Consider for a moment the improbable parallels between the newly re-elected mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and Toronto’s scandal-embroiled leader, Rob Ford. Both are outspoken, gaffe-prone conservatives with a clownish fallibility that is as appealing to voters as it is often appalling. Both have been underestimated to the ultimate detriment of their political opponents and are defined by their obsession with bikes. (Johnson rides his everywhere while Ford would like to see them more or less banned from the roads.) Both loathe unions and graffiti, love senior citizens and commuters and never saw a tax they didn’t want to cut. Even their names lend themselves to similar diminutives: BoJo and RoFo. Creepy, huh?
Their similarities even extend to their oddly distinctive looks. Zaftig, rumple-suited and childishly tow-headed, the two men share a squishable Pillsbury Doughboy quality that belies a deeper ambition and steel. To the unacquainted, both mayors appear vulnerable and as slow-moving as overfed lab rats, and yet each managed to storm city hall on his first attempt despite the cards being stacked against him. More remarkable still, both accomplished this feat in roughly the same way—by tirelessly courting the outlying edges of their respective cities rather than the downtown core. Here in London, political commentators described this effect as the “Boris doughnut,” while in downtown Toronto, they call it “revenge of the suburbs.” In both cases, appealing to the suburbs is a strategy that’s worked well—in Johnson’s case twice. Last week the London mayor was re-elected over his Labour rival Ken Livingstone by a narrow three percentage point margin, a crucial win for the British Tories who were otherwise humiliated in recent local elections across the country.
Ford, who won’t face re-election until late 2014 (presuming he decides to run), has also been in the news lately, but for far less happy reasons. His feud with the Toronto Star newspaper, which began during the 2010 election campaign, reached new heights recently during a confrontation outside his home between himself and Daniel Dale, one of that paper’s city hall reporters. Ford insists his family was being spied on, while Dale claims he was chased and intimidated into dropping his cellphone and tape recorder by the 300-plus-lb. mayor who allegedly approached him with “a fist cocked as if he wanted to punch me.” (Each denies the other’s version of events. Police are investigating whether any crime was committed.) One thing is certain: Ford’s already strong dislike of the Star is now an official hate-on. After years of refusing the Star interviews, he is now threatening to avoid all media scrums that include any Star reporter and also wants Dale taken off his beat—a request the paper’s management has unsurprisingly refused to grant.
Which brings us to the front on which the two mayors sharply diverge: media relations. Despite his bumbling, off-the-cuff demeanour, there’s little doubt Boris Johnson has hidden polish and an understanding of the press. He has a classics degree from Oxford, an accomplished career history as both a journalist and MP, and an idiosyncratic verbosity. (He once described the Liberal Democrats as “a void within a vacuum surrounded by a vast inanition” and Tony Blair as “Harry Houdini crossed with a greased piglet.”) In other words, Johnson is an unapologetic member of the very urban elite that a self-professed “regular guy” like Ford rejects. While educated inner-city liberals may not vote for Johnson en masse, at least he has the advantage of understanding them. Even those Londoners who don’t support Johnson find him entertaining.
Ford, on the other hand, tends to enrage his critics more than he endears himself to them. When it comes to dealing with the media, and by extension “downtown elites,” Ford would be wise to court the enemy the way his London counterpart does: by joking around in a goofy but incessantly human way. Like BoJo, RoFo has a colourful way with words, though his are more to the point. “Every single person said I should have just cooked the guy,” he said of Dale. So far, Ford has lacked the ability to deflect and diffuse with humour—a quality which could go a long way to resurrecting his public image, and which buffoonish and morally suspect politicians have been using to their advantage forever (see Silvio Berlusconi for details).
While the two municipal politicians diverge in their weaknesses (Johnson’s is women; Ford’s is mouthing off), they are united in their charms. As Johnson’s biographer Andrew Gimson recently wrote of his subject’s victory, “What people really appreciated was his candour. He sounded more honest than most politicians do. The unpopularity of some of the causes he espoused helped to make him sound more principled and gave him ‘authenticity.’” The same words could, and in many ways do, apply to Ford. Whether he’ll ride to a second victory like Johnson is another question entirely. Ford’s path might look similar but you can bet he won’t be on a bike.