The ritual humiliation of Rob Ford continues today, for all the good it will do. This afternoon, Toronto’s city council will probably strip him of even more power. Mr. Ford faces having most of his mayoral staff budget removed, along with any authority that’s not written into provincial law, which is hardly anything. He would become a mayor in title only.
Unfortunately, that title is all he needs.
In the last two weeks, it’s become clear that Torontonians are stuck on board Mr. Ford’s fame-fuelled joyride, whether they want to be or not. Mr. Ford is not resigning, even as the wreckage piles up around him, and there’s no way, yet, to make him go.
This is the mayor who’s admitted to buying illegal drugs, to smoking crack, to drinking and driving, who made graphic remarks about his wife and then made her stand shame-faced in front of the global media as he mumbled a non-apology. This is the man who faced the release of police interviews in which his own staff described an erratic, abusive boss who’d go MIA from work, frequently sound intoxicated and send taxpayer-paid staffers to do his errands and buy his booze.
“These allegations are 100 per cent lies,” said Mr. Ford, in what was almost certainly a lie.
By the end of the week, anything that resembled an institution was trying to distance itself from the mayor. The Corporation of the City of Toronto was but one. The organizers of the Santa Claus parade begged the mayor not to march on the weekend, perhaps because it’s awkward to tell kids that Santa isn’t real, but the crack tape is.
The Toronto Argonauts, which had previously asked the mayor to please not wear its jersey while making graphic remarks about oral sex, were backed up by the CFL commissioner, who asked the mayor to stay away from Sunday’s game. (It didn’t work.)
Even Iceberg Vodka, which Toronto Police investigators discovered was among Ford’s favourites, put out a press release condemning the mayor’s drinking and driving. When Iceberg Vodka decides you’re dragging down the brand, things are grim.
But institutions don’t matter to Rob Ford. The only thing that matters to him is his connection with the electorate, or at least the portion of the electorate that connects with him. So there he was at the Argos game, getting mobbed, an object of adulation and curiosity, posing for pictures, causing chaos, and by all accounts, loving every minute of it. Here he is, appearing on Fox News, on CNN, screaming “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” in caricature, a local boy who made good by breaking bad.
Rob Ford is no longer a politician. He is a celebrity. And the thing about celebrity is that it’s fundamentally amoral: Famous people can be famous for doing good or doing ill, but eventually they become famous for just being famous.
Toronto’s attempts to strip him of institutional power won’t help bring its celebrity mayor back down to Earth. For one thing, Toronto mayors don’t have a lot of power in the first place. There’s a widespread misconception that Rob Ford runs Toronto. In reality, he mostly just runs around it, occasionally pursued by a Cessna full of cops. Having frittered away his political influence though three years of scandal, and having lost (or fired) the talented staffers who could mount an agenda on his behalf, Ford hasn’t led Toronto in any substantive way since early 2012.
More to the point, Rob Ford was never really seemed interested in the exercise of power, merely its perks. Far from being a government-slashing conservative, he has actually pursued a very narrow vision of the mayoralty, one that was never that far from his roots as the ward councillor who drove around Etobicoke in a beat-up minivan, endearing himself to constituents by answering house calls. In the recently-released court documents, Toronto Police noted Ford staffer David Price’s assessment of the office: “Mayor Ford loves to do the small stuff, the customer service. The strategic stuff is all Doug Ford.”
(And if you think much strategic stuff came to pass, I’ve got a Ferris wheel in the Port lands to sell you.)
Rob Ford’s real power doesn’t come from by-laws or committee chairs. His power is derived from one word: “Mayor.” It’s the word that means that he was elected to the post by a popular vote. It’s the word that gives him the moral authority to speak for a city. It’s a title he’s rendered himself unfit for, but as long as he holds it, it makes him impossible to ignore.
It’s the fact of the mayoralty, not its powers, that lets him command headlines, inflame grievances, and shape the sprit of the times. As long as he’s a sitting, duly-elected mayor, the media will report on everything he says, as they have so diligently thus far. Now that he’s been introduced to the world media, we can expect them to stay tuned as well. The SUN TV show he’s failed his way into by dint of scandal and notoriety debuts tonight. Certainly, nobody seems capable of looking away.
As long as he’s our mayor, we are bound to him. We somehow elected him, and everything he says and does until leaving office will be a reflection on his electorate. Council cannot strip Ford of the only power that matters: the electoral legitimacy that gives him his platform.
For all his disgrace, it remains legitimate, and the premier is reluctant to step in, for that very reason. Forcibly prising it from him could have consequences far worse than leaving him be: He would not only become a martyr, but set a precedent for the removal of future mayors, on grounds that could well be less egregious and more political.
The best-case scenario sees an inkling of conscience visit Ford, to tell him that he’s hurting the city he says he loves by staying. But he is a celebrity now, and it seems to agree with him. We could be in this for the long haul.
Ivor Tossell writes about online culture, urban affairs and technology