Editor’s Letter (May 2013): is Rob Ford a folk hero or an international embarrassment?

Editor’s Letter (May 2013): is Rob Ford a folk hero or an international embarrassment?

Toronto Life Editor's Letter: Sarah FulfordRob Ford has many fans. According to a poll conducted by Forum Research a couple of days after Sarah Thomson accused Ford of groping her, 43 per cent of Torontonians said they approved of the job he is doing as mayor. The pollster tried to explain Ford’s popularity to a Toronto Sun reporter. No bad press ever sticks to Ford, he said. “He’s made of Teflon.” I don’t think that’s exactly right. I suspect that Ford’s gaffes, his brushes with the law, his peculiar malapropisms and hysterical outbursts endear him to much of Toronto.

He’s unpolished and sincere—rare qualities in a politician. We live in an image-conscious age when even low-level public figures have press advisors. And yet Ford never seems fake. During the speech he gave after he won his conflict of interest appeal (the one in which he said the experience of being almost ousted was “very, very humbling”) he looked beaten down, sad and vulnerable. I wondered if he was perhaps a little disappointed that he still had a job. We know that he often sneaks away from the office to coach football. If he were unemployed he could coach full time, without fear of rebuke.

Plus, his job is inherently frustrating. The one thing lefties and right-wingers agree upon is that the mayor of Toronto has limited power. Ford cannot wave a magic wand to put new subways into the ground. Or single-handedly slash the budget to eliminate gravy. Or snap his fingers and suddenly have the casino of his dreams. He is, as pundits often remind us, just one vote on council. If you’re anti-Ford, his limited clout is a blessing. If you’re a fan, it’s a shame.

So what can the mayor of Toronto do? At the very least, the mayor is a figurehead. As the leader of the fourth-largest city in North America, and our chief spokesperson, he is responsible for articulating our ideals, outlining our aspirations, and generally, in words and deeds, setting the right tone. In this regard, he’s an abject failure. He’s incapable of capturing our imaginations or helping us understand what the city is about or where it should be going. Being in favour of fiscal restraint is not enough.

Toronto is having a pretty terrific decade. The downtown is bursting with new condos and businesses, our cultural figures are international celebrities, and our banking sector is the envy of the world. You’d never know that listening to Ford.

Instead of raising our expectations for the city, or celebrating our triumphs, or setting us all in a unified direction toward shared prosperity, Mayor Ford has a habit of saying things that don’t make sense. This, I’m afraid, will be his legacy.

In 2011, House of Anansi put out a bathroom book of the mayor’s most outrageous and bewildering quotes, called The Little Book of Rob Ford. A few months ago, Gawker posted a similar compendium of zingers in a story called “The Best of Toronto’s Insane, Terrible Mayor Rob Ford: An Introduction for Americans.” The Wall Street Journal ran a piece about Ford’s erratic behavior, his blunders, his alleged obscene gestures. Toronto has become known as the city with the train-wreck mayor.

Is he really as unhinged as his opponents say he is? The answer to that question can be found in “A Brief History of Rob Ford,” on page 42, in which you will find either a modern-day folk hero or an international embarrassment. It all depends on where you stand.

(Image: Christopher Wahl)