Rob Ford floats

The natural buoyancy of a beleaguered mayor

Jon Blacker/Reuters

Yesterday, Rob Ford’s lawyers succeeded in extracting him from the last snafu that threatened to remove him from office. This time, his campaign finances were under scrutiny. It seems Ford’s 2010 mayoral campaign took some liberties with their accounting. For instance, an auditor testified that the campaign took a $77,722.73 loan from Doug Ford Holdings, Ford’s family company, while the law says candidates can only get loans from the bank. It had the family printing firm do up signs and buttons before the campaign started and took its sweet time paying them for it. It counted campaign events as fundraisers, which, you’ll be fascinated to learn, are very different things under Ontario election law.

In other news, a Forum poll of 806 Torontonians showed that the mayor is more popular than he’s been in months, with a 48% approval rating. I’m here to tell you that the age of miracles is not yet ended: Rob Ford’s gift of political anti-gravity has not left him yet.

Yesterday’s session was a tribute to low expectations. Ford and his team faced a three-person committee of venerable lawyers and election officials whose job was, in essence, to decide whether to press charges against him. Had the panel voted against Ford, the case would have been prosecuted before a judge.

For all the apparent contraventions, the auditor reported that Ford’s campaign finances were, on the whole, professionally run and well-documented. On the other hand, Ford’s lawyer, Tom Barlow, offered a lengthy defence that went something like this:

a) Not knowing the difference between personal funds and company funds was a definite oops, but Ford has learned his lesson;

b) The infractions didn’t make a difference in a handily-won vote;

c) It was a big $2-million campaign and mistakes happen. Whaddaya gonna do? [elaborate shrug]

Finally, Barlow looked meaningfully at the judges and summed it all up: “The perfect should not be permitted to be the enemy of the good,” he said. Then: “Nor should the Act be permitted to become an electoral weapon for those who wish to have a second chance.” For all the accounting, it was the classic Ford story: Rob Ford is a hard-working guy who makes a lot of honest mistakes and is victimized by his enemies.

The first member moved to prosecute Ford, but the other two refused. Ford, who had been sitting almost stone-still for hours, got up, shook his lawyers’ hands and hastened for the exit with his brother, pursued by a dozen reporters.

So how is Rob Ford doing in the face of all this? Just fine, by the looks of things. His enemies continue to do their part for him. This financial audit, of course, comes thanks to some of the same antagonists who brought you “Let’s Kick Rob Ford Out for Conflict of Interest.” Depending on who you ask, they’re either citizens bent on doing the hard democratic work of holding politicians to account, or partisans who will stop at nothing to bring down their enemies. (I rather sense they’re both at once.)

And here, Ford’s popularity is rising again, despite everything, or perhaps because of it. A series of legal proceedings, each one harder to explain in a soundbite than the last, has supplied him with all the persecution he needs. In Montreal, they stuff safes so full of cash they can’t be closed. In Toronto, the mayor gets investigated for renting an $840 bus just before filing his nomination papers. Public sentiment mysteriously fails to ignite.

You can take two views about the nature of Rob Ford. One is that he is doomed by his own vices. The other is this: Contrary to all laws of nature, Rob Ford floats.

When negatives refuse to stick to a politician, we typically start talking about Teflon. With Ford, I prefer to think the man has a natural buoyancy. When he is not actively weighing himself down with self-destruction, his support will rise.

The catch with Ford, of course is that the more he tries to govern, the more he self-destructs. So to achieve maximum buoyancy, all he has to do is nothing: Cut ribbons, fulminate on talk radio, lose stunt votes against community spending. The good news for him is that the vaguaries of the mayor’s job description make this entirely workable in practice, and reasonably saleable at the polls.

And if Rob Ford floats, it’s because he lives in an environment where the standards are low. And perhaps this is his greatest political talent: To lower the expectations in whatever contest he enters. Just as he’s redefining the mayor’s job downwards, he’s now managed to pull campaign finance under his spell. Are future campaigns now being told that it’s passable to blunder as the Fords did? Or that it’s okay, only as long as one can act as generally helpless in the face of details as Ford does?

“The perfect should not be permitted to be the enemy of the good,” said Ford’s lawyer. As if we’ve been at risk of approaching either.