As we look back on the year that was in this land of interesting mayors, let’s tip our hat to the charismatic, young new mayor of Edmonton, Don Iveson, who sailed into office on a tide of progressive optimism for a growing city. Let us nod to Naheed Nenshi, who provided level-headed leadership in the midst of a natural disaster, and won a handy re-election.
Let us also pause to recognize 2013’s graduating class of Montreal mayors – I lost track after the third – especially any of them who made it through to December un-indicted. And let us most of all give thanks for Gilles Vaillancourt, the erstwhile mayor of Laval, who bestowed upon us the single best mayoral moment of the year, whatever the competition: When the RCMP raided his apartment, his cousin (and, apparently, landlord) panicked and tried to flush a substantial wad of cash down the toilet. This is when she learned that Canada’s new plastic money doesn’t flush. In fact floats until it clogs your drain at exactly the moment the Mounties burst in.
Surely that’s it. Did I miss anybody? Oh, right.
Look up: It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a Cessna full of cops! It’s Rob Ford, the Mayor of Toronto who lied about smoking crack with alleged gangsters and is still the Mayor of Toronto.
In a country with so many interesting civic characters, of both the earnest and crooked varieties, it seems manifestly unfair that 2013 would once again be a the Year of the Ford. Yet if I pretended it was anything else, you wouldn’t believe me. In his three years in office, Mr. Ford has gone from small-government wrecking ball to self-destructing scandal magnet to an avatar for the western world’s malaise with democracy. Beat that, Michael Applebaum.
Part of this fixation, we must credit to power of variety. It is as if the news gods bestowed upon Toronto the most fantastic device: a Random News Generator shaped like a largish populist. Every time you poke him, he does something different. Is it May? He must be embroiled in a crack scandal. November? Murder mystery! Is it December? Dancing at churches and defaming people. (Lately, one in every three pokes seems to yield an insincere apology, which may just be a seasonal glitch.)
Yet it’s his weird survivability that’s made Mr. Ford a household name around the world. Ordinary politicians might be successes or failures; they might be crooks on the take; but they all seem to be content to fall into the categories that life has put them into. The graceful are graced until further notice, and the disgraced feed themselves into the court system and discretely slip from view.
We know how to process that. Rob Ford, on the other hand, spent the year defying every law of politics that citizens of western democracies have come to accept, in much the same way as residents of this present universe have frankly become complacent about the laws of physics. He sails on like a concrete blimp floated by the forces of harnessed unreality. He crashes like a train wreck that keeps on crashing; a sunken ship that still finds a way to sink again. And the only reason we care, really, is because a sizeable chunk of his voters are standing by him.
The story of 2013 is not Rob Ford. The story of 2013 is Rob Ford’s supporters. Ford is a very interesting person, and a very disturbing person, but he’s just one person. With seven billion of us on the planet, we’re bound to pop out some odd ones. But the 40 to 44 per cent of Torontonians who keep telling telephone-poll robots that they at least somewhat support Mr. Ford are more troublesome. That’s not other people. On some level, that’s us.
We wouldn’t fret if people rejected him. This is the kind of stuff that political partisans are supposed to find common ground on. Yes, it’s easier to dislike Mr. Ford if you have strong feelings about bike lanes. But you can be a perfectly dogged small-government conservative and not lose any credibility by agreeing that – to pick examples at random – hanging out with gang members, being connected to extortion attempts, losing phones at crack-houses, having friends beaten by a pipe-wielding thug who was looking for an incriminating video whose existence you deny then lying up and down about your illegal activity for months are incompatible with being a leader, or, for that matter, an adult.
Yet Mr. Ford’s persistent supporters don’t seem interested in these considerations. They don’t react to policies they like, or character traits we can all admire, but to the very worst behaviour in a politician. Many of them are alienated or isolated. They speak to growing disconnects in our body politic, like the erosion of a middle class that feels included and has something to aspire to.
This is the question as we head into 2014 and its election: Is Ford the head of a cult of personality, a one-off whose time will pass? Or is Ford a freak weather event – a harbinger of a changing climate that we’re at a loss to control? If so, then mayors everywhere should worry. No wonder the world is watching.
Ivor Tossell writes about online culture, urban affairs and technology