The Politics of Resentment

8 Nov

What does the Rob Ford scandal have to do with Erie County politics? At first glance, there are no similarities. 

While Buffalo’s mayor is a mild-mannered, African-American professional who has henchmen and cronies to do his dirty work whilst he is out cutting ribbons, Toronto’s mayor is a blond-haired, 300-pound, lying, crack-smoking drunkard who is as completely in denial as he is out of control and enabled by his own henchmen and cronies

As Buffalo struggles to find its way amidst a storm of population loss, educational crisis, crime, lack of jobs, and crushing poverty, Toronto is now the 4th largest city on the continent and growing. Toronto’s boom over the last 30 years has been amazing to see, and the city has invested in the infrastructure and quality of life changes that attract residents and businesses. It’s as if the Swiss ran New York City. 

Rob Ford, however, would not be mayor of Toronto if that city hadn’t undergone a change in the mid-50s to regional government, culminating in amalgamation in the late 1990s. Rob Ford is a politician who is of, and for, the Toronto suburbs. His home and political base of operations is in the western suburb of Etobicoke (the k is silent), which was dissolved as a separate political entity in 1998 and became part of Toronto. 

Ford’s refusal to resign has to do with his loyal fan base, known as “Ford Nation”. Xenophobic, urbanophobic, and virulently anti-tax, Ford Nation will back Rob and his city councillor brother Doug without question. This constituency sees in them the only hope for reducing government waste and lowering taxes; it is, simply put, a tax revolt cult of personality. 

No longer run by the Swiss, Toronto is instead being run by a loud tea party addict. Rob Ford has the personal cult and conservative anti-tax ethos of a Carl Paladino, the in-your-face obnoxiousness of Chris Christie, and the personal problems of a Marion Barry, Chris Farley, John Belushi, and Artie Lange. 

The City of Buffalo has almost nothing in common with Toronto, except perhaps a Great Lakes locus and climate, and having “City of” preceding its name. Toronto is a world-class city with a booming economy based on knowledge and creativity, while Buffalo is a grande dame-turned -provincial backwater with a struggling economy based on government handouts and nostalgia porn. Amalgamated Toronto has 44 city councillors, each representing about 55,000 residents, and a non-partisan city council, overseeing an $11 billion budget. 

But the lessons Toronto teaches us are the perils of regionalism, and the ugliness of the politics of insular suburban resentment. Rob Ford ran on a platform whereby he attacked former mayor David Miller. Miller was a charismatic Harvard-educated lawyer who cleaned up the lobbying system, rejuvenated Toronto’s waterfront, improved public transit, attacked unaccountable public authorities, demanded that landed immigrants be enfranchised, and made huge investments in public housing, child care, and other civic services. 

But with taxes being spent on social services for inner-city poor, the Ford Nation backlash came in 2010 with Ford’s platform of, “putting people and families first, focusing on the fundamentals, reducing waste and eliminating unnecessary taxes”.  He would do all this without cutting services. 

There’s nothing magical about suburban politicians sowing resentment against inner-city poor. We know that sort of thing all too well in Buffalo.

I’m not a big fan of the suburb/urban divide, and firmly believe that it’s incumbent on everyone to realize that our shrinking, poor region sinks or swims together. Toronto is swimming. At best, Buffalo is treading water. In a storm. Without a life vest. In winter. 

But what we saw on election day this past Tuesday was primarily brought about by one thing – low turnout. For the vast majority of people who aren’t political junkies, Tuesday’s elections were hardly exciting or compelling. Races for sheriff or comptroller don’t bring out the non-prime voters. When you add to the mix the fact that Byron Brown’s conspiracy with the county Republicans to completely ignore Republican Mayoral candidate Sergio Rodriguez helped to depress city turnout, Republican countywide candidates could be guaranteed an anemic Democratic turnout.

This wasn’t a campaign season based on ideas as much as it was based on tactical cynicism. So, Democrats had a bad cycle and will have to endure another year’s worth of concern-trolling from nominal Democrats who actively and passively helped to sabotage Democratic candidates to gain some unknown advantage in an internecine war they could end tomorrow. 

