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.” 

Once Ford took up office in the Clamshell—local argot for Toronto’s spaceship-like  Viljo Revell–designed 1960s city hall—he moved fast to act on his mandate. With the assistance of Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday, a staunch fiscal conservative and a veteran of many council battles, Ford started by slashing councilors’ office budgets. He then dissolved the board of Toronto’s public housing corporation, the largest in North America, whose buildings were rampant with criminal activity and bedbug infestations. He later fired the head of the Toronto Transit Commission, which had sunk into ineptitude, and replaced him with an Brit dedicated to customer service.*

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. He’s no Michael Bloomberg, but 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 and which has now ground council business to a near halt.

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 that had been lying around his office. 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 Thomson, one of Ford’s opponents in the 2010 mayoral election, accused him earlier this year of sexual harassment (“Rob Ford grabbed my ass”) at a function celebrating International Women’s Day—his polling numbers tend to go up.* In the past, even when besieged by ridicule, he continued to answer residents’ phone calls personally every day. It’s what he finds fulfilling about politics. When he’s done being mayor (and with whatever legal proceedings that may follow from his alleged behavior), he could eventually return to his old council seat. He could conceivably hold it for a long time.

So Toronto is mortified, but embarrassment is pointless. Great cities are always known by the most outlandish characters they bring into the world, and if Toronto thought it was going to climb to the top solely on the reputations of Mike Myers and Morley Safer, it was mistaken. We just need to find a better coping mechanism. Because, like it or not, Rob Ford just put us on the map.

Correction, May 23, 2013: This article originally misstated the nationality of the head of the Toronto Transit Commission. He's British, not Australian; he worked in Australia before accepting the post in Toronto. The article also misspelled the last name of Toronto publisher and 2010 mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson. (Return to the first corrected sentence or the second corrected sentence.)

Philip Preville is a contributing editor at Toronto Life Magazine, where he has been writing regularly about city life and politics since 2006.

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