Crack-Smoking Toronto Mayor Rewrites Scandal PlaybookEric Lam and Gerrit De Vynck
Former Washington Mayor Marion Barry was forced out of office when he was caught using cocaine, while former U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner stepped down after sending lewd photos of himself to women.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford? He’s not going anywhere, even after he admitted smoking crack cocaine and staff members told police he guzzled vodka in his car and brought suspected prostitutes back to his office.
Toronto City Council yesterday reduced the mayor’s budget while shifting much of his power to Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly, who becomes head of the executive committee that makes recommendations on strategy and budgeting. The mayor was stripped last week of his power to appoint committee heads.
Ford says he’s determined to ride out the storm, unlike other North American lawmakers who quit or were ousted for similar scandals involving sex, drugs and booze.
“You think American-style politics is nasty?” Ford said minutes before the final vote was called yesterday. “This is going to be outright war.”
“Often people who are caught will resign before facing any of the consequences, but that presumes someone’s sense of shame is fairly high,” Scott Basinger, a professor at the University of Houston specializing in political scandal and corruption, said in a phone interview Nov. 15. “That doesn’t seem to be the case in Toronto.”
Canada’s biggest city, nicknamed “Toronto the Good” for a Puritanical streak that lasted well into the 20th century after a Victorian-era drive to curb saloons and “sinful” Sunday shopping, is six months into the Ford controversy. It shows no sign of ending.
“This is absolutely an unprecedented situation,” John Mascarin, a municipal lawyer and partner at Toronto Aird & Berlis LLP, said in a Nov. 15 phone interview. “He’s going to be a lame duck until the next election if he doesn’t step down. They’ll try to ignore him and he’ll keep trying to do what he can do.”
So far this month, the mayor admitted he smoked crack cocaine, purchased illegal drugs and may have driven after drinking. Former staffers told police Ford brought a woman they thought was a prostitute to his office, sexually propositioned a female staff member, guzzled an 11-or 12-ounce bottle of vodka in his car and made a racial slur to a taxi driver, according to documents released by an Ontario court Nov. 13.
Ford’s indiscretions fall somewhere between Barry and former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Jonathan Mendilow, chairman of the political science department at Rider University in New Jersey, said Nov. 15. Barry went to prison after being videotaped in 1990 smoking crack cocaine in a hotel room. Clinton was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives for lying about his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky, though he was later acquitted by the Senate.
In Ford’s case, like “Clinton with Lewinsky, it wasn’t a subject automatically related to his performance as president,” Mendilow said.
Other politicians have run into personal trouble. Former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail as a cover up for his affair with an Argentine woman. Weiner resigned from Congress in 2011 after admitting he sent lewd photos of himself to several women via Twitter.
Ford, 44, has apologized several times for his behavior -- once, with his wife Renata by his side. He denied having a prostitute in his office and using sexually explicit language against a former staff member.
He has admitted he is overweight and is now going to the gym daily, and told CBC television last night he hasn’t had a drop of alcohol in three weeks. He swore off alcohol after having a “come to Jesus” moment and said it “ripped my heart out” when he saw federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, a family friend, on television tearing up over his troubles.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn’t comment on Ford’s situation until yesterday.
“These latest allegations are troubling,” Carl Vallee, press secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, said in an e-mailed statement. “Our government does not condone illegal drug use, especially by elected officials while in office.”
Throughout the controversy, Ford has said he won’t resign. He has the law on his side on several fronts.
Police have said there isn’t enough evidence to warrant a charge against him even after five months of surveillance of his activities during a drugs investigation that turned up the video.
The council has no legal means to remove Ford and the province of Ontario, which is responsible for municipal affairs, is reluctant to step in.
“Effectively, there’s nothing council can do to remove one of their own,” Mascarin said. “Even if there are charges and you’re convicted, that’s still not enough.”
Ford has challenged the legality of the council’s moves and hired George Rust-D’Eye, a specialist in municipal law, to represent him.
The mayor compared the moves to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein attacking Kuwait in 1990.
