a bigger entitlement than not keeping property taxes, the lowest in the GTA, at the rate of inflation during consistent structural deficits? After all, this dispropotionately helps the wealthiest whereas KPMG cuts disproportionately affect the neediest. That's entitlement. Flipping this kind of language can help to lift the facade from Fordian rhetoric and deconstruct the impact that it has on how the city's policies treat its citizens. 
Via @joshuahind

2) There's been some chatter lately about Project 23 over at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke. The project, which sounds like something Nick Fury might organize, aims at focusing on the Mushy Middle votes that assure Ford passage of most of his priorities. Daren Foster (Cityslikr) writes:

"...we need to concentrate on those in the so-called mushy middle. Let’s call it the vulnerable middle. Councillors, both new and old, who are regularly siding with the mayor out of either fear of the mayor’s tactical pressure or plain old political expediency. The going’s good now and they are aware of fallout if they are seen to be bucking Ford Nation. So they’re skulking in the shadows, hoping no one notices them and that come election 2014, they’ll be able to continue under the radar of their own ward races.

Let’s start informing them that that’s not going to happen. They will have to answer to their voters if they continue their craven allegiance to this administration. If they think there’s a price to be paid not being a Team Ford player, notice needs to be served there’s going to be no free ride for such slavish devotion."

I think Foster is right in encouraging people to inform Mushy Middle councillors that their votes enable Ford to pass motions without any consideration or compromise are noticed and ill-advised. But I think that more than threats have to be offered, that assistance is needed too. As Foster points out, many of these councillors are in vulnerable wards and will need help to be re-elected. Rather than threatening to simply unseat them, a co-ordinated effort is needed to support those that oppose awful policies in the face of electoral difficulties. Not offering that alternative may force them to side with Ford who can offer Sopranos-like protection and resources to help. It's this kind of coalition building that can go a long way in establishing a large enough opposition to stem the bloodletting from the current administration. 

3) There's two main ways to defeat an opponent in politics, to raise your own positives/sell your own ideas and raise your opponents unfavourables. So this will be split into those sections.
Connect to communities and raise negatives. Also, people like cats. 
3A) First, the idealism. It's pretty tough to raise positives in city hall due to relatively low name recognition/public interest and the individual structure of city hall. But it's possible. There are two aims here: to connect to directly impacted communities and make the larger connection to communities who are not directly impacted.

The Jarvis Bike Lanes Debate is a good example. Led by Dave Meslin and the Bike Union, the cycling constituency was out in force. It was an impressive display even if it fell short. What is more difficult is making the connections to people who are outside that issue. I don’t ride a bike, but the process by which the removal was passed impacts me as a cheapening of our democratic discourse. If I have an issue at city hall, I want fair, open and transparent means to discuss it. It also impacts me as a friend and family member to those who do cycle or as someone who cares about the environment (some of this was done, but I feel more of it was possible). Building those coalitions and connections is tough work but it’s needed to fight the populist-style politics at city hall.

3B) The second cynical portion is, sadly, easier to accomplish and often more politically effective. Ford’s negatives are already dramatically up (from 17 to 24% strongly disapprove) according to the latest StratCom poll and his slash and burn politics may gradually continue that trend and erode cover given to the Mushy Middle in supporting him.

What the opposition needs to do is speed up that deserved process before too much damage can be done. This can be done by making Ford earn his credibility. This requires holding him accountable for his facts (80% of budget goes to employees! 10x the traffic on Jarvis!), campaign promises (repeat, no service cuts), and cutting into the myth of the populist everyman that has been created for him. Because really, he cares more about his ideology (facts be damned) and image than he cares about you.

The TL;DR version for those of you (like me) with Twitter-attention spans:

§          Develop consistent messaging and terms to undermine Ford’s
§          Nudge the Mushy Middle using both the carrot and the stick.
§          Tailor messages for both narrow constituencies and broader communities to demonstrate how it impacts their  lives
§          Drive up Ford’s negatives to show how his disrespect for facts, process or promises disrespects each citizen

A lot of this has already been done in less formal ways, but if the Ford administration is to be limited in the damage it can inflict then opposition must be their equal in organization and focus, a difficult task given the loose structure at city hall.

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