Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/8/2012 (3282 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
One of my greatest guilty pleasures these days is reading anything and everything about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, the controversial populist who is to journalists what winning Lotto 6/49 is to pensioners: the greatest gift of all.
Late last month, Ford was again making headlines for all the wrong reasons. This time, it was a minor flap over the car he was driving. Actually, car doesn't quite accurately describe the $85,000 black Cadillac Escalade the mayor of Canada's largest city is navigating back and forth to work.
The car was a birthday present from his brothers, Randy and Doug, the latter a Toronto city councillor. Few people who follow Hogtown civic politics were surprised the man who promised to end perks at city hall would allow his brothers to buy him a car that is a universal metaphor for people who have more money than brains. The brothers Ford are a train constantly in search of a wreck.
Yet it's probably fair to ask ourselves: Is this a story at all? Toronto journalists are still debating the newsworthiness of Caddy-gate. Many scribes at the Toronto Star, the newspaper that broke the story and which has been declared persona non grata by the Fords, were unrepentant, suggesting it was just another hypocritical gesture by a politician who has failed to conjure the populist nirvana he promised when he was elected. Others, especially those who did not break the story, found it unworthy of mention.
While journalists may debate the newsworthiness of Ford's ride, there is no doubt experienced politicians know the public watches closely what cars they drive, the clothes they wear and what they do in their spare time. Although it's hardly surprising a prominent politician makes enough money to afford a nice car and some decent threads, it's never a good idea to flaunt that in front of taxpayers.
So it was appropriate that on the morning I had been studying the latest news on Toronto city hall's Caddy-gate, I ran into Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz at the Midtown Car Wash, gregarious as always. I asked Katz if he heard about Rob Ford's grief over his new car.
"No," Katz said, and without skipping a beat, added in an urgent tone, "and for the record, I drive a minivan." True to his word, there was a freshly washed 2011 Toyota Sienna van getting its final rubdown from the Midtown workers. A nice van, but a poor comparison on the bling scale to Ford's Escalade.
Katz has, at times, shown little concern about what people think of his lifestyle, particularly the amount of time he spends at his vacation property in Phoenix. He is also a man who had, in his previous private-sector life, a penchant for hideously expensive sports cars.
However, it's clear even he knows the danger of driving a too-nice car around Winnipeg. A member of the mayor's staff insisted Katz drives only the van now, and that unlike, say, the premier, he had to buy it himself. The city provides a mileage allowance, but the mayor covers upfront costs.
Over at the Manitoba legislature, Premier Greg Selinger's staff were more than happy to tell me he drives a 2010 Ford Escape Hybrid, an SUV that can fit neatly in the back of Ford's Escalade.
This model was all the rage back in 2007, when then-premier Gary Doer and then-Tory leader Hugh McFadyen dumped the campaign bus for an Escape Hybrid. Both campaigns suggested the vehicles demonstrated how concerned the leaders were with the environment. In fact, the choice of campaign vehicles had nothing to do with policy; it was a stunt, pure and simple. If they wanted to be truly environmentally friendly, they would have campaigned on public transit.
Should we care about what cars our politicians ride around in? Certainly, all public servants have a responsibility to spend taxpayer money wisely. They are afforded certain benefits, and misusing them is a recipe for disaster. Just ask the former senior administrators in Alberta's health-care system, who have been eviscerated for their lavish expense accounts. Good public servants always anticipate the image they project, to ensure they don't look too fat or happy.
Caddy-gate reminded me of a story I wrote in 2005 when then-premier Doer was getting a new car. After much arm-twisting, he admitted he was getting a new Ford Freestyle, a rather large all-wheel-drive SUV. Doer said he picked the vehicle because it was relatively fuel-efficient, able to handle all conditions and had been weather-tested in northern Manitoba. Plus it seated six adults, a good thing for a premier who, by necessity, has to travel with a herd of staff.
Is that six adults, comfortably? Doer quickly raised a finger of objection, lest I get the wrong idea. "I didn't say comfortably."
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.