Angry suburbanite takes on Toronto's downtown elite

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The Gazette, Monday, October 25, 2010

As long as he was the only candidate from the right, campaigning against five opponents on the left, Rob Ford was running 25 points ahead in today's election for the mayoralty of Toronto, Canada's largest city.

But as soon as the also-rans began dropping out in favour of George Smitherman, the race tightened up to a dead heat in a Toronto Star poll last week. All polls, published and private, now show the race as too close to call between Ford and Smitherman. Both are polling in the low 40s, with a third candidate, Joe Pantalone, barely breaking into double digits, but stubbornly staying in until the end.

So now it's the angry white guy from the suburbs, Ford, against the slick Toronto elite guy from downtown, Smitherman.

The fundamentals still favour Ford. His voters are angry, and angry voters are motivated to vote. It's not quite the Tea Party, but it's not far off, either. Smitherman will need a lot of strategic voting to pull it out. A former Liberal minister and deputy premier at Queen's Park, Smitherman has become the Stop Ford candidate. That's not enough. But the Big Red Machine of the provincial Liberals might make a decisive difference in an election in which getting out the vote will be decisive. It won't hurt that Liberal staffers at Queen's Park have been given today off to work for Smitherman.

Ford says Toronto doesn't have room for any more immigrants. He says it has too many traffic jams as a result of street closings for charity walks. He promises to cut spending at city hall and downsize its bloated bureaucracy. His numbers might not all add up, but angry voters get where he's coming from.

The creation of the mega-city, as it was styled in 1997, was supposed to result in a downsizing of the municipal bureaucracy. But from 45,000 employees in 1998, Toronto has 50,000 today, an increase of more than 10 per cent. The Toronto budget increased from $5 billion in 1997 to more than $8 billion by 2008.

And that means higher taxes across the board, starting with housing taxes.

This is why voters are so angry in Toronto -they're paying more and getting less, except for aggravation. The Toronto garbage strike, in the stinking hot summer of 2009, was the tipping point for the outgoing mayor, David Miller. First he provoked the union into a strike, then he capitulated to it.

Meanwhile, garbage piled up on the streets of Toronto, a city that prides itself on cleanliness and order. This is a city where downtown traffic signs say: "Pedestrians, obey your signals!" Montreal, it ain't.

By and large, Toronto does work better than Montreal. The city's streets and expressways are not perpetually under reconstruction. The suburban GO trains are clean, fast and efficient, a marvel compared with Montreal's. The downtown island airport, with its popular Porter Airways service, is a five-minute shuttle ride from the Royal York Hotel.

With Miller wisely not seeking a third term, the race to succeed him crowded up on the left, with Ford the only candidate on the right, once John Tory, who narrowly lost to Miller in 2003, decided not to enter the race.

That race set up a lot like this one -Tory carried the suburbs but Miller swept downtown Toronto and won the election by five points, 43 to 38 per cent.

The main plank in Miller's platform was to oppose a bridge from the island airport to the mainland, something voters think about every time they wait 15 minutes for the next ferry.

This election is a lot more like the 1995 election at Queen's Park, when Ontario voters were so mad at Bob Rae's NDP government on the left that they swung all the way over to Mike Harris and his Common Sense Revolution on the right.

So with Ford. The Toronto Star has spent months trying to take him down with scoops about his personal life, including an impaired-driving citation and a drug bust somewhere in his past. The more the Star ridiculed him, the more his vote firmed up.

And today, we'll find out if this is the year of the angry white guy.

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