Ford legacy put to test in Toronto byelection


TORONTO – Former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s legacy will be put to the test on Monday as voters choose who will inherit the late politician’s west-end ward at the heart of so-called Ford Nation.

The Ford family name has thrown the spotlight on one candidate in particular during the municipal byelection — Michael Ford, the former mayor’s nephew, who is a relative newcomer to politics and one of a dozen people vying for the job.

While his controversial uncle polarized the city with his headline-grabbing antics, including an admission he smoked crack which in office, in the Etobicoke North neighbourhood he called home, many remain staunchly loyal to the Ford family, and some observers have said the race is the younger Ford’s to lose.

Ford, who served as a school board trustee before launching his campaign for his uncle’s city council seat, acknowledged that while his family’s reputation has earned him a few detractors, the response has been largely one of support.

“There’s a couple people out there that say ‘no, I won’t be casting my vote for you,’ just because they have the opposite belief, which is fine,” he told the Toronto TV station CP24 in the last days of the campaign.

“But I have to say the overwhelming amount is ‘continue on, if you can do one tenth of the job Rob did you’ve got our support.’ And that’s my mandate, and that’s what I’m hearing.”

Ford’s campaign declined an interview request, saying Ford was too busy canvassing in the lead-up to the vote.

The newest member of the Ford family to enter politics is striving to carve out an identity distinct from that of the former mayor and his almost equally controversial brother Doug, who served as a city councillor until a failed mayoral bid two years ago, said Myer Siemiatycki, a political science expert at Toronto’s Ryerson University.

Michael Ford has shown himself to be more conciliatory, more focused on research-based decision-making than his relatives, Siemiatycki said.

But that’s unlikely to affect the outcome of Monday’s vote, he said.

“They probably could have dispensed with the byelection, I think it’s pretty much a coronation,” he said.

“His policy positions and his personality, at this point, I think are inconsequential to the election result. There is a branding issue — he’s got the family name and the brand and that will get him elected. But what he does with that name, should he be elected, will then make for interesting watching.”

While Ford Nation will likely rally behind the family’s political heir apparent, its status as kingmaker is on the wane, Siemiatycki said.

“I think this might be the last election where a kind of almost automatic Ford appeal will be demonstrated,” he said.

“Obviously the fact that it’s a ward election and that it’s only an election in Rob Ford’s home field … it will manifest itself,” he said. “But if you now try to project the drawing power of the Ford name onto the city as a whole, it becomes much more unpredictable and much, much, much less potent.”

Some of Ford’s opponents said that influence is already fading and the lasting affection for Rob Ford may not guarantee a seat for his nephew. And they say many residents are aching for a shake-up, and for action on issues such as public safety and transit.

“It’s been kind of a surprise. So many people we’ve been talking to at the doors, even former Rob Ford supporters, have been telling me they’re ready for a change,” said Christopher Strain, who has previously been involved in local politics as a volunteer and campaign manager.

“From what I’ve been hearing from voters, a lot of them identify with Ford Nation as much as it was Rob Ford’s nation, not necessarily Doug or Michael or anyone else who might pop up.”

And some want to distance themselves from the cloud of scandal that hung over Rob Ford, said candidate Jeff Canning, a small business owner who has lived in the ward for close to a decade.

“People want to sort of have that smudge from previous leadership and sort of that focus on crime removed,” he said.

Rob Ford died in March from a rare and aggressive form of cancer.

His death left many of his followers despairing at the loss of a man they saw as a champion for the everyman and stirred widespread speculation as to who would take up the mantle as leader of Ford Nation.