Earlier in Toronto’s election season, back in July, Mayor Rob Ford, fresh out of rehab, went glad-handing along a Canada Day parade route. The crowd heckled and booed, and a man who was jogging by stopped to make his views known: “You liar! You racist! You’re a disgrace!” he shouted. “This guy here? He’s a joke!”
The mayor’s cancer diagnosis, which caused him to cede his place in the campaign to his brother Doug, a member of the City Council, came later; Rob Ford was already a faded act by then. Torontonians were sick of their fool king.
Now that Toronto’s most famous and most grotesque son will definitely not be mayor again, the mild-mannered citizens of Toronto will go to the polls with some relief on Oct. 27. After four years of being led by a violent addict, the quiet life has a profound appeal.
But the quiet life may no longer be possible in Toronto politics. The campaign has been, by Canadian standards, brutal. Debates have frequently devolved into screaming matches between groups of partisans brought in for the purpose. A heckler shouted “Go back to China” at the mayoral candidate Olivia Chow. Munira Abukar, a Somali-Canadian candidate for City Council, found campaign signs scrawled with “go back home” and “bitch.” In a city that prides itself on its openness and politeness, this dirtiness and savagery are unpleasant novelties.
Candidates are not allowed to be backed by parties in Ontario’s municipal politics, meaning that Toronto’s contest is effectively one of personality.
The two front-runners are Doug Ford — Rob’s brother — and John Tory, with Mr. Tory holding a narrow lead in recent polls. They have indulged in the uniquely charmless rhetoric of rich white men calling each other privileged. Doug Ford has insisted that John Tory is “from a whole different world,” a downtown elite accustomed to the “silver platter.”
While Mr. Ford has a point — Mr. Tory’s father was a founder of one of the city’s most powerful law firms, and he is a descendant of a lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia — it is a surprising argument from a man who inherited a multimillion-dollar company from his father and who owns a series of vacation properties. Ms. Chow, an Asian-Canadian whose mother worked in a hotel laundry and whose father delivered Chinese food, is running a clear third.
Doug Ford stumbled into a quagmire of his own making when an outsider candidate, Ari Goldkind, brought up his brother’s infamous anti-Semitic remarks (Rob Ford once referred to Jews as “kikes”), and Doug claimed that he himself couldn’t be anti-Semitic because his doctor, his dentist, his lawyer and his accountant were all Jewish. When he was booed, he claimed his wife was Jewish, which, it turns out, she isn’t.
The drama is vicious and ludicrous in exact proportion to its pointlessness. Despite the theatrics, Toronto remains an actual progressive’s paradise. During Rob Ford’s tenure, all-day kindergarten was implemented and the minimum wage was raised to $11 — decisions made at the provincial level, where grown-ups run things. The “weak mayor” system — in which the mayor has one vote among 44 others on the City Council — means that Torontonians are free to engage in as much angry symbolism as they care to in their choice of mayor.
That anger comes from a city that is in the middle of immense economic and population changes. The size and the diversity of the city, swelling beyond what its infrastructure was designed to hold, have made Toronto vastly wealthier and more interesting than it has ever been, but also more complicated. Toronto is becoming more difficult to navigate, both physically and emotionally. The city’s motto is “Diversity Our Strength,” but rising inequality is putting that motto to the test. Toronto is now 51 percent foreign-born, while the power establishments remain predominantly white. Doug Ford and John Tory represent two different paths. Mr. Tory is a way back to the old WASP elites with their unspeakably vast sense of entitlement and their fundamental decency and good sense; Mr. Ford — who, according to The Globe and Mail, was a hash dealer in his youth — represents a continuation of the rage-and-impotence festival of the past four years.
Toronto is like a quiet middle-aged man who has indulged in a huge bender and has to decide whether to crawl back to his old life or just keep on going. Whoever follows Rob Ford will most likely not appear on “Jimmy Kimmel” or on the front pages of newspapers in Africa or as a mannequin on a New Orleans Mardi Gras float. That show is over. Now we find out: How nasty are we really?
Stephen Marche is a novelist and a contributing editor at Esquire magazine.