On a recent morning, in the second week of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s self-immolation tour, George Smitherman was getting his morning coffee at a Starbucks when the man behind him in line recognized his face. “George,” the man said, we wished it had been you.
Smitherman has been hearing that a lot lately. In the 2010 city election, Smitherman, a member of the Ontario Liberal Party, had 290,000 votes to Ford’s 384,000. He lost. To Rob Ford.
There were approximately 40 registered candidates participating in that election. They all lost. To Rob Ford.
“It’s a bit surreal, I think,” says Smitherman, who now works in the private sector for a consulting firm. “I’m just trying to resist being the guy who says, ‘I told you so.’ ”
But it was difficult when he saw Ford’s news conference earlier this month, the one in which Ford finally admitted to smoking crack while in a “drunken stupor.” This was before the news conference in which Ford insisted he was a positive role model for the youth of Canada. It was before Monday, when Ford bulldozed a gray-haired councilwoman to the ground in the middle of a public meeting, and it was before the City of Toronto stripped Ford of most of his powers, leaving him mayorally eunuched.
This was before Tuesday, when he went on the “Today” show and demanded of Matt Lauer, “Say your son or daughter got killed in a car accident and you’re plastered out of your mind at 3 a.m. in the morning, are you able to handle that?”
“I was shocked that this was happening,” says Joe Pantalone, who came in third place in 2010 with 95,000 votes. “He seems to have really crossed the line from erratic behavior — which is not nice but can be forgiven — to — well, really the First Citizen of Toronto should not be hanging around criminals and then denying it.”
Pantalone is referring to the video that launched this entire business: In May, several news outlets reported that they had seen footage of Ford, 44, doing drugs and making homophobic and racist remarks. For clarification, this is a different video than the recent one in which Ford, besieged by reporters in a scrum, belligerently announced that he didn’t need to engage in oral sex with a female staffer because he was well-satisfied at home. It is also a different video than the one of Ford staggering around a dining room and bellowing, about an unknown party, “I’m gonna kill that [expletive] guy. I’m telling you, it’s first-degree murder.”
Pantalone, 61, had a 30-year career in public service, including seven years as the deputy mayor of Toronto. He chaired several committees, including Urban Environment and Development, Metro Drug Abuse Prevention Task Force and the National Trade Centre Building Committee, until — just to be clear — he lost the mayoral election. To Rob Ford.
“I don’t do drugs,” Pantalone offers.
“I read this morning that Lady Gaga said, ‘At least he’s honest,’ ” says Smitherman. “I’m a gay man, so I’m a little more aligned with Lady Gaga than Rob Ford is.” What bothers Smitherman is that he thinks Ford might try to pretend that he really has been honest, instead of ducking and weaving around the charges for months.
Smitherman, as it happens, long ago struggled with drug addiction himself, but he came clean about it during his own campaign because he didn’t want to be “inauthentic.” At the time, he says, Ford’s supporters used Smitherman’s past to imply that the former provincial minister of health, who had managed a budget several times the size of Toronto’s city budget, would not be fit for public office.
And then Ford beat him, beat him solidly, in the election for the mayorship of the largest city in Canada and the fifth-largest in all of North America.
“He didn’t come into the city with guns and soldiers and tanks and armies,” sighs Keith Cole, another mayoral candidate. “We gave him the keys to the city. It’s kind of our fault.” Cole ran primarily on an arts platform. He is a noted drag queen who uses the stage name Pepper Highway. One of his campaign events was a “MILF Diaper Toss” designed to encourage the development of green space in the city. Cole received 801 votes and was beaten by Rob Ford.
“There’s been a lot of finger-pointing,” Cole says. “But this is what people wanted. It was the mood of 2010.”
Ford ran on a populist, tax-cutting platform, promising to “stop the gravy train” of government benefits. He spent 10 years as a city council member for the industrial district of Etobicoke and appealed to the suburban voters he deemed members of “Ford Nation.”
This was — for timeline purposes — after Ford made disparaging remarks about AIDS patients (2006) and Asian people (2008), and after he was pulled over in Florida on drunken-driving and marijuana possession charges, an incident during which he reportedly told the arresting officer to “Go ahead and take me to jail” (1999).
After his election, with unusually high voter turnout, Ford was photographed reading documents while simultaneously driving his black Cadillac Escalade around the city. Additionally, he ordered that two Toronto public buses be pulled off of their routes, stranding waiting passengers, so that they could instead pick up the members of the high school football team that Ford coached. The players’ game ended 50 minutes early, and he did not want them to wait for a school bus.
(To repeat: Ford won the election.)
“What’s really maddening for me as a taxpayer is that he really is good at saving people money,” says J.P. Pampena, a defeated Rob Ford opponent. Pampena is a public relations executive/motivational coach/limousine company owner who ran as “The Man With the Vision.” He is blind.
The bumblings of these past weeks aside, Pampena is actually in agreement with a lot of Ford’s policies. He thinks that with a little of Pampena’s panache, Ford could have been really successful. Pampena instructs a reporter to visit his personal Web site. “When you get to my site, you’ll see — if you ran for mayor just on best style and dress, [I’d] win, hands down. If he had my looks and my presence, he’d probably become a popular mayor.”
Unfortunately, Pampena was not able to combine his expertise with the other man’s. Pampena won only 1,319 votes, 0.162 percent of the total votes cast.
It was a respectable showing for a man without much funding or political resources. It was not enough. He lost. To Rob Ford.