Five days after the world learned of a video allegedly showing Toronto’s mayor, Rob Ford, smoking crack cocaine, Ford had yet to answer a single question about the allegation. Ford’s older brother, Toronto councilor Doug Ford, told the media that he believes what his brother tells him, that the accusations are ridiculous. “I don’t know how much more he can say,” he added.
But there is something more that should be said.
Rob Ford is a crass, offensive, ill-tempered buffoon. He may smoke crack. But he has not been a complete failure as mayor.
Even Torontonians find it hard to believe this mayor has accomplished much, given his capacity for breathtakingly stupid behavior. Last August, he was photographed reading city hall staff briefings while driving his Cadillac Escalade on the city’s downtown expressway. (The chief of police promptly urged him to get a chauffeur. He refused.) Not long ago, when asked for his thoughts on 11 proposed new taxes for transit, the 300-pound Ford bent over and made a retching noise for the cameras. In 2006, he drunkenly berated a couple at a Maple Leafs hockey game, at one point saying, “Do you want your little wife to go over to Iran and get raped and shot?” He initially denied ever being at the game, even though he’d given the couple his business card.
Ever since word of the crack video surfaced, these incidents and more have been compiled in dozens of Rob Ford top-10 lists across the Internet. Those of us in Toronto are mortified. Until recently, the embarrassment that is Rob Ford was our little secret, but now the world has discovered our shame.
Toronto is an ambitious city, eager to join the world’s top civic brand names alongside New York, Washington, Paris and Beijing, instead of being forever relegated to the B-list with Helsinki and Lima. But Torontonians love their city like a helicopter parent loves his kid: proudly but smothered with projected anxiety.
We want everyone to know Toronto is full of potential, home to stunning Libeskind architecture, gleaming condo towers, solvent banks and Richard Florida. We did not want anyone to know about Rob Ford. We are embarrassed he was elected, we tell friends from afar who now inquire. We’ve been saying it among ourselves for months, as though it was all someone else’s doing.
But we did elect him — and not with entirely disastrous results.
In a city rife with cosmopolitan affectation, Ford has proved to be a highly effective populist. During his 10 years as a suburban ward councilor, Ford built the base of his political support by answering all his calls personally, then showing up on voters’ doorsteps to solve their ensnarement with the civic bureaucracy. His speeches in the council chamber were remarkable only for their inanity. But on budget day, the antitax crusader would rail against waste and overspending to the delight of the press gallery.
He wasn’t blowing smoke (at least not back then). Under his predecessor, David Miller, city expenditures ballooned by 39 percent in a mere seven years. The union-friendly Miller was undone by a monthlong garbage strike in 2009 that left mild-mannered Toronto angrier than ever before. Ford won in a landslide on a promise to “stop the gravy train.”
Once Ford took office, he moved fast to act on his mandate. He started by slashing councilors’ office budgets, then dissolved the board of Toronto’s public housing corporation, the largest in North America, whose buildings were rampant with criminal activity and bedbugs. He later fired the head of the Toronto Transit Commission, which had sunk into ineptitude.
Ford has also managed to flatline city expenditures while revoking a much-loathed $60 annual vehicle registration fee. Then he aced his first round of labor negotiations: The city’s largest unions agreed to his terms with barely a whimper, even as he outsourced half the city’s residential waste collection to the private sector.
His list of accomplishments is nothing to sneer at, especially when you realize, as the world surely does by now, that he’s a fairly dim bulb.
None of this is probably enough to redeem his tenure. Because what has defined his mayoralty is neither his policy successes nor his failures, which have also been numerous, but the endless soap opera of scandal and buffoonery that has followed his every move.
Last November, Ford took the witness stand in a conflict-of-interest lawsuit precipitated by the least interesting mistake he ever made: raising $3,150 for his youth football foundation using city letterhead. He promptly made a fool of himself, insisting he’d never read, or even considered reading, the conflict-of-interest handbook. He left the judge with no option but to convict him and, as required by statute, remove him from office. Had that decision not been overturned on appeal, Ford would have been long gone by now. The world would never have known he existed, and Toronto would never have suffered this indignity.
And yet, just like Washington’s Marion Barry, the Rob Ford era may not be near its end. Ford’s core supporters, whom he dubbed “Ford Nation,” have rarely wavered in their support. In fact, in moments of scandal — such as when local publisher Sarah Thompson, one of Ford’s opponents in the 2010 mayoral election, accused him earlier this year of sexual harassment (“Rob Ford grabbed my a — ”) at a function celebrating International Women’s Day — his polling numbers tend to go up.
So Toronto is mortified, but embarrassment is pointless. Great cities are always known by the most outlandish characters they bring into the world.
Like it or not, Rob Ford just put us on the map.
Philip Preville is a contributing editor at Toronto Life Magazine, where he has been writing regularly about city life and politics since 2006. He wrote this article for Slate.