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The challenge / With no allies at city hall, new mayor must adjust his ways before he can deliver change

Headshot of Marcus Gee

Say what you want about the shortcomings of Robert Bruce Ford (and there is much to say), he tapped into something deep and real in his triumphant campaign to become mayor of Toronto.

People around the city, he rightly said, are fed up. Fed up with governments that tax and tax and seem to give little in return.

With his big win on Monday, Mr. Ford has been given a rare chance to bring about the change people so clearly desire. As he said in his victory speech, voters "want change and they want respect for their money. ... Together we will change the way the city is run."

But can he really deliver the big changes he promises? If so, he himself will have to change first. Before he ran for mayor, Mr. Ford was an isolated city councillor who often failed to understand the issues he was ranting about at city council. As a candidate, he ran on a series of simplistic slogans that say nothing about the real problems of a grown-up city. His plan to slash $2.8-billion from city spending without laying anyone off or cutting any city services does not come close to adding up.

The question now is whether he can raise his game and become something more than the angry, sputtering gadfly he often comes across as.

To do so, he will have to drop some of the us-versus-them attitude and reach out to allies in council and beyond. He will have to acknowledge that not all civil servants are coddled time servers. He will have to accept that the real problems of city hall finance go far beyond free Metropasses for councillors or the amount they pay the guy who waters the plants in City Hall.

This will be a challenge for Mr. Ford.

In a system where there are no political parties and his vote is only one among 45, a mayor can get things done only if he can persuade others to join his cause. Mr. Ford has shown none of those political skills. In all his years on council, he never made a real ally, not even among like-minded right-leaning councillors.

His grasp of the issues beyond "waste at city hall" is shallow. Asked about his environmental policy at a mayoral debate, he said that his father always told him to turn out the lights. As for development of the long-neglected waterfront, an aim of every mayor for years, he said: "The waterfront. We can't afford that." It is hard to imagine him representing Toronto to Canada and the world.

The good news is that some of the dumbest things he promises will be hard to achieve. Tearing up streetcar lines after the city has spent millions on new tracks and devoted more millions to new cars is probably a non-starter. So is cancelling the whole Transit City project of light rapid transit lines to the inner suburbs, a massive multibillion-dollar project that is mostly funded by Queen's Park, not the city.

The further good news - for taxpayers anyway - is that his big win, surprising in its scope, gives him the moral authority to do things like kill two unpopular taxes, on vehicle registration and land transfers. He also has a good chance of success with tougher stuff like ending the Fair Wage policy on union pay rates.

If he can change attitudes and improve basic services, he will win enormous credit. As a councillor, Mr. Ford made a point of personally returning phone calls from constituents - tens of thousands of them over the years, he claimed. In Etobicoke last weekend, I met a man, a Sikh immigrant to Toronto, who had called Mr. Ford about low water pressure at his house. Mr. Ford came over in person to take a look. He never forgot the gesture. In a city - indeed a country - where people are used to brusque, impersonal, tardy service from the agents of government, that stuff is pure political gold.

Though the vehicle voters have chosen to deliver it is questionable, the thirst for change is heartening. Every political system needs a kick from time to time. Just by beating the odds and winning election, Mr. Ford has delivered a big one. But ranting and raving is easy. Now he has to switch it up and do something entirely different. He has to become a mayor.

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