Last week, the mayor’s willful, “reckless ignorance” defence at his conflict-of-interest hearing seemed like the ultimate low point in a madcap summer of royal administrative snafus. But that was before the Ford Fest bash on Friday night, where he triumphantly enumerated his successes and launched his campaign for re-election in 2014.
Sept. 7, Home of Diane Ford (Rob Ford’s mother), near Scarlett Road and Eglinton—The huge red, white, and blue sign atop the pool-house in the centre of Mama Ford’s sprawling backyard says “Welcome Ford Nation,” and more than 6,000 of that republic’s mostly joyful inhabitants are here. The mayor has sent out invites via email and robocall, and even went on the radio to tell the whole city to come to the annual Ford Fest barbecue. So here they are, hoping the rain holds off, discussing the turnout, admiring the neo-classical sculptured stone fountains, and smoking in the designated area along the fenceline. But mostly, they’re lining up—half an hour to meet the mayor at the front door, two hours for burgers, 20 minutes for beer and wine, 15 minutes for the port-a-potties. Thanks to security, TV reporters, and blocked-off streets, it’s impossible to find parking within a block of the place.
Diane Ford has a big stone stage at one end of her property, and the Top 40 dance music a DJ is playing over the loudspeakers stops abruptly just before 8 p.m. A live rock band, featuring the drumming skills of Scarborough Southwest councillor Gary Crawford, gets up with some children from the audience to play Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2).” Some of the two or three dozen activist critics of the mayor who’ve biked and bussed out here to Etobicoke—there’s a Pride contingent, a gang of political bloggers and Tweeters—wonder if it’s meant as some kind of ironic statement. Given that the mayor has been raked over the coals in court this week for his aversion to reading up on city procedure, “We don’t need no education” seems to serve as a timely statement.
After the Floyd song, the event’s MC, Newstalk 1010 host Jerry Agar, gets on stage and says, “There are a few people who want to say a few words. First up is Mr. Clayton Ruby…” The crowd begins to boo and hiss. “Oh, wait, I’m told he was tasered by security at the front door,” Agar adds. There’s a mild cheer and some laughter. Oh, right, Clayton Ruby.
Ruby is the famous lawyer trying to get Ford turfed from office. Two days before Ford Fest, Ruby spent a long day in the courtroom cross-examining the mayor—and, to be quite frank, making a fool of him without having to work very hard. To recap: Before he was mayor, Ford improperly used his councillor-office resources to solicit donations for his high-school football charity, and city council ordered him to repay $3,150 to donors as a penalty. This February, now-Mayor Ford made a speech and voted on a motion that forgave him the penalty—which appears to violate conflict-of-interest rules since he gained directly from the decision. And it turns out the minimum penalty for violating conflict-of-interest laws is removal from office.
On the stand, Ford admitted he had never even read the conflict-of-interest guidelines, or sought any advice on them. In fact, he said he wasn’t familiar with all kinds of concepts you’d expect a mayor to know—including the city solicitor’s job description. It’s not that this level of incuriosity and ignorance and unsophistication was a surprise, necessarily, to anyone who’s followed the mayor for a long time. It’s that it was so baldly, unapologetically displayed in the courtroom for hours at a time.
Ford frequently didn’t understand the questions he was asked, and about 20 times he repeated his own personal (and misguided) definition of the rules: namely, that it isn’t a conflict of interest unless “the city benefits and I benefit.” Ruby, dubious, played a video of Ford uttering a more conventional definition of the rules, at odds with his insistence he’d always thought as he now did. “Did you understand the words as you were speaking?” Ruby asked. “No,” Ford said, his voice soft and cracking. The mayor’s own testimony, to summarize, was that he is not just ignorant, but proudly so. Ruby’s assertion was that the mayor was being dishonest. It was the mayor’s own defence that he wasn’t telling untruths. Ford was belligerently ignorant, uninformed, unadvised, unwilling to even momentarily consider that his interpretation of things—matters he openly acknowledged he knew nothing at all about—were in error.
Honestly, it has been that kind of summer—that kind of year—for the mayor. In January, he had his budget rewritten by his city council opponents. In February, he saw council quash his subway dream in favour of a transit plan of its own. And then there was that confrontation with a Toronto Star reporter near Ford’s house, the controversy about reading while he was driving on the highway, and the really sad episode where his comments after a shooting showed he had no understanding of what the federal immigration department does. Even his big political triumph, the launch of contracted-out garbage collection in part of the city, was mired in delays during its first weeks.
And to top off the summer of Ford’s discontent, last week Ruby actually seemed to have a chance to throw the mayor out of office. Just one day before Ford Fest, Ruby had stood in court and accused the mayor of willful, “reckless ignorance.” And the mayor sat listening to him at a table in the courtroom behind his own lawyers, hunched over and pouting, all alone.
This sad display fails to prompt any sort of dark night of the Fordian soul at the annual burger bash. Agar is up there on stage with Ford, and so is the mayor’s brother, Doug. Eventually, they are joined by a handful of city councillors, MP Mark Adler, and provincial Conservative leader Tim Hudak, who promises that Ford’s subway dream will never die. But most importantly, he’s got thousands of taxpayers here eating his food, drinking his beer, and cheering him on. As he takes the microphone now to wild applause and chanting, he looks as relaxed as anyone has seen him since before he ran for mayor. Gone is the halting, stuttering delivery of his official mayoral pronouncements; the humiliated, confused whisper of his voice in court is even further removed. Now he’s letting loose—his “interpretation” of the state of his administration clearly untouched by the earlier events of the week.
“It was two years ago that I sat here…saying, ‘When I get down to City Hall, the gravy train is over.’ Well, folks, the gravy train is over!” He describes how he got rid of the “$60 car tax,” got a deal with the unions that will mean no strike for four years, and contracted out garbage. “I said, ‘I don’t need a chauffer, I don’t need a driver,’” and the crowd goes wild. As he continues, his voice gets louder and huskier.
“So folks, I’m not going to list all our accomplishments, but I have to tell you one thing! The campaign for the next election has started today. The next election is two years away, we have to get out there, bang on the doors. As you saw this week, they’re coming after us every which way. They want to continue the high taxes, the big spending, the out-of-control waste at City Hall.” He concludes, “The tax-and-spend people want to take it back, and they are not getting it back. We have the city turned around. We have to keep it turned around.”
When the speeches finish, the opening chords of “Eye of the Tiger”—the training-montage theme from Rocky III—blast from the speakers, and the mayor is mobbed. Surrounded by a phalanx of security guards and his office staff, he makes his way slowly, very slowly, from the stage, surrounded by well-wishers trying to shake his hand. A TV reporter next to me steps out to do a stand-up, but I hear Nick Kouvalis, Ford’s campaign guru from 2010 and former chief of staff, tell her, “You’re about to miss the best part.” He bobs his head, grinning widely with a beer in his hand, as Survivor’s sole hit plays: “Rising up, back on the street / Did my time, took my chances / Went the distance now I’m back on my feet / Just a man and his will to survive…”
A couple of days after Ford Fest, the summer break at City Hall will end. Back at work, the mayor will face more headaches: another budget, the Port Lands report, proposals for new taxes from councillors, and complaints that he’s skipping meetings to coach football and using his office staff as football assistants. He has lost control of council, and it’s unclear what his own hopes for the remainder of his term are. In the coming weeks, a judge will decide whether he can even keep the job, and if he’ll be banned from running for it again.
Downtown, the mayor faces serious legal and policy emergencies, and his fate hangs in the balance, but across the yard, the burger line is still going strong.