The Confession: City business has been eclipsed by Rob Ford's attempt to avoid embarrassment
Published Saturday, November 9, 2013 6:55PM EST
Last Updated Monday, November 11, 2013 10:37AM EST
Early on Boxing Day morning, just before the stores open, try joining the mob of manic bargain hunters at any major department store. Stand there. Wait. Feel the anticipation building as the seconds click down. Fix your eyes on the front entrance, while wondering how to negotiate the crush that will begin the instant the door begins to open.
Do that, and you may get an inkling of what it's like waiting for Mayor Rob Ford to arrive at work. There is a public space of approximately 3 metres between the sanctuary of his City Hall office, and the doors of the elevator that takes him there. For the mayor, the space has become a gauntlet. And for the media, it is one of the only places they can be reasonably confident of being able to ask him questions.
The moment the elevator doors do open, it begins. The crush of people, flashing lights, the large frame of the mayor pushing through, the roar of shouted questions, occasionally, one or two discernible words rising above the others. Usually such things as, "police," "video" "crack cocaine."
That crush has become the image of a city administration.
Back in 2010 when Rob Ford became mayor, his promises of fiscal responsibility were a big, local story. But the days of policy discussion are long gone.
It was never more evident than on a day in March earlier this year. The great and long retired Canadian heavyweight boxer, George Chuvalo, was invited to City Hall to be awarded the key to the city. The event was taking place after several highly publicized stories of the mayor's problems with alcohol. When it became clear to a frustrated Ford that the event was being hijacked by embarrassing questions about his drinking, he turned over the microphone to Chuvalo.
But the first question to the boxer was, "Mr. Chuvalo, you know something about substance abuse, do you think the mayor has a problem?" There were audible groans from Chuvalo's family and members of the public who had long admired the boxer. And after Chuvalo's valiant attempt to salvage the event, the mayor recognized futility and brought it to an end.
Ford's running of the city has been completely eclipsed by his attempt to avoid embarrassment. He dismissed the alcohol allegations, at first by denials, and then by acknowledgements and apologies. And for many voters, there was something appealing about a civic leader who like many others struggled with vices and weight issues. And the villain in the tale became the media that wouldn't leave the mayor alone. But two months after the Chuvalo debacle, things would get far worse.
In the middle of May, there were astonishing reports in the Toronto Star and on the American Gawker website of a video showing the mayor allegedly smoking crack cocaine and making racist, homophobic remarks. The video, it was reported, was offered for sale by members of a violent street gang. Both the mayor, and his brother and city councillor Doug Ford, followed a familiar pattern of denial and blaming a callous media obsessed with tarnishing the mayor. The strategy usually worked, and for a good reason.
The job of any media in a free and democratic society is to try to hold those in power to account.Even the powerful acknowledge that essential role, but often only until they find themselves at the centre of unwelcome attention. Then, there is an attempt to shift the focus away from the difficult questions, to the pushy reporters asking them. At one point, on his radio show, the mayor described Toronto's reporters as, "a bunch of maggots."
But even the sympathies of Ford's defenders came under the strain of the allegations. This was no longer a story of a few too many beers. Instead, it involved hard drugs and street gangs. There was also a photo of an inebriated looking mayor with his arms around three young men, one of whom was shot and killed not long after the photo was taken. And all the time, lurking in the background, a video that would show all.
While the media tried to raise the $200,000 demanded by those selling the video, the mayor continued his denials and accusations of a media witch hunt. As time went by, the denials became more and more confident, particularly after reports that the video had disappeared, had been withdrawn from the market.
But early fall, things began to unravel. During an extensive investigation of street gangs, Toronto's police had uncovered evidence that people close to the mayor had been trying to acquire the video. One of those people, Sandro Lisi, eventually would be charged with extortion. He has yet to face trial.
And then at the end of October, the key development. Toronto's chief of police, Bill Blair announced to a stunned group of reporters, "I've been advised that we are now in possession of a recovered video digital file relevant to the investigations that have been conducted. And that file contains video images which appear to be those images that were previously reported in the press."
That moment unleashed unprecedented events that focused international attention on the city and on its mayor. While journalists and television crews from other countries flew into Canada's largest city, Rob Ford was faced with the futility of further denials. Looking badly shaken, he stepped out into the media fray and said, "Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine. But do I, am I an addict? No. Have I tried it? Probably in one of my drunken stupours."
Later the same day, appearing on the verge of tears, he issued an apology to his family, friends, colleagues, and to the city of Toronto. He also stated bluntly, "I have nothing left to hide."
But few believe it. Just after he made his statement, the Toronto Star made public a video it had purchased, showing the mayor in a murderous rage, threatening to kill someone. Once again, he had to apologize, saying that at the time the video was taken, he was, "very, very inebriated."
The mayor has said he has every intention of completing his mandate and running again in 2014. But every major newspaper in the city is calling for him to step down. Even friends have begun urging him to seek help. And there are signs the once solid support for him in what is called "Ford Nation" is beginning to crack.
And still, lurking in the background, is a police investigation, wiretap transcripts of hundreds of telephone conversations, and there is of course the video that started it all. At some point, almost inevitably, all of it will be made public.