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Democracy can be a messy, noisy, vulgar, even violent business. Democratic politics often gives us rogues, mountebanks, demagogues and radicals, from Huey Long to Louis Riel. But it is fair to say that in the recent history of Canada, we have never seen anything like Robert Bruce Ford, the 64th mayor of Toronto.
There he was in city council on Monday, on trial for his political life. A more thoughtful man might have made a persuasive case for why it was wrong to strip a directly elected leader of his powers, whatever his sins. A smarter politician might have thrown his critics for a loop by agreeing, at last, to take a short break to revive himself. The public loves a comeback story.
Instead, he turned this grave moment in the life of the city into yet another clown show. Plumbing a new low in a descent that seems to have no bottom, he hollered at the public gallery, pantomimed drunk driving to mock one city councillor and bowled over another, a grey-haired grandmother.
His brother, Councillor Doug Ford, yelled "scumbag" at someone in the gallery and "you're a disgrace, you little punk." The mayor chimed in, "Saving money? You don't like saving money? I save money." Then, caricaturing his critics as usual, he shouted, "NDP, NDP, NDP," at the spectators and, sarcastically, "socialism is great." He stood and clapped when his brother taunted a fellow councillor. He laughed out loud when a citizen stormed out of the chamber shouting for an end to his "bullying" antics.
He strutted around the chamber or leaned back in his chair in a show of indifference as councillors spoke solemnly of why they were compelled to strip him of his powers. Then, finally, came the pièce de résistance, when he compared the attack on his mayoralty to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, and warned, Al Capone style: "What goes around, comes around, friends. Remember what I am saying."
City council has seen some wild scenes, but nothing quite like this: a rogue mayor, facing demotion by his peers, lashing out at his tormentors. It was like that moment in the schoolyard when the class thugs, used to picking on weaker, smaller kids, suddenly find themselves surrounded by a crowd. Spitting defiance, unreformed, unrepentant and unrehabilitated, Mr. Ford made it clear he that he is not going gracefully, if he goes at all.
It is hard to pick the ugliest moment in this spectacle. Even before the session on reducing his powers began, Mr. Ford confronted councillor Adam Vaughan over a difference of opinion on, of all things, loading zones on city streets. Coming right up to the seated councillor, he drummed on the desk then made a derisive kissing sound with his lips in much the same spirit as he blew a kiss at the media the other day. He did not mean it nicely.
His next target, once the debate got under way, was Paul Ainslie, a councillor who recently had the nerve to disagree with him over the future of rapid transit. Mr. Ainslie's driving licence was suspended for three days last spring after he took a breathalyzer test in a roadside stop. No charges were laid.
When Mr. Ainslie interrupted the mayor's brother, an angry Doug Ford said, "Okay, councillor Ainslie, you've got issues of your own." It was then that the mayor made the gesture that is bound to end up on another round of late-night comedy shows: Turning to face Mr. Ainslie, he tipped his thumb back as if drinking from a bottle and waved his arms as if he were a drunk with a steering wheel. Not the cleverest move from a man who has admitted driving under the influence and was said by aides (in unproven allegations to police) to have been chugging vodka and Gatorade behind the wheel.
It was hard to believe it, but not long after the Ainslie moment, the mayor took the Speaker's chair and warned the fellow councillors: "Please, give people respect when they're on the floor." Respect?
He was at first ungracious even in his apology to Pam McConnell, the veteran councillor he knocked over when rushing (in his version) to his brother's side as he confronted the public gallery. He said he was sorry to "anybody I offended when I rushed to my brother's defence." Only under pressure did he extend a proper apology to the councillor, who spent the afternoon holding an ice pack to her face.
For once, when the crowd cried, "Shame," it did not sound sound sanctimonious, just correct.
Marcus Gee is The Globe's Toronto City Hall columnist.