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
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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.”

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