by Anita Elash
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford isn't pulling any punches as he speaks to Toronto city councilors at their monthly public meeting. He's trying to persuade them to privatize garbage collection, a move that would undercut the city's powerful labor unions. In Ford's view, the councilors are either with him or against him.
"You're going to have one side of council that is going to support high taxes, big spending, out of control union contracts," Ford said, as some in the audience booed, "or we're going to have the other side of people that are going to have respect for taxpayers' money, that want to bring accountability to City Hall, that are sick and tired of the tax and spend socialists down in this city."
Ford's argument might seem familiar to an American audience. The millionaire businessman is often touted as a leader of a sort of 'Tea Party North'. Since his election last November, Ford has relentlessly pursued a populist right-wing agenda, in a city that's often seen as socially conscious, environmentally aware and easy-going.
On his first day on the job, he repealed a hated $60 per car environment tax. He canceled plans to add more light-rail to the city's underdeveloped public transit system, saying it would have interfered with cars. And he's frozen property taxes.
Now the city may have to cut services to make up for an $800 million shortfall. Toronto has rarely seen such a conservative leader, said Royson James, a columnist for The Toronto Star newspaper.
"Ford came in and immediately he's saying we're going to privatize everything. That's the American ethos. It's not Toronto," James said. "The way he does politics is quite different from what we're used to."
One of Ford's most vocal opponents, City Councilor Adam Vaughan, said Ford could undo decades of progress in Toronto, a city that was recently ranked as the second best place in the world to live.
"If you want to participate in a race to the bottom, cutting government and cutting taxes, you end up with a city that doesn't provide services for itself, where the poor get poorer and the rich move out," Vaughan said. "Then you're left with what you have in many American cities, which is a dead downtown core. That's the trajectory that this kind of ideology puts us on."
But Ford is extremely popular here. Recent polls suggest 70 % of Torontonians support him. He's especially well-liked in the city's suburban areas like Scarborough, where he recently inaugurated a new bus stop in front of a treatment center for handicapped children. The center tried unsuccessfully for 30 years to get the stop. After he was elected, Ford made it happen. A woman at the new bus stop said that's one of the reasons she voted for him.
"He stood up strong for what he believed in and he was real," she said. "He just said what he said and you either liked it or you didn't like it – period."
Ford rarely meets with journalists, but when he does, he presents a simple vision for the city.
"It's going to be a very clean, very safe prosperous city," Ford said. "Taxes will be lower than what they are now. People will have more money in their pockets so they can spend more and create jobs and stimulate the economy."
Ford said one way he's already stimulated the economy is by ending what he calls the war on cars and repealing the $60 vehicle tax.
"How many cities introduce a $60 car tax?" Ford asked, and how many cities reduce lanes of traffic in order to make bike paths and bike lanes.
When he's reminded that London has a car tax and New York is creating hundreds of miles of bike lanes, he seems surprised.
"They must not like cars," he said.
Ford plans to spread his brand of taxpayers' rights beyond Toronto. His former campaign manager is organizing an advocacy group to promote conservative values across the province of Ontario. Ford has said that someday, he'd like to be Canada's prime minister.