The only mandate anyone can claim based on Tuesday’s election is that people are so unmotivated and uninspired by local politics that 70% of them stayed home. “None of the above” won in a landslide, which allowed flawed incumbents to skate without breaking much of a sweat. 

Who can blame them? Who cares? What’s Stefan Mychajliw going to do? Chase headlines for 1 or 2 more years until he finds himself a promotion. Tim Howard will sit there and wait to collect his pension. The County Legislature will fight with Poloncarz over the small fraction of the county budget over which they have discretion in spending. They will demand more money for suburban roads and less money for things that people in the city count on, like culturals and social services. Our own Ford Nation will cynically deepen further the chasm between the city and suburbs – a chasm that distracts from ways to bridge the joys and richness of city living with the good government and prosperity of the suburbs.

The “us vs. them” mentality rings about resentment and bad policy in Toronto, as it does here. Urbanist philosopher Richard Florida is promoting a governmental “rethink” as he watches Toronto’s mayor embarrass itself with no recourse to deal with the problem. Part of this has to do with the new suburbanization of Canada, 60 years after America’s. Canadian commentators call the anti-urbanist suburban political blocs as the “New Hosers” with hockey commentator Don Cherry as their lord and king. 

Florida says cities succeed when they embrace diversity and creativity. He says that “creativity is the new economy“. He has a point, and Toronto is still growing and thriving in spite of its political problems. Buffalo, by contrast, has a political and regulatory system that stifles growth and creativity. It has a horrible transit system and dumb infrastructure. But most importantly, it is busy looking for silver bullets and attracting outsiders instead of making life better for the people already there. The schools are a Ford-like embarrassment on a daily basis, crime hasn’t been meaningfully addressed, there is no opportunity for poor residents, and jobs are few, far-between, and pay too little to attract talent to town. 

A good start would be a regional vision and plan. One that lifts all boats and reduces achievement gaps and resentment. A good start would be to focus on people’s quality of life and figure how to achieve the bare minimum of what constitutes good government.  Let’s give people good schools, safe streets, and fewer barriers to prosperity and growth. 

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8 Responses to “The Politics of Resentment”

  1. rhmaccallum November 8, 2013 at 8:35 am #

    “This wasn’t a campaign season based on ideas as much as it was based on tactical cynicism. ”
    That tactical approach is the science of not having voters vote. It’s not that hard, the Republican party has been tactically trying to minimize the city vote for a long time. But it is the voter that is to blame.
    Many simply don’t care and don’t see how voting affects their life and circumstances. They would rather spend their time philosophizing about the Bills, the Sabres or the latest neighborhood gossip.
    We need people to pay attention. We need people to value that hard won right of democracy…the vote. To do that we need inspired leadership. Instead we have leadership intent on maintaining their power, dominating the parties, Republican and Democratic, with their hand picked acolytes and handing out political plums to cronies and their campaign fund contributors.
    We need inspired leadership.
    Great article Alan.

  2. PaulWolf November 8, 2013 at 9:08 am #

    Great points Alan and rhmaccallum. We need inspired leadership and people who are paying attention.On 12/12/12, Chris Smith posted a great rant where he stated: “The bigger picture is that Buffalo and WNY are the way they are because you don’t really want it to be any different. You loathe the local political class, but you rarely vote. And if you do go out to vote? It’s to vote the same bums back into office or promote them to a higher one. You don’t get involved in your town or city political committee. You don’t donate to unproven candidates and you sure as shit don’t go out to petition or canvass for an underdog candidate. You want to magically will them into office with your supportive Facebook posts.

    There are dozens of other reasons that inform why the status quo is what it is, but why beat a dead horse? You are the status quo.

    Buffalo is the way it is because this is the way you want it. It’s your fault. Until you own that, nothing much is going to change.” If you have ever gone door to door to talk to people about a candidate you know how many people are simply not interested, In many ways people get the government they deserve. Is it people don’t care because our leaders suck or is it that our leaders suck, because people don’t care?

