In 2010, George Smitherman did something that today seems impossible: The former deputy premier of Ontario lost the Toronto mayoral election to Rob Ford, the one-man absurdist highlight reel.
Is Smitherman, who lost to Ford 47 percent to 36 percent, surprised at just how far the mayor has fallen? "You can't look at a shit show like that and say that some of it doesn't surprise you," he says. "But I think that in a certain sense, you can see that there was a polish placed around him that was kind of gruel thin."
How did Ford win? Two crucial factors, according to Smitherman: a lack of party politics, and a conservative-populist wave. "In 2010 in Toronto," Smitherman says, "there's a fair bit of similarity to the Tea Party during its ascendancy." You had a situation where an incumbent, two-term mayor had bowed out, and there was a strong sense in the public that spending was out of control. "The Ford gang very effectively defined the ballot question on this fiscal basis, and neatly tied it up with a simple message around 'stop the gravy train.'"
Smitherman thinks he bore the brunt of Toronto's anti-incumbency fever, despite also being "pissed off at [the mayor's] progress and his record." And once the ultra-right Ford was able to spin the more liberal Smitherman as a politician tied to that administration's spending, it was hard to change the dynamic.
Part of that difficulty came from Toronto's political system, where parties are largely absent. "It was extremely difficult to get kind of a head-to-head contrast, because there's no party politics at play in municipal politics in Toronto, and, accordingly, no discipline on the number of profiled candidates," Smitherman says. Dozens of people ran for the mayor's office that year, and about five managed to stick out among the field, including Ford and Smitherman. Ford benefited, Smitherman says, by the massive roster. "He found a lot of comfort and cover in the pack."
But Smitherman, who is careful not to sound like he spends his time brooding over sour grapes, doesn't just put all of the blame for his loss on outside factors. "I was too nice," he says. "I had a reputation at one time in politics where my nickname was 'Furious George.' But I actually did not bring that character to play hardly at all."
As Smitherman has it, his reluctance to jump in the mud with Ford, combined with the strong support for Ford among the conservative press compared to Smitherman's tepid support from the liberal press, ensured that no one would really dig through Ford's record. In retrospect, Smitherman says, it was "almost a little bit of unilateral disarmament."
Ford also managed to benefit some by playing off of Smitherman's sexuality. The Ford campaign put "substantial effort" into drawing a contrast between Ford as a "loving family man" and Smitherman, who is gay.
But despite the ugly campaign and the ugly everything-that-came-after, Toronto may not be through with Mayor Ford. Because of the city's first-past-the-post electoral system, Smitherman can imagine scenarios where Ford gets reelected. "You usually think of the old style analysis of the Republicans, who campaign to the base and move to the center," Smitherman says. "I'm not sure it works that way anymore with these Tea-Party people; they campaign to the right, then they stay there. That's this guy. But imagine you could get elected with 33 or 34 percent of the vote."
Toronto may just be able to forgive its ever-apologizing mayor. "I suppose it is in our DNA," says Smitherman, "a city that was able to forgive its hockey team for a third-period collapse in the playoffs last year is perhaps a city built on more forgiveness than seems imaginable."
Which isn't to say that Ford is already on the road to redemption. "I'm amongst those that agrees that if this guy had said, 'Yeah, I really fucked up, and I do have some problems, and I'm going to step out of my role for a couple of months,' if he had done that step and come back into it 10, or 20, or 30 pounds lighter, etcetra, etcetra, he really would've had the potential to have the wind at his back. Now, he squandered that."
Smitherman himself isn't looking for a 2014 rematch against the mayor. He sees a crazy year coming, no matter how little power Ford technically retains. But he holds hope that Toronto will reject the forces that first rejected him. "There's people of a certain class and character, even if they like the fiscal bit of it, you can only hold your nose so much before it starts to hurt."