Toronto’s Rob Ford Is an Enormous Embarrassment—and a Pretty Good Mayor

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
May 22 2013 6:50 PM

The Highly Effective Idiot

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is crass, offensive, and may smoke crack. He is also a pretty good mayor.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is swarmed by reporters as he enters his offices at Toronto City Hall.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is swarmed by reporters as he enters Toronto City Hall on Friday.

Photo by Brett Gundlock/Reuters

It’s been a full five days since the world learned of a video allegedly showing Toronto’s mayor, Rob Ford, smoking crack cocaine, and Ford has yet to answer a single question about the allegation. On Wednesday, Ford’s older brother, Toronto councilor Doug Ford, told the media that he believes what his brother tells him, which is that the accusations are ridiculous. “I don’t know how much more he can say,” he added.

But there is something that should be said. Rob Ford is a crass, offensive, and 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.

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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. Toronto is mortified. Until last week 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, Peru. But it is a strangely contemporary kind of ambition. Torontonians love their city like a helicopter parent loves his kid: proudly but protectively and 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 in droves. 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, Rob 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 anti-tax 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. We tapped our toes loudly as we stood queued up at transfer stations in the heat to drop off our reeking trash. Miller, who’d always insisted he’d seek another term, decided not to bother and soon accepted a fellowship at New York University. Ford won in a landslide on a promise to “stop the gravy train.” 

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