Barring a miraculous comeback, we are in the final weeks of the Ford era. A recent poll shows Mayor Rob Ford well behind rival John Tory, leaving him about even with – oh, the indignity – political opposite Olivia Chow.
But the world’s most infamous mayor is not going quietly. Convinced that his primal bond with the common people will save him from defeat, he blew off a couple of mayoral debates this week to do what he likes best: hit the pavement to greet voters face to face.
“This is what I do: I meet with people,” he told reporters who tagged along on Tuesday evening. “I’ve been doing it for 14 years and I’m going to continue to do it. … I’m all over the place, returning phone calls, coming around. That’s what I do.”
His tour began with a pep talk to campaign volunteers at Ford headquarters. “I’m pumped,” he told them, red-faced and sweating through his black pin-striped suit from an earlier round on the street. After leading them in a lusty chant of the Ford slogan, “Promises made, promises kept,” he took off, following a brilliant rainbow that seemed to come down just where he was headed: a suburban tract near Jane and Finch.
When reporters caught up to him, he was marching down the sidewalk, ducking into each doorway in this heavily Italian neighbourhood. “Hi, signora. How’s everything?” he said as he greeted one grey-haired woman on her porch. “If there’s anything you need, let me know.” He gestured to her driveway. “Love the interlocking brick.”
Although he is a heavy man even after rehab – “I’m 285 pounds of fun,” he told one admirer; down, he says from his former 300-plus – he kept a brisk pace, even breaking into a run from time to time. “I’m going to teach you the football moves, man,” he joked as he dodged past a trio of young middle-school boys who followed him on his trek. “I can move pretty quick for a big guy.”
As he worked his way down the broad suburban streets, he barked orders at his staff for more water, more fridge magnets, more business cards. Planes bound for nearby Pearson airport roared overhead. The setting sun turned the clouds pink.
The mayor stopped to greet a curious girl, perhaps seven or eight. After losing one future voter by mistaking her for a boy despite her flowing hair – “Hello, little man” – he righted himself and offered her some advice. “I’ll give you a little secret: Get as much education as possible. It’s the lightest luggage you’ll ever have to carry.”
He took a selfie with a guy unloading golf clubs from his car after a bachelor party. He took another with a young couple, about to be married, who wanted a picture for their wedding album. He waved as one excited woman exclaimed from her porch: “Jimmy Fallon talks about you all the time.”
Not everyone was paying attention just because he is a global celebrity. He found plenty of real backers, too, though maybe not quite the 99-per-cent support he claimed. “We’ve never, ever seen a mayor come by or care about this street,” said Ida Cipolla, 52.
“He’s the best mayor out there,” said Doug Muir, 33, who told of how Mr. Ford helped get his disabled son a special bathroom when they lived in community housing. “He helps people – struggling people that need the help.”
It is just this kind of hands-on, street-level politics that helped bring Mr. Ford to the mayor’s chair in 2010 – answering hundreds of phone calls, getting potholes fixed and drains cleared, showing up personally to deal with little neighbourhood issues.
Can it work again? Unlikely. For every voter who loves the guy to death, there are many who are fed up with the scandals and the lies and the nonsense.
But in his awkward way, Mr. Ford is good at this kind of politics, and his success at it is a caution to every politician who spends too much time behind a desk or a podium.
It is hard not to wonder what will become of Mr. Ford if the voters toss him out as they should and the pothole calls dry up. The energy that drives him to dash down the street in a business suit on a humid summer night is drawn from this connection. “I go up, say hi, give them my card. I don’t have to explain myself. They know exactly who I am and what I stand for,” he told reporters.
A few minutes later, after telling one more elderly lady how and where to vote, he climbed into a black SUV, waved, “Bye everyone, thank you very much,” and drove off into the soft night.