Former Toronto mayor Rob Ford died today from the rare cancer he was diagnosed with in 2014. He was serving as a city councillor at the time of his death. His widow Renata and two young children survive him.
The mayor made headlines for his significant and public problems with drug and alcohol abuse and for his joie de vivre. But he was also a fine populist mayor with conservative leanings. His “stop the gravy train” campaigns, culminating with his race for mayor in 2010, shocked political analysts by being successful. His cost-cutting measures spoke to citizens’ concerns about elected officials’ excesses. He was a man of the people, showing love for working and immigrant classes who supported him.
Ford rose to fame outside of Canada when he was busted smoking crack while mayor of Toronto. But one Toronto conservative urged Americans to pay attention to the substance of his governing policy. Over at Ricochet, a center-right conversation site, “Canadian Cincinnatus” wrote:
The current City of Toronto was amalgamated in 1998. Since that time, Toronto has had three mayors: Mel Lastman, David Miller, and Rob Ford. In terms of greatness, I would rate them this way: OK, awful, and good, respectively.
Why would I rate Ford as good? Forget about his personal life for a moment and look only at his public record: he eliminated the car tax, eliminated the plastic bag tax, balanced the budget, privatized half of Toronto’s garbage collection, took many steps to clean up the corruption at Metro Housing, and browbeat a subway extension out of the Province of Ontario’s subway-hating Liberal government during a recent spate of by-elections.
Which other mayor can match this record? Not Lastman; and certainly not the urbane David Miller, whose reign was an unenviable string of failures and screw-ups. From his war on the car (i.e. the tax-paying commuter), to the unnecessary cancellation of the island bridge (which triggered contractual penalties that Porter Airlines used to purchase its initial aircraft fleet), to his bungling of garbage collection (each one of his decisions in this regard seemed to have been designed to increase costs, add complexity, and reduce convenience), to his neglect of subways, and to his insane streetcar fetish (the most inefficient and inflexible means of public transit known to man), which resulted in his neighbourhood-killing St. Clair Avenue streetcar right-of-way, David Miller was a, sober, respectable catastrophe. The popularity of Ford cannot be understood without reference to the elitist, Harvard-educated Miller who preceded him—and who showed total disdain for Toronto’s suburbs.
Rob Ford annoyed all the right people and excited all the right people, if you believe in government by the people and not government by elites. But it’s also true he was a media-hungry buffoon with major addiction problems and horrible taste in friends. This should not be ignored or celebrated. But he was a Donald Trump if Trump wasn’t just a reality TV star but also had conservative leanings. He was a Chris Christie if Christie weren’t just good with crowds but also not desperate for elite approval. He was a Marion Barry if Barry had not enabled public unions in their path of destruction.
On the occasion of his too-soon death, let’s look back at a few of the fun things he did to shake up politics in the frozen north.