To his critics, Rob Ford has been something of a hundred-year storm, his mayoralty marked by steep budget cuts and sharp policy reversals.
But to a far greater degree, Mr. Ford’s career may end up being defined not so much by his policies as by his comportment – and by whatever impulses that have produced a string of unnecessary scandals marked by a tendency to take risks that many politicians would consider unthinkable.
Reports that Mr. Ford was asked to leave a gala event seem to be the latest in a string of incidents that could raise questions about his judgment.
His office is strenuously denying the allegations. Scarborough councillor Paul Ainslie confirms that he’s urged Mr. Ford to leave the event, but others say they haven’t observed the alleged behaviour: “I’ve never seen him drunk at work or even drinking at work,” says Peter Milczyn, an Etobicoke councilor.
Mr. Ford has found himself in similar binds before. Over the years, he has been caught out in a range of embarrassing situations, ranging from an outburst at a Maple Leaf hockey game to incidents involving his car. He’s given the finger to drivers who took issue with his cell phone use, and was photographed reading while driving on a highway.
Far more revealing, however, has been his response to such incidents. Mr. Ford will typically deny or dismiss accusations. But privately, he has resisted repeated and often well-intentioned attempts by his closest advisors, handlers and allies to change the way he reacts to these allegations and deals with the issues they generate. He does not `handle,’ in the parlance of politics.
He has repeatedly declined to take any remedial action to avoid such criticism. For example, he refused to hire a driver, despite calls from the chief of police that such clearly dangerous habits imperil not just himself but other citizens. During the long-running controversy over his involvement with the Ford family’s football charity, Mr. Ford refused to distance himself from the foundation as a means of short-circuiting accusations of political conflict of interest.
In fact, there have been times when Mr. Ford appears to be acting without any political or bureaucratic advice whatsoever. When he called a radio station over the weekend and expressed his views about the trial of Richard Kachkar – the man accused of killing a Toronto police officer with a stolen snow plough – he almost forced a mistrial. But the more egregious sin was that he seemed not to understand that as a public figure, he shouldn’t be weighing in during the middle of a sensitive trial.
How does all this connect to his politics? Mr. Ford has always practiced high-wire politics. Before becoming mayor, as Toronto journalist Ed Keenan documented in Some Great Idea, Mr. Ford built a reputation as a likeable retail politician who easily connected with ordinary people and solved his constituents’ problems. At the same time, he aggravated many of his council colleagues with personal attacks.
The mayoralty amplified the tension between Mr. Ford’s best and worst instincts. In his early months as mayor, he preferred to bully centrist members of council to pursue unachievable goals rather than forge pragmatic alliances. Yet this with-us-or-against-us approach backfired badly. Since late 2011, Mr. Ford has been unable to advance his agenda, and the sense of political impotence has served to foreground the personal scandals.
It’s not clear whether the latest allegations will prompt Mr. Ford to change his ways or hunker down. There was a time when Mr. Ford’s foibles humanized him. But Mr. Ford’s mayoralty today appears to be trapped in limbo, leaving him politically isolated to a degree rarely seen for public figure in his position.