TORONTO– You might have questions about Rob Ford.
Was the mayor of Toronto always like this? (Sort of.) Did the people of Toronto know that they were doing when they elected him? (We should have.) Is it true that a sizable minority of people still support him? (Apparently so.) Is this all some kind of elaborate performance art project? (We cannot rule it out.)
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The mayor of this city rocketed into the international press after becoming embroiled in a bottomless scandal that involves a mysterious video documenting crack cocaine use, with a dollop of drunk driving, racist epithets, the exchange of mysterious packages in strip-mall plazas, a close association with a man who's been charged with extortion, and months of brazen denials about all of it.
And it could get darker still: The story of the elusive "crack tape" involves threats, beatings, and the killing of a young man who was pictured with the mayor after the "crack tape" was made. We don't yet know how all these pieces fit together, but cases are moving through the courts. But the man won't resign, and as yet, there's no way to remove him.
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For all that, Rob Ford didn't come from nowhere. He may lurch from one "drunken stupor" to the next, but the electorate was sober: A city that once clung earnestly to Peter Ustinov's description of it as "New York run by the Swiss" went out and elected a mayor who married Sarah Palin's politics to Silvio Berlusconi's sense of decency and restraint.
What's more, they knew what they were getting into: Ford's failings were on full display from the start. He won office three years ago with 47 percent of the vote, in an election with relatively high turnout, after being caught lying about a decade-old arrest for DUI and pot possession. From the day he took office, his tenure has lurched from one embarrassing disturbance to the next. Yet even as he descends from buffoonery to criminal associations, polls show he retains rock-hard support from about 20 percent of Torontonians, and the soft backing of as many as 40 percent.
What on earth happened in Toronto?
Toronto is a grand, peaceable city, a boom town that, with 2.7 million people, recently overtook Chicago to become the fourth-largest municipality in North America. But it's also, in many ways, a very young city. Its current borders were only set in 1998, in an amalgamation that forcibly married a dense, urbane downtown with a series of spread-out, car-dependent suburbs. It's also a city in which the middle class is being stretched, and a widening gap between rich and poor is emerging.
In many ways, it created a classic Red State-Blue State culture clash, all within the same city. But there's a catch: In addition to being home to well-maintained white picket fences, Toronto's inner suburbs are wildly diverse, and home to its booming immigrant communities, as well as some of its most impoverished neighborhoods. The real-estate boom downtown just doesn't exist there.
This is Ford country. The youngest son of a wealthy, political suburban family that ran a successful label-printing company—and the brother of siblings who were reported to have dabbled in the hash trade—Rob floundered through his young adulthood, dropping out of university and half-heartedly joining the family business. ("Robbie just didn't have a passion for labels," an associate later told The Globe and Mail.) It was only after he followed his dad into conservative politics in 2000 that Ford found his calling: helping people fight City Hall.
Soon, he was endearing himself to constituents by driving around his suburb in his beat-up minivan, personally answering most every phone call and helping sort out municipal issues. Happiest when helping people one-on-one, he would blow through the bureaucracy like a cannonball on his constituents' behalf.
He was less beloved down at City Hall. Ford was a voice in the wilderness, a small-government agitator with an explosive temper who protested much but contributed little. For a decade, he would hold up city budget meetings with endless complaints about any and all government spending, reserving a special ire for the free lunches counsellors got when meeting, and whoever it was who the city was paying to water the plants at City Hall. He tried persistently to get these items cut, failing every year.
Soon, a talk-radio host discovered him, and Ford—a man who's halting in person but amiable on radio—began to grow a city-wide base of listeners who, like him, were irked at the penny-ante expenses his fellow politicians racked up: an office espresso machine here, a bunny suit rented for an Easter parade there. To Rob Ford, these weren't just wasted dollars, they were tokens of the elites' disrespect for the little guy.
He was always erratic, and often loose with the truth. He would make boorish statements about gays and ethnic minorities, once complaining that Asians were "taking over" since they "worked like dogs." In 2006, he drunkenly harangued a pair of visitors at an NHL game so virulently that he was thrown out by security—and then denied even being at the game until his victims came forward with business cards he'd handed out to them. Later, in the midst of his mayoral campaign, he'd also deny a 1999 DUI charge and pot bust that came to light, until journalists dug up evidence and forced his hand.
Pundits predicted, with perhaps some reason, that being a proven liar with a bent for public intoxication would scuttle his hopes of being mayor.
But come the 2010 election, a perfect storm of factors made Ford the man of the hour. After seven years of ambitious progressive rule that had led to higher taxes and a spate of union unrest, and in the midst of a recession with tea-party parsimony in the air, Ford's well-run campaign erupted from the back of the pack.
