There’s a talent called “the common touch:” the ability to connect, on an emotional level with a significant population. This is something that Rob Ford’s detractors, now that he’s passed on, are finally admitting that he had.
All politicians in modern democracies try to lay claim to this, in the belief that it enhances their electability; few people can actually demonstrate it. It doesn’t depend on the politician’s background; Ford came from a rich family, but his personal work ethic in office was geared towards constituent service; Rick Salutin has a convincing explanation as to why. It’s more likely to occur at the local level than at the regional or national; London’s old mayor Boris Johnson is probably the politician who comes closest to Ford when it comes to this talent.
The “common touch” is valuable in getting elected, but it has one great benefit: it keeps the politician politically viable in the face of voracious opposition or crippling scandal. Think of Washington, DC’s Marion Barry, who had substance-abuse scandals even worse than Ford’s; he did jail time, but still managed to get elected to a fourth term as mayor.
What’s interesting about Ford’s version of the “common touch” is that he was willing to work to maintain it:
Unlike colleagues who dealt only with constituent issues staffers brought to their attention, he spent his days personally returning phone calls about cracked sidewalks and uncollected garbage. . . .
“He would tell anyone who asked [about] how to get elected,” says [former Ford chief of staff Mark] Towhey, “and the advice was simple: return people’s phone calls, and go to their doors. But very few politicians like doing that. They want to be the general, not the private in the trenches.”
Naturally, my home being Ottawa, I can’t go thirty seconds in a social conversation without politics creeping in. Whenever the subject of Rob Ford came up, some people disapproved of this “personal touch” aspect of his mayoralty. “That’s someone else’s job,” they said, “leave that stuff to them. The mayor should be about the big picture.”
I’m not sure about that. I think Ford’s philosophy of “go to the doors” is a perfectly valid one, because it never lets the politician forget that “the taxpayer” isn’t a source of revenue, but a master to be served, who grades performance every election day. Whereas “big picture” thinking usually results in megaprojects with big costs, major inconveniences and returns below expectations, for a vision that changes with each new bum in the mayor’s chair.
One other thing about Ford’s work ethic. If American Republican Party politicians had adapted it, and kept it, during the Reagan and subsequent administrations, they wouldn’t be having a Donald Trump problem now.