It’s Saturday at noon in the Rob Ford campaign headquarters in Scarborough and the background noise from the activity that surrounds me is chaotic.
However, the noise is incongruent to the scene around me. A well-oiled machine is in place and judging by recent polls, it appears that the unlikely candidate, the boorish, unpolished, yet small c-conservative and grassroots candidate is about to become the 64th mayor of Canada’s largest city. Internal nightly poll summaries of the Ford campaign are also showing the same; Ford leading by about 9 points and growing over the past couple of days.
The geography encompasses 22 federal and 22 provincial ridings, the population exceeding 5 million, in a jurisdiction that represents more people than the entire province of British Columbia. The fight for Toronto is by no means a small operation. Ford has two fully staffed offices, this one in the east end and the other in Rexdale. The Rexdale office used to be an old Swiss Chalet counter that had grease infused into the walls when I toured it a few short months ago, before I was offered and accepted work on the campaign. Thankfully, the building is all cleaned up and serves as Ford’s campaign hub west of Yonge. At the start of the campaign, when they cleaned the ducts, the office was so rank that campaign volunteers set up outdoors for a day. Ford’s label factory in Etobicoke has even served to house some campaign workers including Nick Kouvalis, Ford’s deputy campaign manager, who slept in the office and had access to a shower just off of the factory floor. The scope of any competitive campaign in the city is complex, rounds of tele-townhalls and robo-calls have been conducted by both the Ford campaign and that of his main competitor, former McGuinty cabinet minister George Smitherman. The technology is fairly new in the Canadian context. Indeed many process stories have been written about the tactics during this campaign. On the topic of tactics, a campaign volunteer told me that earlier this week, there was an amusing opportunity to acquire a huge hot air balloon shaped like a train for election day. The campaign planned to put a banner on it with “Stop the Gravy Train. Vote Rob Ford”, however, the balloon was in the Netherlands at the time and the Toronto-based owner couldn’t get it back to the city by Monday.
The “Gravy Train” has become the mainline message of the Rob Ford campaign. A huge swath of voters — prior to the municipal campaign — were found to respond strongly to messages that acknowledged waste and mismanagement at city hall. Lucky for Ford, as a city councillor he had a strong reputation as a combative figure at city hall on these same topics.
It is also no wonder that Rob Ford has become the topic of conversation around the cabinet table in Ottawa. The implications of a Toronto mayor, a conservative mayor, and an unpredictable factor in Rob Ford has the Conservatives wondering about the shifting electoral landscape in Toronto. If Rob Ford represents the populist anger of the exploited yet neglected taxpayer in Toronto, will Ford provide a safety valve to vent pressure against incumbent governments? Will he blaze a path in the Toronto wilderness for Conservatives? How anchored to Ford are federal and provincial fortunes in Toronto?
For Conservatives, their advance scout in Toronto and the evolving demographic landscape has been Jason Kenney. The Minister of “curry in a hurry” was in also in Toronto this week speaking about the Conservative government’s new human smuggling legislation. This bill is the other half of the government’s earlier and successful efforts on refugee reform, legislation that became law just a few months ago. Liberals are still scratching their heads on the Conservative pivot vis-a-vis connecting with new Canadians. Waves of immigration came to Canada under Liberal governments in the preceding decades and many by default found their allegiance with the Liberal Party. Painted as anti-immigrant and anti-ethnic by their opponents, Conservatives are finding that appealing to the values instead of the identities of new Canadians is winning them over. In religion, as in politics, the most faithful are often the converts.
A campaign worker looks up from a phone call and asks if anyone in the busy office speaks Mandarin or Cantonese, the phone is passed to Bo Chen, another worker and the call is answered without missing a beat. “She’s voting for Rob,” the mandarin-speaking Bo explains after finishing the call. Ford’s fortunes among New Canadians has been another unwritten and snidely dismissed story of this campaign. Polling among voters born outside of Canada has been favourable to Ford according to an Ekos report that was released earlier this week showing a 20 point lead among people whom have been traditionally treated as a block and as one to be pandered to by the former political establishment. Ford famously said that “Oriental people work like dogs”. Bo admits that this statement by Ford was his first exposure to the uncouth councillor. His interest was peaked and he signed up for the campaign shortly after, “We do work hard”.
For Rob Ford, the political establishment cannot fathom how the plain-talking, politically incorrect Ford is winning over ethnic voters. “Ethnic voters, like anyone else, are concerned about wasteful spending at City Hall. Where the left panders to ethnic communities, Ford has treated these constituents like anyone else. And, he provides great service,” said Richard Ciano, Ford’s pollster.
Every good campaign is won by hard work, innovation of new techniques, successful execution of previously learned strategies, understanding your voters, seamlessly passing the torch from one tired group of workers to another, and by managing the chaos of the maddening exercise of mass persuasion into an effective machine. We’ve got about 48 hours until the polls close here in Toronto. We are on our way to seeing a conservative mayor in the city of Toronto.