He was a visibly imperfect anti-establishment crusader, and the more voters heard of his failings, the more they liked him. Ford's anti-elite, anti-tax, anti-union, anti-bicycle, anti-almost-everything message appealed to well-off suburban white families who disliked the big city they'd been lumped in with (Condo towers! Organics recycling! Streetcars!).
But he also clicked with the poor, the marginalized, and the recently arrived from all over the world, for whom the wealth, culture, and attention flowing downtown seemed distant. It's a textbook story: Here was a man with a personal touch, who made direct contact with people who felt left out. Big, awkward, and ill-spoken, he was marginalized in his own way. There are many ways to feel alienated, and Rob Ford catered to them all.
So it was, to the undisguised horror of the city's downtowners, who Ford despised with an equally open gusto, a wave of support from the city's edges bore him into office.
It took less than a year for it all to fall apart. Ford turned out to be a better retail politician than a leader. At first, his right-leaning council was pliant, and he won a series of early victories, repealing taxes and canceling plans for light-rail transit. But with his thuggish, hyperbolic brother Doug at his side, Ford was intransigent and inflammatory. He pushed away allies, and when he looked to his base for support, he found that the protest movement that elected him wouldn't mobilize between elections.
Soon, he began losing votes, and his agenda stalled. Ford retreated from governance, and went back to answering calls from citizens, trying to help with little problems, one-on-one, where he could.
And if voters thought electing a volatile man mayor would soothe his temperament, they soon learned better. Failings that were bizarrely entertaining in a ward politician became scandals as a big-city mayor: giving the finger to a mother and child who motioned for him to stop illegally talking on his cellphone while driving; charging furiously at a reporter who was looking at public parkland behind his house; calling 911 on a popular television comedian who showed up on his driveway.
It was discovered that the mayor was cutting out of work to coach high school football, his great passion, and at one point a full busload of transit riders were sent out into the rain so the bus could ferry Ford's team home. Scrambling for a good-news story, the mayor and his brother launched a public weight-loss challenge, using an industrial-size scale parked outside his office. The mayor ultimately quit, spraining his ankle while falling off the scale. It never seemed to end.
But more serious troubles were also brewing. Reporters clued into rumblings that all was not well in his office: The mayor was regularly coming in to work late, and not taking many meetings. There had been 911 calls from his private residence at Christmastime, exact cause unknown.
Then came endless court proceedings: In late 2012, a judge actually ordered him ejected from office for breaching stringent conflict-of-interest rules over a small sum, in a case sprung on him by political foes. The ruling was overturned on appeal, and Ford struggled on.
By early 2013, The Toronto Star had gathered enough evidence to go public with a story on Ford's drinking problem, which he vehemently denied, lashing out at reporters as liars and "media maggots." Then, in May, the bomb dropped: first Gawker, then the Star published the first allegations of the crack video. He denied these too—until proof forced his hand, two weeks ago.
Yet his cadre is still with him, and always will be. In a city where the fault lines around Rob Ford became entrenched long ago, the fight rages on, even as polls show that about 75 percent of residents feel he should resign, or at least step aside.
To Ford's supporters, much of the scandal smacks of a concerted effort by elites to remove him from office come hell or high water. (In some cases, they're justified.)
The same distrust of the "mainstream media" that has fuelled the rise of the tea party in the United States has isolated Rob Ford from censure. And just as in the United States, Torontonians have drifted toward media they agree with: Ford's critics took to newspapers and crowed on Twitter, while his fans flooded sympathetic talk-radio lines. His overall approval fell to the mid-40s, but became entrenched, and resolutely stayed there through thick and thin. (Weirdly, this is not mutually exclusive with the 75 percent who think he should go.)
Even before being stripped of power this week, Ford was an inert quantity at City Hall, unable to muster political support. But he continues to be a potent cultural force, dominating headlines and growing a cult of personality about himself as a champion of the little guy and guardian of the taxpayer dollar. Plenty of conservatives were long willing to forgive his personal foibles as long as he talked the talk of running a parsimonious government. But for his hardcore supporters, that talk of money is really a code for class, for anti-elitism, his badge as an outsider.
There are plenty of politicians who misbehave. What's really captured the world's attention about Ford isn't his misbehavior, but his spectacular impudence when caught. He's broken a law of politics: that a man caught in the act should confess and repent. But not repenting for being who he, never changing, is has been Ford's making and unmaking. To Ford, playing by the rules of politics—the rules that honor the office, that prioritize honesty, that mandate a sense of shame for misdeeds—is an elitist thing to do.
Even after Ford goes—eventually, somehow—the sense of dispossession and disparity at the city's fringes will remain. Just as American progressives once scorned Sarah Palin's fans, with their not-always-entirely-factual grip on policy, progressive Torontonians scorn those who stick by Ford, without really understanding why they liked him in the first place. It's not that complicated: It's the identity, stupid.
Ivor Tossell is a columnist and the author of The Gift of Ford. He lives in Toronto.
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