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Rob Ford: U of T political experts on the life and times of Toronto's former mayor

Peter Loewen and Nelson Wiseman discuss the legacy of one of Canada's most controversial contemporary politicans

Former mayor Rob Ford at the dedication of David Pecaut Square on April 8, 2011 (photo by West Annex News via flickr)

Toronto’s former mayor Rob Ford garnered headlines around the world during his life for his colorful personal life and drug abuse – and his death this week from cancer brought more media coverage.

As Toronto City Hall prepares to host a public viewing of Ford's body, U of T News writer Dominic Ali spoke with two University of Toronto political scientists about the legacy of the politician who once admitted to having smoked crack cocaine “probably during one of my drunken stupors”. 

Peter Loewen is the director of the Centre for the Study of the United States with U of T’s  Munk School of Global Affairs. Nelson Wiseman is the director of the Canadian studies program with the department of political science in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

What are Rob Ford’s biggest contributions to Toronto?

Loewen: It is difficult to say, because his political accomplishments are so greatly overshadowed by his personal problems and their impinging on work. I think it is easy to forget what a juggernaut he was in his first 18 months in office. But he threw all of that away. And the gridlock and distraction that followed marked four wasted years. As a consequence, there is little to say about his political legacy. But he leaves a great record of constituency service. And he leaves some Torontonians with the sense that they had a champion.

Wiseman: Rob Ford was a destructive force on city council. He did lower the cost of garbage collection by $10 million, but not a great feat in a budget of about $1 billion. His Scarborough subway plan, I think, was the wrong plan and, unfortunately, we are stuck with it because he cowed his council and his successor bought into it.  

How did he shape Toronto in the public imagination and on the world stage?

Loewen: To be frank, he was an embarrassment for the city. But beneath the substance abuse and likely criminality there was a kindness, humility, and joviality that was, I think, very fitting for Toronto. 

Wiseman: Many Torontonians who voted for Rob Ford regretted it later. He drew a lot of attention to the city through his infamous behaviour but the image he conveyed did not square with the image that many outside of Toronto and Canada had of the city.  

Did he influence Donald Trump’s run for office in the U.S.?

Loewen: The more I reflect on this, the more I think he has. Ford demonstrated just how far a popular and authentic politician can go in denial and obfuscation and still hold on to voters. Donald Trump is now exploring this, and he won’t be the last. 

Wiseman: Not at all.

Did Rob Ford change the rules of politics in Toronto?

Loewen: I think he changed our politics on two levels. The first was that he showed just how far a politician can go without losing support. The second is that he showed that it was possible to win the mayoralty by relying on a coalition of working-class Torontonians, suburban commuters, and disaffected property owners. He was, we must remember, elected with as impressive and wide a coalition as any other mayor of the mega city. 

Wiseman: He didn’t in any fundamental way.

How do will he be remembered by future Torontonians?

Wiseman: Some will remember him as a colourful clown. Others will miss his style and his penny-pinching, small-minded approach to governing one of the continent’s most livable and culturally attractive large cities.

(Visit flickr to see the original of the photo used above.)