On Oct. 27, Torontonians will head to the polls to pick a mayor, or to ensure that the incumbent stays as far away from the title as possible. So far, pundits are under the impression that Toronto’s already crowded municipal race may split the city’s right-wing vote nearly four ways, making Toronto’s left—and, quite possibly, Olivia Chow (who is expected to announce her candidacy this month)—very happy, come Oct. 28. After all, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has not one, but two formidable conservative competitors in the running for the city’s top job: John Tory, former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, registered to run late last month; so did Karen Stintz, the former chair of the Toronto Transit Commission and, for a time, a Ford ally. Also in the running is little-known city Councillor David Soknacki, a fiscally prudent centrist who favours the light-rail-transit proposal Ford regularly trashes. It’s thought that Torontonians wary of a polarizing, lefty figure such as Chow, but equally put off by Ford’s substance abuse problems, may opt for a candidate who is fiscally responsible and socially bland. Soknacki has played perfectly into this perceived desire for dullness with a cheeky campaign poster displaying his photo alongside the tagline, “Never heard of me? Neither has Jimmy Kimmel.” It’s a clever strategy and it’s gotten a fair amount of attention. But it may be less astute than many of us would hope.
Voters appreciate celebrity more than they let on, even at its most depraved. The rule, remember, is that name recognition matters most in politics, not the quality of the person attached to the name. And there is no name more known and less lauded in North America right now than Rob Ford’s. On a bizarre impromptu trip to L.A. this past weekend, arranged, allegedly, to support Toronto’s film industry, Ford embraced his star power in perfect Kardashian form. Shortly after the Oscars let out on Sunday night, the mayor stumbled deliberately onto the set of Jimmy Kimmel Live, pretending he had forgotten that his official appearance was scheduled for the following evening. “Sorry, Jimmy,” he said to raucous laughter and applause.
Ford critics expected that, once the mayor landed in L.A., he’d crash Hollywood parties while drunk and stoned, entrenching himself deeper into scandal. Instead, he was on cue, hamming up his bumbling-idiot persona before a live audience and millions of viewers eager, and apparently happy, to see him.
On Monday at midnight, in a garish black suit and red tie, Ford appeared on the talk show again, where he let Kimmel pat down his famously moist, rubescent brow with a Kleenex. Kimmel, who was infinitely tougher on Ford than any Canadian broadcaster ever, trotted out the mayor’s skeletons one by one: the crack use, the homophobia, the racism, the accusations of domestic abuse. On late-night TV, though, even the most damning barbs fail to sting. “That’s all you’ve got?” Ford asked, grinning. Once again, his punchline was met with raucous laughter and applause. Kimmel may have grilled Ford in ways Peter Mansbridge and Stephen LeDrew never did and never will, but the medium of late-night comedy enabled the mayor to dismiss every serious accusation levelled at him with an awkward chuckle. Many Toronto viewers, tired of watching the mayor run from uncomfortable questions at city hall into the bosom of his Escalade, remarked on social media that Kimmel’s affable grilling was “cathartic.” The question is, will they find it so cathartic if his approval rating rises in the wake of a celebrity tour? Will they find it cathartic if he wins the election in October?
It’s almost symbolic that Ford’s political resilience in the face of multiple substance abuse scandals should occur at a time when we’re bingeing, too—not on crack cocaine, but on the Netflix series House of Cards. Its star character, Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, inches his way up the political ladder at a glacial pace via schemes so intricate, Machiavelli would have a hard time dissecting them. Power isn’t seized in the world of House of Cards. It’s cultivated, like a garden, and protected closely. One wrong move and it withers and dies.
Those skeptical of Ford’s chances in October following the mayor’s awkward trip to Tinseltown seem to have forgotten that, in the real world—which is to say, in the world of Rob Ford—power is not nearly as precarious. A bad tie and an embarrassing interview on a talk show will not be the death knell of a man who walks around proudly with his dirty laundry airing out in public.
“One gets the distinct sense Rob Ford will regret chasing this celebrity turn,” Jian Ghomeshi tweeted amid Ford’s roast on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Maybe. But nowhere near as much as we’d regret underestimating the staying power of the celebrity himself.