Few could have predicted that Canada’s moment in the global spotlight this year would be courtesy of a crack-smoking, “drunken-stupor” mayor who used graphic sexual language on live television.
Rob Ford was a one-man news cycle, as he met each wave of allegations with wild counter-allegations, mixed with a few gaffes and a sprinkling of apologies.
It is for these reasons and more that editors and news directors across the country selected Ford as Canada’s Newsmaker of the Year.
The headline-grabbing, sound bite-generating Toronto mayor received 63 per cent of the votes in the annual survey of the country’s newsrooms by The Canadian Press.
Some of those who voted said they wanted to pick Chris Hadfield, who received 16 per cent of the votes thanks to his inspirational time as commander of the International Space Station. But most felt there was no choice but Ford.
“We loved that Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize. We were amazed when Christy Clark won the B.C. election. Theresa Spence definitely made waves as did Nigel Wright in the PMO,” said Adrienne Tanner, the deputy editor of the Vancouver Sun.
“But really no one tops Rob Ford’s antics of the past year, which went from outrageous to ludicrous to pitiful. He’s the hands-down winner for bad newsmaker of the year. No one else comes close.”
Gravely serious allegations lie at the heart of what sparked myriad Ford controversies, but at each turn his bombastic, confrontational, unfiltered nature fanned the flames and ensured the near-constant stream of shocking news.
When Ford ended months of denials with a surprise crack cocaine admission he handled it by stressing it was in one of his “drunken stupors.”
He dealt with allegations that he made aggressively sexual comments to a former female staffer by making more crude remarks about oral sex on live TV, saying he has “more than enough to eat at home.”
Ford handled a heated council meeting to strip him of his powers by getting into a shouting match with citizens, then running into and knocking down a female councillor.
He responded to the final vote with equal aplomb, comparing it to the invasion of Kuwait.
Such is the current benchmark of Ford scandals that a defamation lawsuit, a sexual assault accusation and a 1999 arrest in Florida for DUI and pot possession now fall far short of this year’s admissions of smoking crack cocaine and buying illegal drugs, alleged associations with gang members and claims of drunk driving.
But what really took Ford from mere polarizing local politician to the heights of global infamy was American media’s infatuation with the story. So saturated with Ford was the coverage down south that TV personalities took to using the shorthand “the crack-smoking mayor of Toronto.”
“In 2013, Rob Ford was probably the most famous (infamous?) mayor in the world,” said Scott Metcalfe, the news director at Toronto radio station 680News.
“Just ask David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, etc.”
It’s not as though previous years have been devoid of Rob Ford news.
But where past scandals involved reading a newspaper and using a cellphone behind the wheel, this year police say staffers told them the mayor drove drunk, one time nearly hitting one of them.
Where in previous years police were called to Ford’s home for domestic incidents – and he once called police when a comedian approached him on his driveway – this year the mayor himself was a target of a months-long investigation.
What police found came out in a stunning series of court document releases containing allegations not proven in court.
Ex-staffers painted a picture of an often erratic man, by turns ill-tempered and weepy, and one who they suspected was an alcoholic.
As police listened to wiretaps during a gang investigation, they overheard discussions about delivering drugs to the mayor and possibly blackmailing him with compromising images, police allege.
During a conversation in March, investigators heard two men talking about plans to sell a tape and quoting Ford as saying “I’ll give you 5,000 and a car,” police allege. Investigators believe a video appearing to show Ford smoking crack cocaine was filmed in February.
The mayor has not fully addressed the alleged ties to gang members, only saying that a photo of him with three of them, one of whom was later shot and killed, taken outside a suspected crack house was the result of a chance meeting. He denies the home is a crack house.
Ford also denies he is an alcoholic, but says he has nevertheless stopped drinking.
He insists his only problem – aside from a political, police and media conspiracy against him – is his weight and he is now regularly working out. His newfound energy was on display when he went on a dancing tear set to live music at a recent council meeting.
Ford’s chief of staff and spokesman did not respond to requests from The Canadian Press for an interview with the mayor.
Since the first Newsmaker of the Year poll back in 1946, politicians have dominated the list.
Other figures who garnered newsmaker votes this year include: a trio of embattled senators and Colette Roy-Laroche, the mayor of Lac-Megantic, Que., each with seven per cent of the votes, as well as Rehtaeh Parsons, a bullied teen who committed suicide and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The votes do not necessarily come with a positive connotation, and in recent years Newsmakers of the Year have included murderers and a scandal-beset RCMP.
Ford’s selection is a rare blend of the political with the salacious. Sandy Heimlich-Hall, the assistant news director of CFJC-TV in Kamloops, B.C., described him as a “slow-motion train wreck.”
But despite all his personal and professional implosions – he’s lost most of his powers, most of his staff, his radio show, a TV show, most of his council allies, his beloved high school football team and any measure of privacy he may have previously enjoyed – Ford is still standing.
All along he has positioned himself as a man of the people, rather than a politician, and is guided by a “very powerful sense of victimhood,” said Ryerson University politics professor Myer Siemiatycki.
“It helps him a lot that he navigates a world of constant blunders by thinking that he’s a victim of the dark forces of others,” Siemiatycki said. “That’s very helpful to a person who self-destructs on a fairly regular occasion.”
Siemiatycki says Ford’s “single-minded self-promotion” as a defender of the taxpayers allows some people to overlook or forgive his many transgressions. Local polls show little change in his approval rating since before the crack video scandal broke in May.
As Ford has already declared his intention to run for re-election in October 2014, some news editors wondered if the next chapter of the Ford saga is yet to come.
“Rob Ford was repeatedly ‘the’ story that stopped you in your tracks,” said Phil Andrews, the managing editor of the Guelph Mercury.
“Just when you felt there could be no further fuel for the Ford story fire, it seemed he provided another splash of kerosene. I’ve never seen anything like it.”