Veteran Calgary MP Rob Anders’ narrow defeat in a federal Conservative nomination race proves that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is not invincible.
Torontonians, take heart. Veteran Calgary MP Rob Anders’ narrow defeat in a federal Conservative nomination race proves that Mayor Rob Ford is not invincible. Celebrity outspokenness notwithstanding, a “take no prisoners” brand appeal and bombastic style can be defeated. But as Anders’ late campaign surge showed, Ford will not go easily or quietly.
There are several striking parallels between Anders and Ford. Both present a distinct alternative to the programmed, artificial politicians around us. Both painted themselves as true-blue conservatives, fighting the tax-and-spend policies of the socialists and liberals they label everyone else. Both have had powerful political support from their party establishments
Anders’ latest nomination campaign received a last-minute flurry of robo-calls carrying Employment Minister Jason Kenney’s endorsement. Similarly, Rob Ford had counted on the support of numerous federal and provincial Conservative politicians until his latest drug travails, all of whom remained eager to curry his electoral popularity and his mailing lists.
Both politicians have conducted themselves as specialists in verbal bullying. Their reckless and abusive innuendo seems to be cut from the same cloth.
Among Mayor Ford’s many statements of note include calling a fellow councillor a “slithering snake,” saying that “oriental people work like dogs…they are slowly taking over,” describing the death of cyclists – “my heart bleeds…but it’s their own fault at the end of the day.”
Rob Anders labeled the late Nelson Mandela as a “communist and a terrorist”; he called a Canadian veteran with whom he disagreed an “NDP hack.” Many Conservatives disavowed Anders when he alleged that NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair “helped to hasten the death” of former leader Jack Layton.
Anders, like Ford, remains an acute embarrassment. Anders was accused of sleeping through Parliamentary presentations and Question Period. Anders was the only MP to vote against an otherwise unanimous House of Commons resolution bestowing honourary Canadian citizenship on Nelson Mandela.
Mayor Ford’s recent unconvincing excuses that he voted by mistake against naming a street in honour of Mandela and separately against honouring Canadian Olympians smack of the same scorched-earth approach to politics as Anders.
Both have played fast and loose with the truth; they needed to be caught repeatedly in outright misstatements before belatedly apologizing.
Anders was upbraided by Conservative party staff for misleading calls by his volunteers. While Ford blathers on about an alleged saving of $1 billion, an amount no one else can find, Anders claimed that Liberals and NDP supporters had switched political sides to defeat him in the latest nomination race but when challenged to name names, Anders was first adamant that he was right and only when caught out in mistakes was he apologetic. Sounds eerily similar to the approach taken by Ford with regard to his crack cocaine use.
There are many practical lessons to learn from how this 17-year Parliamentary veteran narrowly lost his nomination. Anders held a stranglehold through his supporters on the local riding executive and organizational apparatus, aided and abetted by a federal Conservative party establishment. But the 2015 electoral redistribution allowed disgruntled Conservatives to take matters into their own hands.
In a region where winning the official Conservative constituency nomination is tantamount to being guaranteed election, the anti-Anders crowd coalesced around a former Conservative provincial cabinet minister, Ron Liepert. While not a perfect candidate, there was a clear recognition that Job One remained getting rid of Rob Anders. Another candidate was convinced to withdraw from the race to ensure the anti-Anders votes did not split and let Anders come up the middle. Anders’ outside political support proved a liability and motivating factor among Liepert supporters.
In practical terms, Liepert beat Anders in selling association memberships; he had a dedicated organizational ground game to get out the vote against a masterful negative campaigner who rallied his troops against the progressives. These are the most important lessons and cautions to apply to Toronto’s current campaign.
While Rob Ford may be running behind in some early polls, his celebrity status, “everyman” positioning particularly among disaffected Torontonians, the current possibility of split anti-Ford votes, and poor voter turnout suggest that Ford, like Anders, can mount a stiff competitive challenge. Ford has organizational capacity and committed supporters that may prove formidable, despite all his ethical baggage. But the Anders defeat proves that his political soul mate, Rob Ford, can be beaten.
Hershell Ezrin is a leading Canadian business executive, political adviser and strategic communications consultant. He is a distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management.