“You guys have just attacked Kuwait,” he said.
Yesterday’s meeting, which lasted five hours, was halted midway through after a shouting match broke out between Ford and some members of the packed public gallery.
Reporters from France, the U.S., and the U.K. looked on as spectators shouted “shame, shame, shame,” and Ford’s brother, Councilor Doug Ford, shouted back, calling them “scumbags.”
During the chaos, Rob Ford bowled into councilor Pam McConnell, knocking her off her feet, as he ran to help his brother. Ford later apologized to McConnell for running into her.
The mayor can be dismissed if he ceases to be eligible as a voter. A jail sentence may do it, Mascarin said.
Ontario could introduce legislation to end the current mayoral term and call an election, or to amend municipal laws to give the city council itself the power to determine when the mayor’s term ends and an election is to be held, he said.
Underscoring the delicacy of unseating a democratically elected mayor, provincial Premier Kathleen Wynne said Nov. 15 the council’s motions to curb Ford’s power were proof the city could act. Previously she had said the province could explore ways to help the city if asked by the council.
Ford’s biggest impetus to stay is his belief he retains the support of his base. He has repeatedly stood by his platform of “watching every dime” for the taxpayers since the scandal broke. The mayor attended the Toronto Argonauts play-off football game on Nov. 17 and was swarmed by supporters in the stands. The Canadian Football League team had urged the mayor not to attend the game.
Ford won power in October 2010 with 47 percent of the vote, campaigning with the slogan “Stop the Gravy Train.” He has outsourced half the city’s residential waste collection to the private sector, eliminated a vehicle registration fee and waged a battle to expand the city’s transit through subways.
The mayor touted his economic record throughout the scandal, saying no money has been squandered and he continues to fight to cut spending and lower taxes. The city’s net debt to total revenue is 37 percent, compared with an average of about 65 percent to 70 percent for Canadian cities, Moody’s Investors Service said in its annual review on the city, released in May.
Toronto is in the midst of a building boom with hundreds of highrises under construction. It has overtaken Chicago as the fourth-largest North American city with a population of 2.79 million, according to a statement from the city in March. Home to the country’s five largest banks, two of the biggest insurers and its largest wireless operator, Toronto’s economy is driven by financial services.
In the western suburb of Etobicoke, the heart of “Ford Nation,” five of six people interviewed said Nov. 15 they continue to support the mayor.
“I think he deserves a shot at re-election,” Tom Raso, a 40-year-old who works in clothing manufacturing, said at a gas station. “I felt that he delivered and was out to, let’s say, break up the monopoly that I felt has been at city hall. There seems to have been an aristocracy.”
While 51 percent of voters in Etobicoke still think the city is going in the right direction compared with only 36 percent in the downtown core, Ford’s overall support appears to be cracking, according to an online Ipsos Reid poll of 665 voters conducted Nov. 8 to Nov. 12.
Ford got only 33 percent of the support compared with mayoral candidate councilor Karen Stintz at 52 percent, according to the poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
While Ford’s approval rating has dropped to 40 percent from 62 percent in 2011, according to the Ipsos Reid poll, the drop puts him on par with U.S. President Barrack Obama, who had a 41 percent approval rating, according to a Gallup poll for Nov. 15-17.
The fortunes of several politicians show voters are willing to forgive and forget even serious missteps. Clinton served out his term and is now seen as an elder statesman on the world stage. Barry recast himself as a figure of spiritual redemption, and was reelected to his old job as mayor in 1994. He now represents Ward 8, an economically struggling region of Washington, on the city council.
Sanford won a seat in the House of Representatives in May while Weiner went on to run for mayor of New York, though he was defeated after a website reported he had sent lewd Internet messages to more women.
“We have been so surrounded by scandal that we don’t react the way we once did,” Marina Ein, a Washington consultant who helps manage scandal as president of Ein Communications, said in a phone interview on Nov. 14.
“If the politician has staying power, they can just hold on and hope that the people move on,” she said. “It’s a strategy we have seen over and over again -- and sometimes it works.”