Meet the Man Who Lost to Rob Ford

George Smitherman lost the 2010 race for mayor of Toronto to a man who has become the world’s political disaster porn. Here’s how it happened.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford sits during a Toronto City Council meeting at City Hall on November 15, 2013 in Toronto, Canada .
National Journal
Matt Berman
See more stories about...
Matt Berman
Nov. 19, 2013, midnight

In 2010, George Smither­man did something that today seems im­possible: The former deputy premi­er of Ontario lost the Toronto may­or­al elec­tion to Rob Ford, the one-man ab­surd­ist high­light reel.

Is Smither­man, who lost to Ford 47 per­cent to 36 per­cent, sur­prised at just how far the may­or has fallen? “You can’t look at a shit show like that and say that some of it doesn’t sur­prise you,” he tells Na­tion­al Journ­al. “But I think that in a cer­tain sense, you can see that there was a pol­ish placed around him that was kind of gruel thin.”

How did Ford win? Two cru­cial factors, ac­cord­ing to Smither­man: a lack of party polit­ics, and a con­ser­vat­ive-pop­u­list wave. “In 2010 in Toronto,” Smither­man tells Na­tion­al Journ­al, “there’s a fair bit of sim­il­ar­ity to the tea party dur­ing its as­cend­ency.” You had a situ­ation where an in­cum­bent, two-term may­or had bowed out, and there was a strong sense in the pub­lic that spend­ing was out of con­trol. “The Ford gang very ef­fect­ively defined the bal­lot ques­tion on this fisc­al basis, and neatly tied it up with a simple mes­sage around ‘stop the gravy train.’ “

Smither­man thinks he bore the brunt of Toronto’s anti-in­cum­bency fever, des­pite also be­ing “pissed off at [the may­or’s] pro­gress and his re­cord.” And once the, ac­cord­ing to Smither­man, ul­tra-right Ford was able to spin the more lib­er­al Smither­man as a politi­cian tied to that ad­min­is­tra­tion’s spend­ing, it was hard to change the dy­nam­ic.

Part of that dif­fi­culty came from Toronto’s polit­ic­al sys­tem, where parties are largely ab­sent. “It was ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to get kind of a head-to-head con­trast, be­cause there’s no party polit­ics at play in mu­ni­cip­al polit­ics in Toronto, and, ac­cord­ingly, no dis­cip­line on the num­ber of pro­filed can­did­ates.” Dozens of people ran for the may­or’s of­fice that year, and about five man­aged to stick out among the field, in­clud­ing Ford and Smither­man. Ford be­nefited, Smither­man says, by the massive roster. “He found a lot of com­fort and cov­er in the pack.”

But Smither­man, who is care­ful not to sound like he spends his time brood­ing over sour grapes, doesn’t just put all of the blame for his loss on out­side factors. “I was too nice,” he says. “I had a repu­ta­tion at one time in polit­ics where my nick­name was ‘Furi­ous George.’ But I ac­tu­ally did not bring that char­ac­ter to play hardly at all.”

As Smither­man has it, his re­luct­ance to jump in the mud with Ford, com­bined with the strong sup­port for Ford among the con­ser­vat­ive press com­pared to Smither­man’s tep­id sup­port from the lib­er­al press, en­sured that no one would really dig through Ford’s re­cord. In ret­ro­spect, Smither­man says, it was “al­most a little bit of uni­lat­er­al dis­arm­a­ment.”

Ford also man­aged to be­ne­fit some by play­ing off of Smither­man’s sexu­al­ity. The Ford cam­paign put “sub­stan­tial ef­fort” in­to draw­ing a con­trast between Ford as a “lov­ing fam­ily man” and Smither­man, who is gay.

But des­pite the ugly cam­paign and the ugly everything-that-came-after, Toronto may not be through with May­or Ford. Be­cause of the city’s first-past-the-post elect­or­al sys­tem, Smither­man can ima­gine scen­ari­os where Ford gets reelec­ted. “You usu­ally think of the old style ana­lys­is of the Re­pub­lic­ans, who cam­paign to the base and move to the cen­ter,” Smither­man says. “I’m not sure it works that way any­more with these tea-party people; they cam­paign to the right then they stay there. That’s this guy. But ima­gine you could get elec­ted with 33 or 34 per­cent of the vote.”

Toronto may just be able to for­give its ever-apo­lo­giz­ing may­or. “I sup­pose it is in our DNA,” says Smither­man, “a city that was able to for­give its hockey team for a third-peri­od col­lapse in the play­offs last year is per­haps a city built on more for­give­ness than seems ima­gin­able.”

Which isn’t to say that Ford is already on the road to re­demp­tion. “I’m amongst those that agrees that if this guy had said, ‘Yeah, I really fucked up, and I do have some prob­lems, and I’m go­ing to step out of my role for a couple of months,’ if he had done that step and come back in­to it 10, or 20, or 30 pounds light­er, etcetra, etcetra, he really would’ve had the po­ten­tial to have the wind at his back. Now, he squandered that.”

Smither­man him­self isn’t look­ing for a 2014 re­match against the may­or. He sees a crazy year com­ing, no mat­ter how little power Ford tech­nic­ally re­tains. But he holds hope that Toronto will re­ject the forces that first re­jec­ted him. “There’s people of a cer­tain class and char­ac­ter, even if they like the fisc­al bit of it, you can only hold your nose so much be­fore it starts to hurt.”

What We're Following See More »
BAD NEWS FOR CLINTON
Trump and Clinton Equally Disliked
42 minutes ago
THE DETAILS

According to the most recent Gallup poll, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are equally disliked. The poll, conducted between July 18 and July 25, shows both major party candidates for president are viewed favorably by 37 percent of respondents and unfavorably by 58 percent of respondents. This poll is bad news for Clinton, who has received better favorable and unfavorable ratings in nearly every poll over the last year.

Source:
VP PICK TAKES DIFFERENT TONE THAN TRUMP
Pence: “Serious Consequences” if Russia Hacked DNC
1 hours ago
THE DETAILS

The same day that Donald Trump encouraged Russia to hack the State Department and "find the 30,000 emails that are missing," the GOP nominee for vice president took a more serious approach. "If it is Russia and they are interfering in our elections, I can assure you both parties and the United States government will ensure there are serious consequences," Pence said in a statement. Trump's comments at a press conference this morning were rebuked by individuals across the political spectrum, while some on Trump's team, including prominent surrogate Newt Gingrich, have called his comments a "joke."

Source:
ECONOMY STABILIZING
Fed Leaves Rates Alone, but Signals Hikes to Come
3 hours ago
THE DETAILS

The Federal Open Market Committee today voted to leave interest rates alone, but "upgraded its assessment of the economy’s recent performance and said near-term risks to the outlook have diminished, effectively leaving the door open to raise rates later this year, possibly as early as September."

Source:
CHARM OFFENSIVE
Pence Is Trump’s Man on Capitol Hill
4 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Spurred by VP pick Mike Pence, a former congressman with close ties to many lawmakers, the Trump campaign in recent weeks has stepped up its courtship of wary Capitol Hill Republicans. And the efforts appear to be bearing fruit." Central to the charm offensive: invitations to more than a dozen "Senate and House members into his family’s private box for some power-schmoozing with him and his kids" during the Republican National Convention.

Source:
PAUL RYAN: STOP IT
Trump Encourages More Spying by Russia
5 hours ago
THE LATEST

Donald Trump essentially encouraged more Russian espionage against Democrats in a press conference this morning. "Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” That prompted Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan to say: “Russia is a global menace led by a devious thug. Putin should stay out of this election.”

Source:
×