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Hepburn: Rob Ford and the risky politics of dashed hopes

by Bob Hepburn
Editorial Page

After just one day on the job, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is moving swiftly as he sets out to prove, as his brother Doug boasts, that there’s “a new sheriff in town.”

Ford met early Wednesday with TTC general manager Gary Webster to drive home the message that the “war on cars” is over and that he wants the $8 billion Transit City light-rail plan promoted by former mayor David Miller killed and replaced by subways.

He also repeated his campaign mantra about “stopping the gravy train” at city hall and talked about cutting councillors’ office budgets and focusing on “customer service” at city hall and on the TTC.

For Ford supporters, it was a good start.

In his first weeks as mayor, Ford will be virtually assured of a series of small victories, such as killing the $60 motor vehicle registration tax. These little triumphs will thrill voters who brought him to power and delight the right-wing media that believe he can do no wrong.

Over the ensuing months, though, Ford may suffer from voter hopes set far too high by his huge victory in last month’s civic election. That’s because many of his strident supporters may have totally unrealistic expectations for the new mayor.

Much like Barack Obama in his successful U.S. presidential bid in 2008, Ford came to power by tapping into the “politics of hope.” Although he never used that phrase, it played a large part in his election strategy.

First you identify angry voters, then you give them the hope — real or imagined — that things will be radically different once elected.

Frustrated with what they saw as waste and rot, angry Toronto voters placed their hopes and dreams of better service, lower taxes, less government spending and “respect” for their tax dollars in him.

But politicians such as Ford and Obama who exploit the hopes and dreams of voters are playing a risky game. If their hopes are unmet, then voters who swept the candidates to power can quickly turn on their leader.

Indeed, hope is fleeting, as Obama is learning.

As hard as it may seem to his loyalists right now, Ford could easily find himself in the same position as Obama before long.

The signs are already emerging.

First, Ford has done nothing to dampen his supporters’ overly optimistic expectations of what he might actually be able to accomplish. He is still talking as if everything is possible and that it can happen fast.

Second, he has once again shown that he is unwilling to try to work with his opponents on city council. This week he froze out downtown and left-wing councillors when he announced his executive committee and his senior political team.

That’s a recipe for failure because Ford will need their support when it comes to tackling the truly important issues, such as budget cuts, contracting out garbage collection and forging ahead with his plans to build subways.

Third, Ford is already staring at major hurdles in his quest to reshape this city. The most obvious is the pending showdown with the Ontario government over his plans to scrap Transit City. Premier Dalton McGuinty said Tuesday there’s no more transit money for Toronto and that the city would have to eat the costs of cancelling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contracts already awarded.

If that happens, say goodbye to Ford’s self-described image as a good watchdog over the use of taxpayer dollars.

At some point, voters will tire of Ford’s rhetoric about “stopping the gravy train” and start asking what he’s going to do about the bigger problems facing the city, such as the economy and jobs.

How he responds at that time will go a long way toward determining if Ford can meet the hopes of those who voted for him.

With hopes so high, can he ever meet their expectations?

Ford’s diehard supporters will likely always be behind him, blaming everyone except their hero for whatever failures and disappointments arise.

But for voters who merely wanted to send a signal that they were fed up with the Miller era, then the Ford honeymoon could be quite short.

With them, Ford risks being seen as just another politician with big promises who failed to follow up.

In Obama’s case, it took about a year for that perception to emerge. In Ford’s case, it could be much shorter