  3. Colin Eager November 8, 2013 at 10:48 am #

    Regionalism sounds nice, but there’s little reason to think it would end up much different than what we’ve seen in Toronto. History tells us that suburbanites (and white people generally) will fight tooth and nail to protect their advantages, so it’s hard to imagine a regionalism that actually redresses the inequalities that are enforced by the lines on the map.

  4. Hank Kaczmarek November 8, 2013 at 11:17 am #

    Lots of good stuff Alan. Pre Wilsonian Liberalism, “Culturals” were taken care of by the rich people. Names Like Albright, Knox, Adam, etc put up the money for things like Art and the Philharmonic. I’m totally against government being involved in spending the taxpayer’s money on “Culture”. I don’t know why Roosevelt got the idea that Government needed to be involved in helping the poor, but it’s water 80 years under the bridge. If government spent the money they spend on the poor wisely, I doubt I’d have an issue, as secularism has cut down a lot on charitable giving—why give YOUR money to help the poor—its the Governments’ job? Not.
    Toronto has always been a cool city—used to go up there in the late 60’s with a teacher of mine and sell macrame’ vests and purses to the freaks on Younge St. Now it’s very 1st world and cosmopolitan. And it seems that Toronto is as good as Buffalo when it comes to electing dysfunctional personalities into the Mayor’s office. I know you like Toronto a lot. Kind of surprised you’ve not looked into moving there. I once considered leaving the military and working as a PA on Indian reservations in Ontario. But Carter didn’t get re-elected.

  5. Andrew Kulyk November 8, 2013 at 3:49 pm #

    Along with the new spotlight on county dollars for rural road repair, you perhaps forgot to include that if things continue down the blueprint laid out, ground will soon be broken on a new health building at ECC north, further promalgating the ridiculous and unsustainable model of three community college campuses.

    That abomination of a “campus” at Main and Youngs needs to be bulldozed and the land sold to private interests and put back on the tax rolls, and the County needs to bring its students to a centralized and multi faceted campus downtown. Fat chance getting that notion across to the “new management”.

  6. john q November 8, 2013 at 10:15 pm #

    the adversaries of success in Buffalo are the guardians of the status quo and the small thinking parochial citizens in every corner of WNY. Three campuses? we could easily sustain 4 if we had aggressive programs and a growth mentality, yet small timers and small thinkers fight over city, north, south. Building high rise buildings on Main Street in Willamsville and Snyder, gasp, faint, a NIMBY fight……you ever visit the Queensway in Toronto?, High Park, Islington Village?, small tree lined streets fronted by high rise after high rise, sprinkled with vibrant restaurants, merchants, services………growth. By the way, those little brick capes a stones throw from the 31 story condos, run a cool 1.5 mil. Maybe the NIMBY crowd in every town (and the opportunistic politicians seeking the votes of a couple dozen neighbors that do not want their pristine view of the 290 and a muddy pond obstructed) and village in WNY should take notice. The growth in Toronto was base mostly on bringing in citizenry, and small business, and giving mom and dad a choice that’s not south of Maryland. You know what pristine view I would like to preserve, the pristine view of my sons and daughter and thier future grandchildren. You know what traffic I am concerned with? The traffic jam in my driveway on Thanksgiving and Christmas with family that can stay in Buffalo and proper upon the growth.

    We absolutely must think bigger in Buffalo………the small thinking has been indoctrinated into so many, left, right , center. Toronto’s growth was and is avarice, unbridled, and large. That is good my friends…..we need more hotels, more condos, more town homes, senior housing, more medical campuses, more ice rinks, more restaurants, more educational campus growth…..more brings more, especially with our lifestyle and cost effectiveness positioning giving us huge advantages in the new creativity and digital marketplace.

    We can do this Buffalo, think big, thing bigger.

  7. George Costanza November 10, 2013 at 11:16 pm #

    Why do you live in Buffalo if you dislike it so much?

    • Alan Bedenko November 11, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

      Because I don’t think it’s good enough in Goodenoughistan. Clearly, anyone who points out the fact that Buffalo isn’t a perfect place with the bestest street grid and the most singularly gorgeous and exclusionary over-water sunsets in the world should just move.

      I mean, America is doing so great, why do we even have elections? Anyone who doesn’t like it should just leave.

      Cretin.

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