TORONTO, Canada — Rob Ford isn’t the first mayor of Canada’s biggest city to provide an embarrassing kind of comic relief.
In the early 2000s, Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman had his moments, like the time he said he feared visiting Africa because he might end up in a pot of boiling water, or when he called out the army to plow snow on city streets.
Some laughs with Rob Ford have uncharitably come at his expense. There’s the time he fell off the scale during his campaign to lose some of his considerable weight, and his stumble and roll while imitating a quarterback during recent festivities for the Grey Cup, Canada’s version of the Super Bowl. It became a viral GIF in no time.
To supporters, these slapstick moments likely enhance his everyman appeal. But there’s a side to what has become the Rob Ford reality show that doesn’t leave many laughing.
He’s a polarizing figure, loved or hated with equal passion. His recent performance, however, is judged by seasoned observers from different sides of the political spectrum with words such as bully, buffoon, blockhead, reckless, and “self-defeating personality disorder.”
The climax came a week ago, when a court ruling found Ford guilty of conflict of interest and ordered him removed from office. Imagine that happening to the mayor of New York or London and it gives you a sense of how big the story is in Canada.
Ford met the Nov. 26 decision with defiance and bluster, blaming his political enemies for his downfall. “This comes down to left-wing politics,” he told reporters. “The left wing wants me out of here and they’ll do anything in their power. I’m going to fight tooth and nail to hold on to my job.”
He has appealed the ruling to a higher court and, if he loses, vowed to run for re-election. It promises more amazing fodder ahead, much to the chagrin of residents struggling with traffic gridlock and choking public transit while city politics become more dysfunctional by the day.
Ford’s rise to power was facilitated by a shotgun wedding of sorts. In 1998, Ontario’s conservative provincial government at the time amalgamated Toronto with its bedroom suburbs, which until then had been cities and towns of their own. A clash of visions between the suburbs and downtown has persisted ever since.
His years as a city councilor raised some questions about his character. In 2006, a drunken Ford was removed from a Maple Leafs hockey game after hurling abuse at a shocked couple. Still, his image as a suburban champion who would cut budget waste and clear the roads for SUVs — at the expense of bike lanes and some public transit — swept him to power in October 2010.
He had early successes. He negotiated labor peace with new contracts for city employees and saved Toronto millions of dollars by contracting out garbage collection in the city’s west side. But he proved inept at maintaining a ruling coalition. Allies turned their backs on his biggest plans, like his attempt to scrap an $8 billion transit project approved by the previous council.
With his power neutered, only the reality show remained: Ford accused of giving the finger to a woman who chastised him for talking on his cellphone while driving; Ford admitting he swore at a 911 operator; Ford admitting he drove past the rear doors of a streetcar, a move resulting in the streetcar driver publicly scolding him; Ford photographed reading while driving his Cadillac Escalade on a city highway.
Anger management questions were raised, not for the first time, when he charged with his fists clenched at a reporter looking at a piece of public land Ford wanted to buy to extend his yard.
He then personally asked top city officials to expedite drainage and pothole repairs outside of his family’s company, which makes labels and tags. He has also come under fire for leaving council meetings to coach a high school football team, and for using staff and vehicles paid for by taxpayers to help with his coaching duties.
This month, a packed city bus had to unload its passengers in the pouring rain after being ordered to pick up Ford’s football team. The initial request for a city bus came from police. But Ford made two back-to-back calls to the head of the transit authority to make sure it happened. It’s still not clear whether the city bus was ordered to shelter Ford’s players from the rain, or whether police and Ford feared violence with rival players.
Then came the court ruling. At issue is a relatively minor infraction that Ford let mushroom into a firing offense. Before he became mayor, Ford solicited donations for a high school football foundation he created in his name. He approached lobbyists and companies that do business with the city using letterhead from his councilor’s office with the city hall logo. He collected $3,150 and his charitable foundation used it to buy football equipment.
The city’s integrity commissioner then told Ford he broke the code of conduct for Toronto city councilors. They can’t use the influence of their office for matters that don’t involve city business, particularly when some might wonder if the lobbyists and corporations who made donations expect a favor in return. The commissioner asked city council to order Ford to give the money back to donors. The council did so in August 2010. But Ford simply ignored repeated letters ordering him to pay up.
The city council dealt with Ford’s refusal to comply in February 2012. This time Ford was mayor. His allies still dominated the council. Ford spoke in his defense, saying he didn’t see why he had to personally reimburse the donations, and voted with the majority to rescind the previous council’s decision.
A private citizen then filed a complaint in court, insisting Ford violated the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, which bars councilors from speaking or voting on matters in which they have a financial interest. Justice Charles Hackland agreed, noting Ford had been previously warned of the potential conflict of interest. He described Ford as having exercised “willful blindness” and threw him out of office, a punishment imposed by the conflict of interest law. The order, the judge ruled, would take effect in 14 days.
Clayton Ruby, the prominent lawyer who argued the case against Ford, said the ruling makes clear that no one is above the law.
“It is tragic that the elected mayor of a great city should bring himself to this and I use that language advisedly — Rob Ford did this to Rob Ford,” Ruby said. “It could have been avoided if Rob Ford had used a bit of common sense and if he had played by the rules.”
If turfed out of office, polls show Ford losing in any future election showdown with Olivia Chow, a prominent left-wing contender. But his support in the suburbs remains strong. The Rob Ford show isn’t over yet.