Power Play

Why ‘Crack Mayor’ Rob Ford Is Still Center Stage In Toronto

He may be out of office, but the notorious Rob Ford is not only fighting cancer, but also making noises about a political comeback.

Fred Thornhill/Reuters

Depending on who you ask in the city, it all seems like a either a recurring bad dream, or a tale with more sequels than The Fast and The Furious.

One hundred-plus days after a new mayor was installed in Toronto—or, perhaps more saliently, the clock ticked on the old one—Rob Ford continues to jack headlines.

Gawker’s attention may have wavered. SNL may no longer be on lampoon patrol. Moved on, too: Jimmy Kimmel, who devoted a year’s worth of jokes to the embattled Ford and even snagged him at one point as a guest on his show, mercilessly mocking him to his face.

The admission of crack-smoking, and binge-drinking. The rehab stint. The explosions. The brazen lies. You’d think it would all be yesteryear’s Twitter feed. And yet, in Canada’s largest city, and North America’s fourth-largest—as four different news-sprouts showed, in just the last week—the roly-poly politico looms and looms.

First, there was a rare apology from Ford, heard inside city council, concerning two outstanding complaints about racist slurs made during his time as mayor.

After a ruling from the city’s integrity commissioner on the remarks from 2012 and 2013—epithets that included calling a taxi driver a “P---” in front of mayor’s staff—he mea culpa’ed: “I’m deeply ashamed of what I said and I recognize that they bring discredit to both myself and council as a whole.”

Then, there was the hall-of-mirrors redux, courtesy of the CBS crime drama, Battle Creek, in which Patton Oswalt showed up the other night to play “Mayor Scooter Hardy,” a town-lord with a penchant for crack pipes. Entertainment Weekly, duh, dubbed the character “Rob Ford-esque.”

Also tailor-made to go viral: news that Ford had been named to the board of the Hockey Hall of Fame, a bulletin that generated no shortage of winces and eye-rolls.

Running concurrently to all of this, meanwhile, was the confirmation that Ford—who’s been struggling with a rare but aggressive cancer in his abdomen—was to undergo surgery next month.

With the possibility of an operation being touch-and-go for a while—doctors would only operate when and if the tumour had shrunk to a size small enough to do so—the erstwhile mayor delivered the “good news” personally to reporters outside Mt. Sinai Hospital.

In the all-too-real soap opera, as citizens of Toronto know only too well, it was that health diagnosis that had finally compelled Ford to drop out of the mayoral race last fall, causing his brother, and faithful body-man, Doug Ford, to step in as a surrogate candidate.

John Tory, a placid, Bloombergian figure who hails from one of Canada’s establishment clans, eventually grabbed the prize, but not without one perennial gum stuck to his shoe—Rob Ford ran for, and hung on to, his former council seat!

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“John Tory won, but he still acts like he is still running against Rob Ford. And it makes John Tory look like a sore winner.” That’s how pundit Warren Kinsella, a ceaseless critic of the current mayor, characterizes the psycho-dynamics at City Hall to me.

In classically good-natured Toronto—the aw-shucks city where Joni Mitchell once busked on the streets, Mike Myers honed his yuk-yuks, and Marshall McLuhan coined the term “global village”—there remain remnants of a downtown-suburban class-divide that Ford embodied, leveraged, and exploited. And it’s true enough that the metropolis is still wrapping its head around the legacy of the last four years.

“They don’t speak,” a close aide to Tory mentioned recently, speaking to the frost between the mayors, current and present. (A relationship complicated, no doubt, by the fact that Tory was an un-shy booster of Ford during the 2010 civic elections.)

Adrienne Batra, a former press secretary to Ford, points out, “We are in a very unique situation…we have the sitting mayor sitting in council with the previous one. It’s unprecedented.”

While the buttoned-up Tory may have run his campaign based largely on the platform of “Not Rob Ford,” in office, alternately, as Toronto Star columnist Christopher Hume charges, “Tory has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid the wrath of Ford Nation.”

Exhibit A: some of the trepidation detected in dealing with Toronto’s burgeoning transit issues, partly because “Ford’s poisonous legacy is the unprecedented level of contempt for the public sector in all its forms.”

In Hume’s view, the ex-mayor “turned self-doubt into self-hatred,” putting the post-Ford gang “in a position where they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t.”

Wherever one happens to stand politically, there’s something else many will concede: “Crack-Gate” emboldened the Canadian media in ways that are still emerging.

It happened to coincide, as it has amply noted, with a Supreme Court ruling that loosened libel laws, and opened the dam-gates to a more sensationalist fourth estate.

Given the brouhaha he found himself in, and spurred, and his ongoing health travails, it’s nearly remarkable that Ford continues to see himself as a one-man opposition in Toronto, but also continues to make noises about a comeback. Batra says of his endurance, “He’s the toughest S.O.B. I know.”

Indeed, last fall he promised that the Ford family would be back “in four more years,” adding, “We’re just warming up.” Whether you chalk that up to an iron-clad will, or a convenient self-delusion, his is a psyche that continues to draw shadows.