x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

There’s no smoke without fire

A profile of the mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford.

Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

At first, there wasn’t even a video, just the rumour of one. A writer for the American media/gossip site Gawker was contacted by an anonymous source, who told him that he had access to a video of a hefty middle-aged man smoking crack cocaine. The man, the source said, was Rob Ford, the mayor of Toronto.

The Gawker writer, John Cook, travelled to Toronto, where after numerous failed meetings and delays, including a dead phone battery, he was granted permission to view a smartphone video (he was not allowed to hold the phone) that appeared to show Ford, crack pipe in hand, chuckling over derogatory comments about Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau, before putting the pipe to his mouth.

Gawker ended up raising nearly US$200,000 (Dh734,600) from its readers in the hopes of purchasing the video of Ford smoking crack, only to find that its potential sellers had disappeared from sight. The video turned up again this past week in the hands of the police, with potentially dire consequences for Ford’s political future.

It hasn’t been a conventional career path, but Ford does come from a well-known Canadian political family. His late father, Doug Ford Sr, was a prominent local businessman who was elected to a seat in the provincial parliament for Ontario, and his older brother and adviser Doug Ford Jr holds Ford’s old seat on the Toronto City Council. Rob was born in 1969, a few years after his father, a former salesman, started his own printing company, Deco Labels and Tags. He grew up in a six-bedroom house in the suburban enclave of Etobicoke, where he dreamed of playing American football professionally. As a teenager, Rob attended a summer football camp run by the Washington Redskins. He attended Carleton University in Ottawa, primarily to join their football team, but when football didn’t work out (Carleton’s coach doesn’t remember Ford being on his team), he returned home to a job at Deco, now a thriving business. He rose to become the firm’s chief financial officer, and assisted his father in his successful run for the provincial parliament in 1995. Ford was energised by his encounter with the political sphere, and soon made his own run for Toronto City Council. He lost his first election, but was successful on his second go-round, knocking off an incumbent.

As a city council member, Ford developed a reputation as intransigent and divorced from the work of the body. He also became known for a series of intemperate remarks on various racial and ethnic groups, and a tendency to put his foot in his mouth. Ford compared extending the mayor’s powers to “giving criminals free guns”. “This is an insult to my constituents to even think about having a homeless shelter in their ward,” he argued during a 2002 city council meeting. “And you want me to have a public meeting to discuss this? Why don’t we have a public lynching?”

During another council meeting on holiday shopping, Ford took care to note that “those Oriental people work like dogs. They work their hearts out. They are workers non-stop. They sleep beside their machines. That’s why they’re successful in life …. I’m telling you, the Oriental people, they’re slowly taking over”. He described bike lanes as like “swimming with the sharks. Sooner or later, you’re going to get bitten …. My heart bleeds for [bikers] when I hear someone gets killed, but it’s their own fault at the end of the day”. Ford, accused of being “drunk and belligerent” at a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game, got into an altercation with an older couple after they asked him to keep it down, shouting: “Do you want your little wife to go over to Iran and get raped and shot?” Ford was later identified by a business card that he left behind – presumably one printed by his family’s company. He soon apologised, saying that he’d “had one too many beers”.

Ford rankled many, but his plain-spoken delivery and sense of injury at what he saw as an entitled elite running the city struck a chord with voters – especially the formerly suburban voters now part of the city of Toronto after amalgamation in 1998. Ford decided to run for mayor on a platform of overhauling the city’s budget, trimming its workforce, cutting taxes and switching from streetcars and light rail to buses and a substantially expanded subway system.

Ford was elected mayor in 2010 with 47 per cent of the vote, easily outpacing his Liberal rival George Smitherman. Ford pushed for a proposal to extend the city’s subway lines to include more suburban areas, against the wishes of many members of the city council. Ford’s four-year plan for his first term, as articulated by his chief of staff, was to devote one year to campaign promises, two to what would likely be wildly unpopular budget-cutting and then spend the election year trimming back to the centre in the hopes of winning a second term.

But Ford’s term in office has not played out according to his plans, jostled by official misconduct and that penchant for misbehaviour. Ford has become best known outside Toronto for his clownish antics and outspoken behaviour. He has been accused of sexually harassing a fellow mayoral candidate, appearing drunk at a military event and of reading while driving. On one occasion, he physically attacked a journalist near his home and has called the local media “pathological liars”, going so far as refusing to talk with members of the Toronto Star newspaper. He has been criticised for devoting more than a dozen hours every week to a youth football team that he coaches and was accused of rerouting two public buses to pick up his team’s players after a game.

Ford and his brother also plumped for a proposed mall project in the city’s Port Lands section, along the waterfront. As the mayor enthused about the Ferris wheel to be constructed there, word emerged that the Fords had been stealthily arranging a deal for a mall there, possibly in an effort to accrue funding for the proposed subway extension. The Port Lands mall deal was eventually scuttled.

In the most serious run-in before his current troubles, Ford had been accused of using an official letterhead to request donations from lobbyists for his youth-football organisation. Ford had unexpectedly been ordered to step down from the mayor’s office after taking part in a city council vote on whether he was required to repay the $3,150, only to have a judge rule that Ford would suffer irreparable harm if he were to be removed from office, and had the decision reversed.

Ford initially described the allegations that he had smoked crack while mayor as “ridiculous”, stating: “I do not use crack cocaine, nor am I an addict of crack cocaine.” But the rumours lingered, with reports that Ford may have directed staffers to straighten out a problem with a utility bill at a known crack house, and that one of the men pictured smoking crack with Ford had been murdered, perhaps in relation to the still-unavailable video. Last week, Toronto’s police chief, Bill Blair, held a press conference to announce that Ford’s friend and driver Alexander Lisi had been arrested, accused of attempted extortion, and that the Ford crack video was now in the hands of the Toronto Police Service.

Ford initially apologised for his behaviour, without acknowledging his crack use. “I’m the first one to admit I’m not perfect,” he said at a press conference. “I have made mistakes. I have made mistakes, and all I can do right now is apologise for the mistakes. I sincerely, sincerely apologise to my family, to the citizens, to taxpayers of this great city.” He also declared that he had “no reason to resign”. Doug Ford suggested that Blair should resign, because of his obvious antipathy for the mayor.

Finally, this week, Ford admitted that he had, indeed, smoked crack cocaine. He told reporters: “There have been times when I’ve been in a drunken stupour. That’s why I want to see the tape. I want everyone in the city to see this tape. I don’t even recall there being a tape or video. I want to see the state that I was in.” Ford stated that he had no memory of the events recorded. “Some of the stuff that you guys have seen me – the state I’ve been in? It’s a problem.” He clarified that he had not been lying earlier when he denied using crack, but told the assembled media: “You didn’t ask the right questions.” He also announced once again that he was not planning to step down or take a leave of office.

Ford is up for re-election next year and plans to contend for office again, against the pleas of people around him to step down immediately and get help. After Blair’s press conference, polling indicated that Ford’s approval rating had gone up five points from 39 per cent to 44 per cent.

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