Among the many qualities that endear Rob Ford to the voters of Toronto is his bluntness. That’s as good a word as any to describe a politician who in 2007 said that cyclists who got killed on the city’s roadways had no one to blame but themselves (roads are for cars) or who a year later said that “those Oriental people work like dogs… I’m telling you, the Oriental people, they’re slowly taking over.”
A long-serving member of the Toronto City Council representing the posh Etobicoke suburb where he grew up, the conservative-populist Ford proved that disregard for political correctness can be a political plus. In 2010 he was easily elected Mayor on a tax-cutting, waste-slashing platform. Even revelations during the campaign of his arrest by Florida police in 1999 for erratic driving with marijuana about his person did nothing to dent his popularity.
But if Torontonians imagined Mr Ford, 44, might tone himself down once in the city’s highest office, they were apparently mistaken. And now it seems the Teflon may now be peeling away from Mr Ford, as a scandal on the scale of which not even the Mayor has weathered before looms over him.
Ten days ago the Toronto Star and the gossip website Gawker reported having seen a homemade video of him deploying a homophobic slur to describe the new leader of the opposition Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau. And something else: the tape showed him at the same time purportedly drawing on a crack cocaine pipe. Reporters are not his favourite breed because they have deemed this worth pursuing.
Mr Ford has called the allegations “ridiculous”. Last Friday, he declared: “I do not use crack cocaine, nor am I an addict of crack cocaine.” The tape, by extension, either doesn’t exist or is a fake. Happily for him, it has yet to resurface and no one apart from those two organisations has seen it. Everything else, however, is bad news for him. On Monday both his press spokesmen resigned abruptly, leaving without even a farewell. On Thursday last week, his chief of staff also walked, though it seems that he was fired.
For a while there was a faintly comic feel to the story. Satirical news programmes south of the border in the US not accustomed to being entertained by things Canadian plunged in. Rather boringly, however, Mr Ford appeared to have taken the decision just to weather it out. But by today, things were turning a good deal darker amid reports that quoted aides close to Mr Ford suggesting a link between the tape and the murder of a man two months ago.
Mr Ford’s fired chief of staff, Mark Towhey, had gone to the police one day after the story first broke to report a tip-off he had received from another man in the Mayor’s inner circle, David Price. Mr Price, who seemingly manages day-to-day logistics for Mr Ford, had told him he might know the address where the video in question was being kept and asked if he should attempt to retrieve it.
Mr Towhey was reportedly appalled, exclaiming to Mr Price: “We’re not getting the ****ing thing”. But Mr Price had more, it seems. Gawker and the Star had also published a picture of Ford smiling in the middle of a small group of men, one of whom had been gunned down on a Toronto street at the end of March. Mr Price suggested the video tape might at one time have belonged to the man and that he had been murdered because of what it contained. Confronted with these new revelations, Mr Ford said merely, “Ask my staff”.
The Canadian media is, unsursprisingly, now taking a second look at Mr Ford. His father founded a labels company and was a member of the Ontario legislature. His elder brother, Doug Ford, is on the City Council. But a long investigative report published this week by The Globe and Mail newspaper suggests drugs and the Fords were not exactly strangers. Citing unnamed sources, the paper alleges that Doug Ford was for some years in his youth “a go-to dealer of hash” in Etibicoke. “What has emerged is a portrait of a family once deeply immersed in the illegal drug scene,” it said. “All three of the Mayor’s older siblings – brother Randy, 51, and sister Kathy, 52, as well as Doug, 48 – reportedly had ties to drug traffickers.”
A lawyer for Doug Ford is also quoted, denying the thrust of the piece. “Your references to unnamed alleged sources of information represent the height of irresponsible and unprofessional journalism given the gravely serious and specious allegations of substantial criminal conduct,” Gavin Tighe complained.
All bets will be off for Mayor Ford of course should the video suddenly show up. The main threat in that regards appears to be Gawker, which began a campaign to raise from its readers the $200,000 that the owners of the tape – drug dealers themselves – originally asked for it. On Monday, Gawker said it had obtained all the necessary pledges but had lost touch with the dealers.
In 2010, the voters in the Toronto suburbs had grown tired of then left-Green Mayor David Miller, who, to them, seemed elitist and more interested in bike lanes than anything else. They responded to Mr Ford precisely because of his rough edges and a poll released this week showed that his support – though probably not enough to win him re-election next year – has not been dented one bit by the crack cocaine commotion.
Should the video surface, of course, and seem to bear out what Gawker and the Star are claiming, that benefit-of-the-doubt sympathy will surely implode.