“Business as Usual”: Why Rob Ford Just Might be a Political Genius

No matter how Torontonians feel about their mayor, at least until the next election, they are stuck with him.

If Rob Ford was employed as an executive by any private organization he’d have been fired months ago. The question is: why? Illegal drug use? Sure, Rob Ford smoked crack while – by his own admission – in an alcohol-induced blackout.

As a recovering alcoholic, I understand the seriousness of his admission. I hope that at least some businesses have enough sense to not treat addicted employees like they are corrupt. However, I suspect most do just that. This is flat wrong, because addicts are by definition mentally ill according to the Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. So, despite the reality that he would have lost his job in the private sector, Ford does not deserve to be fired because of his addictions. He is, however, obligated to seek treatment for his problems. Ford has not been honest with himself or his constituents. He has not even admitted he has a problem.

Alright, but what if Ford’s illegal drug use has negatively impacted his effectiveness as mayor? Wouldn’t that be grounds for firing him?

There is ample evidence that the scandal over his illegal drug use has certainly affected Mayor Ford’s ability to do his job. On November 13th, Toronto city council spent a great deal of time on two motions addressing the issue. After much heated debate, including an asinine stare-down contest between Mayor Ford and Councilor Denzil Menin-Wong, council voted 37-5 in favor of asking him to step aside. Ford then left the council and did not return for discussions on other matters.

More debates on Mayor Ford’s problems are scheduled for Friday November 15th. These motions, debates, and votes represent valuable time and energy that Toronto’s elected officials should be spending on the urgent business of running Canada’s largest city. If not for Mayor Ford’s very public imbroglios, the municipal government would be functioning far more effectively. Moreover, it’s difficult to see how Ford could now muster any support from city council for his own initiatives.

Here’s the real reason why Ford would almost certainly have been fired if he was a private-sector executive instead of a public sector one: far more serious than his drug use has been his hectoring, disdainful approach, not only to the original accusations, but throughout his time as councilor and mayor. Not only did he outright lie, he accused the Toronto Star of conducting a smear campaign, referred to members of the media as “maggots” on his radio program, and besmirched the reputations of several people who turned out to be absolutely correct.

In fact, Rob Ford transformed the mayor’s office into his own bully pulpit. He has not apologized about this outrageous behavior or addressed it in any way. It is his attitude of self-righteous, childish anger and entitlement that is truly disturbing, and are probably the roots of his substance abuse. Ford needs to take responsibility, which is the first step in addiction recovery. It is this glaring “crack” in his personality that truly makes him unfit for office. And yet, in his office he remains.

The uncomfortable truth is that despite all his apparent dysfunction, Rob Ford has proven to be an exceedingly crafty and skilled politician. Perhaps, dare I write it, even a genius! Even before the current mess broke open, he had already survived a hornet’s nest of scandals involving improper campaign spending, booze, drugs, run-ins with the law, offensive language and temper tantrums. So it’s not very surprising that he hangs on to his political power now. In fact, some polls indicate that his support has risen since Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair’s announcement that he had seen THE video.

What is Rob Ford’s secret to this outstanding political success?

Ford has been very effective at portraying himself as a “regular guy.” This creates the background against which “Ford Nation” can paint self- mollifying images of their hero as a hardworking, dedicated, straightforward leader who gets things done for his constituents. So what if he lets loose once in a while? He returns their calls.

Despite the current mess, Ford has accomplished something that very few politicians at any level are able to get away with. He has pulled a superbly Machiavellian bait-and-switch. Coming out the way he did, giving the appearance of an off-the-cuff, last-minute confession to the cameras, getting city hall reporters to repeat the key question and then responding to it authoritatively, all of these were brilliant maneuvers. Even his statement, “Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine,” asserted the primacy of the drug use over all those other issues.

Then, following the initial bombshell, after keeping reporters waiting for hours in a tense and hyper-alert scrum outside his office, came the self-pitying apology for using crack. Note the focus on himself, that his admission was the “right thing to do,” that he felt like “a thousand pounds had been lifted” off his shoulders. Note also backhanded self-justification of Ford’s statement of “how difficult this was to do,” his fervent hope that “nobody – but nobody – has to go through what I’ve gone through.”

Yes, it has been hard on him. Certainly, it would be far more difficult for the private sector executive who in Ford’s shoes would be treading the pavement searching for a new job.

Ford’s purposeful diversion to the drug issue has blinkered much of the media to the truly egregious shenanigans of his tenure. As political commentator Rex Murphy has noted, Ford, made admissions so extraordinary that the phrase “one of my drunken stupors” was merely a footnote. Since that afternoon, the focus of the discourse has been very tight: it’s all about the crack cocaine, stupid. The glare Ford himself created has virtually effaced his bullying, bald-faced lies, and blatant character assassination that have besmirched the mayor’s office.

This is nothing new for Ford. He exhibited very similar behavior dealing with the scandal over his 1999 Florida drunk-driving and pot possession arrest. When asked by a Toronto Sun reporter about the incident, Ford’s response was unequivocal: “No to answer your question,” he was quoted as saying during his 2010 mayoral run. “I’m dead serious. When I say no, I mean never. No question. Now I’m getting offended. No means no.” Then, when presented with impeccable evidence to the contrary, Ford changed his tune: “I completely forgot about it until you mentioned it right now,” he claimed. “You think I’m BSing you but I’m not. It completely, totally slipped my mind. It was nothing. It wasn’t a major issue. There’s more serious things in life.” The punch line is that despite the story the Sun broke, that paper continued to endorse Ford for mayor.
There is the tried and true Ford formula of success: deny, deny, then flatly deny with a strong dash of righteous indignation. Then, in cornered response to last-minute incontrovertible evidence, a half-hearted rationalization, and a good chest thump. And then certainly, it is back to “business as usual”: back to the same erratic, reckless behavior that caused him – and Toronto – big problems in the first place. Ultimately, Ford knows that even incontrovertible evidence probably won’t stick. He returns calls, remember? He’s a standup guy.
Mayor Ford should be applauded for his disquieting yet ingenious grasp of municipal politics. He has managed to achieve virtually unimpeachable power over one of the largest municipalities in the Western hemisphere. He has partied harder than granite. He got away with cruelly berating his critics on his weekly radio show, reaching tens of thousands in his own personal “nation.” And to top it all off, his support seems to be swelling. Due to the ludicrous weakness of the Ontario Municipal Act, Rob Ford cannot be fired unless he goes to jail. This farce sounds an awful lot like the iron-clad job security of unionized city employees that Ford built his career shouting about. As Machiavelli himself asserted, “Politics have no relation to morals.” Bravo, Mayor Ford.

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