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bearing witness

Jeff Silverstein, spokesperson for Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, files nomination withdrawal papers for Ford and also Ford's nephew, Michael Ford, on Sept. 12, 2014.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Bearing Witness: 2014 — The Globe and Mail looks back on the cataclysmic news events of 2014 through the eyes of the people who were there – be they bystanders, participants or journalists. Their accounts shaped our perceptions, while their witnessing the events changed their lives.

In just a few short months over the summer, Jeff Silverstein went from stranger to close confidant of Rob Ford. Hired in midsummer to serve as Mr. Ford's spokesman, he watched as the controversial former Toronto mayor battled addiction in rehab, defied calls for his resignation and mounted a comeback campaign.

But on the morning of Sept. 12, Mr. Silverstein stood by as Mr. Ford made an agonizing decision. After a stunning turn of events left him in hospital with what turned out to be cancer, Mr. Ford decided to drop out of the mayoral race. His brother Doug Ford would run in his place.

With just three hours to go before the city's 2 p.m. nomination deadline, Mr. Silverstein would be the one tasked with pulling off the candidacy switch, from the mayor known worldwide for smoking crack to his bombastic brother, a former councillor.

"Even in the face of this, he couldn't imagine not running. It was really hard for him to accept that he was not going to be able to run," Mr. Silverstein said. "I couldn't believe that I was the one that was actually doing that, after everything he had been through."

At City Hall, Mr. Silverstein was met by a crush of media. They shouted questions, wanting to know about the mayor's condition and whether he would continue his campaign. But Mr. Silverstein stayed silent.

"I knew just how monumental this moment was, and I didn't want to be the one to make that public and tell the media at that moment that's what I was doing," he said. "I felt it needed more dignity than that."

With dozens of reporters and TV cameras surrounding him, he walked into the Election Services office and submitted the paperwork. Everything seemed to be in order.

Minutes later, back up in the mayor's office, he learned otherwise.

"We got a phone call from the head of the elections office, saying 'Actually, you need to go back with a witness, and have the mayor sign his forms all over again.' "

At that point, Mr. Silverstein and Mr. Ford's chief of staff, Dan Jacobs, had less than 45 minutes until the deadline.

Councillor Peter Leon just happened to be in his City Hall office, so they grabbed him as a witness and rushed back to hospital.

"We waited for what seemed like forever for the elevator to arrive. I'm looking at my watch, thinking 'I'm not sure we're going to make this,' " Mr. Silverstein said.

"Everything was on the line. If we didn't get there in time, the whole thing would fall apart."

They finally got up to the 11th floor, ran down the hallway toward the mayor's room and then hurried back to City Hall.

At the Election Services office, Mr. Silverstein submitted the forms – completed properly this time. "We got there with minutes to spare."

Afterward, he returned to the hospital to visit with Mr. Ford.

"It was a real feeling of disappointment," he said. "We had all been working so hard to help turn things around."

Ann Hui is a member of The Globe's Toronto City Hall bureau.