There’s never been anyone like him. The drugs, the booze and the shambolic behaviour might summon past scandals to mind, but what politician has ever shown this tolerance for ostracism? In the last seven months, Rob Ford has morphed from embattled mayor to celebrity disaster scene—his florid visage a staple of late-night comedy shows, where funnymen savour dissonant phrases like “Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor.” George W. Bush is the last guy who should derive schadenfreude from the travails of a serial blunderer. But when Ford’s name came up during Bush’s recent appearance on the Tonight Show, the 43rd U.S. president felt free to throw back his head and laugh.
Friends, foes and federal cabinet ministers have tried in vain to get Ford to step aside. Council colleagues have urged him to seek help. Matt Lauer, host of NBC’s Today, scolded the mayor before the program’s five million-strong audience for putting his appetites before the interests of his city—a dressing down that Ford should have faced months ago from Canadian interviewers. “You have brought disgrace to this office,” charged Lauer, “and you know that’s true.”
Yet here Ford stands. “If you think American-style politics is nasty, you guys have just attacked Kuwait,” he told incredulous councillors on Nov. 18, referring to Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion. “Mark my words, friends, this is going to be outright war in the next election and I’m going to do everything in my power, everything in my power to beat you guys.” Moments later, city council voted to commandeer Ford’s staff and reallocate most of his office budget. The mayor responded with dark warnings of civil suits against individual councillors, and claimed to hold damaging information about his colleagues’ misbehaviour which, if revealed, will thicken the stink cloud hovering over Canada’s largest city.
It’s hard to discern any lessons in this fiasco. The story moves too quickly; the mayor’s future remains too uncertain. But we won’t soon forget the Year of Ford. Back in May, when reports of a video showing the mayor smoking crack cocaine first surfaced, an obvious course of action lay before him: Take a leave of absence, seek substance-abuse counselling, return to office a few weeks later. Instead, Ford chose the route that would inflict maximum damage to the city, and to himself. “I do not use crack cocaine, nor am I an addict of crack cocaine,” he blustered at a May 24 news conference. And about the video? “I cannot comment on a video that I have not seen or does not exist.”
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Maybe these formulations sounded convincing when he was rehearsing them in front of his brother Doug, a fellow council member. But for anyone equipped with critical thinking skills, they raised screaming questions that Ford resolutely refused to answer. Had he smoked crack in the past? How much? When? How often? What other drugs had he used? What made him say the video doesn’t exist? What about that photo taken the night that he’d reportedly been filmed puffing on a glass pipe? How did he know the men with whom he’d posed—one of whom had been killed shortly afterward in a gang-style shooting?
Ford feigned outrage at such questions, yet even then, according to his former staff members, he was telling close advisers that he knew where the video was. It’s astonishing to think the mayor couldn’t see the coming chain of events: the police investigation into the mayor’s reported links to the drug underworld; the exposure of his friendship with “driver” Alexander “Sandro” Lisi, a suspected drug dealer who has since been charged with extortion in connection with an apparent attempt to locate the video. And, of course, the bombshell revelation on Halloween morning: that police computer whizzes had recovered a deleted copy of the offending video from a laptop computer seized in a related investigation. Its content was, said Chief Bill Blair, “consistent” with that described on Gawker and in the Toronto Star, whose reporters who had seen it.
With that, Ford spun out of control, lurching from mawkish self-pity to jaw-dropping boorishness. First came an impromptu admission before reporters gathered outside his office that, yes, he had indeed smoked crack, but they’d never asked if he had done so in the past (they had, many times). Within 24 hours, a video went viral of him in what appeared to be a substance-fuelled rant, threatening to kill an unidentified man, prompting an admission from Ford that he’d been “very, very inebriated” when it was taken.
He made a po-faced apology, yet followed it up with a disgraceful tirade to reporters about a former aide who told police the mayor offered to perform oral sex on her. “It says I wanted to eat her p—y,” Ford blurted. “I would never do that. I’m happily married. I’ve got more than enough to eat at home.”
Here, then, is a man who has pulled off the unlikely feat of inducing sympathy for Toronto from the outside world. Canadians who had fine-tuned their Toronto-bashing skills now shake their heads in pity, while U.S., British and Australian media ask earnestly whether Ford has forever altered the city’s image as a model of well-ordered cosmopolitanism. The obvious answer—no, he’s a blip—raises a greater conundrum: Why do so many Torontonians indulge him? Who are the 30 per cent-plus telling pollsters they approve of Ford, fuelling his determination to win the city’s next mayoral election?
Smart minds have scratched the surface of that question, and their findings are disturbing. Ford’s base of support lies in an increasingly downtrodden circle of suburbs, experts say, where even if residents do not approve of his actions, the more he outrages the wealthier denizens of downtown elites, the better they like it, explains Zack Taylor, a University of Toronto professor who has studied Ford’s vote.
Sadly, neither the mayor nor city council has much chance of lifting these voters’ real burdens, like unstable employment and low wages due to a vanishing manufacturing sector. In Ford, these voters have found an outlet for frustration: a politician entirely without precedent. His detractors can only hope he’s one of a kind.