The meaning of politics: Impressions from Toronto's mayoral race

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I once crisscrossed Canada during an election to explore what politics means to people. A toy shop owner in Edmonton said she had no idea what led her to vote as she did. "Maybe it was something I heard, while driving, about a leader's wife making a fuss over a seat on a plane," she said. "It scares me, not knowing." Here are some potential incitements from the mayoral race.

-  DoFo and the Jewish Question. There's a genetic trait at work here: an ability to send a normal political event off into the wild blue yonder. Doug Ford (open Doug Ford's policard) turned a question about his brother's name-calling into one about stereotyping (My Jewish doctor) to honorary Jewishness. (My wife is Jewish -- although she isn't.) Then it morphed into What is a Jew -- a puzzle everyone from Hitler to the state of Israel has weighed in on. How did that get into our mayoral race? This is the Ford genius: exploding predictable situations into chaos.

-  Olivia and the Andrea factor. First provincial NDP leader Andrea Horwath's right-wing fling handed a win to Ontario Liberals. Then it torpedoed NDP Joe Cressy's shot in a federal by-election. Today it's taking its toll on Olivia Chow. She began by underplaying her NDP links. She sank so fast she now talks mainly about how progressive she is. Tom Mulcair must be waiting for his turn.

-  Talk Radio Tory. The afternoon drive show home seemed like an odd gig for John Tory. But in retrospect it was training for innumerable debates on the road to mayor. You have to be glib, which he is and the rest aren't. Never leave dead air, since it may sound like you don't know something. Above all, remember that listeners tune in for you, not the eternal turntable of guests who don't really grasp why they're there -- so stay affable.

-  That 90-degree turn. Tory sent everyone into a tizzy with his SmartTrack plan. Olivia wants to know how it'll make the 90-degree turn in Mt. Dennis and what about those three houses in the way. Doug says who's the engineering firm? John smiles like Dad and says, Don't worry kids, I'll handle it. I'm with him on this one. Toronto council has been way too good at worrying about things. A bit of can-do would be nice. My main worry about Tory is that he wouldn't be rash enough. Our mayors tend to get lost in basking.

-  Olivia and English. Anyone who's spoken personally with Chow, which huge numbers of Torontonians have, has never wondered about her facility in English. Yet in the campaign she's often sounded uneasy with it. It may look to some voters, many of whom struggle with English, as if she doesn't care enough about communicating with them to get her nouns and verbs to agree. I'm not saying that's so, I know it's not. But we're talking about impressions. She has numerous advisers; could none of them have dealt with this?

-  DoFo and R-E-S-P-E-C-T. People who know him said Doug got into the race because he hates John Tory. Sounds plausible as a sole motive -- unlike Rob who mixes in some mischief and joy. But why Tory? Because he is an "elite," which Doug says has nothing to do with being rich, as Doug also is. It's about people who "look at you like they are better than you, their nose up in the air." It's about who gets respect, and invitations to The Toronto Club or the corporate boxes at the ACC. Tory gets that from people who never quite give it to the Fords and it stings. I've known labour leaders who yearned for the same respect from those guys in the boxes.

It explains one of the weirdest Ford qualities: blowing their own horn. Rob says he's the greatest mayor the city ever had. Doug says he's a real person, the defender of ordinary guys. Normally you let others say that for you. But if you can't count on them to do it, you must do it yourself, tin-eared as it sounds. Real populists speak for the people, and let their words and acts speak for themselves. What's behind this rage and need? An emptiness and sense of being disrespected or unheard. Hmm. And where might that arise from?

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Padraic/flickr

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