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The Limits of Schadenforde
The mayor has gone from a juggernaut to hardly a mayor at all. His helplessness is hard to watch.

(Photo: Corey Mintz) For all the lunacy of the past few days, the week’s most lingering image of Rob Ford had nothing to do with Marg Delahunty. The moment came about earlier in the week. It’s already been obscured by the feeding frenzy around the mayor’s 911 calls, but on Tuesday, Toronto’s city council passed a ban shark fins, which are often brutally harvested from live fish. It was an odd debate, which went on for hours in a chamber packed full of interested onlookers. Council, which is more used to considering budgets and rights-of-way, was suddenly considering motions – projected on a storey-high screen–like “Amend the Licensing and Standards Committee Recommendation 1 by inserting the word “illegal” before the word “shark”…” One young man, bearded and wide-eyed, came in a shark outfit. All the reporters asked him for a quote. Rob Ford was not in favour. Being generally of the opinion that municipalities should stay out of their residents’ business, an adventurous regulation that would take the city into uncharted legal waters is not his style. But the moment of truth arrived and council finally voted, there was a gasp in the chamber. The giant screen lit up in green “Yes” votes. Almost the entire council had voted for the ban, and against the mayor. Only three of his staunchest supporters, including the deputy mayor and Giorgio Mammoliti, his outspoken right-hand man, had voted with him. An enormous cheer went up, and it went on, and on. Members of the Chinese community, rallied for restaurateurs’ lucrative cause, hurried for the exit. The media and public both rushed down to the edge of the council floor. The city had just made a move that would make headlines around the world, put pressure on other levels of government, and join the ranks of civic leaders. Councillors rushed to the camera lights, arms over each others’ shoulders in the crush, relishing that rarest of moments in Rob Ford’s Toronto: a good-news story. All the while, in the empty corner of the council floor, Rob Ford sat glumly with Mammoliti, fidgeting in his chair and looking on from afar as his colleagues celebrated. In that moment, he was very much the councillor he’s always been: The guy who sits at the edge of council and the edge of town and says no, over and over, according to his principles. An outsider. This isn’t to say that Ford is a spent force, even though he’s the second-least popular mayor in the country and the putative Ford Nation appears to have evaporated as a political force. Just the day before, he succeeded in pushing through a contentious new round of privatized garbage collection. But six months ago, he was a juggernaut, hardly losing on a single question. In defeat, he doesn’t seem to know what to do. The image of Ford looking on while formerly unwavering allies clamoured for a hint of positive attention was impossible to ignore. Two days later, the 911 imbroglio erupted. The mayor had previously been rudely set upon in his driveway by CBC comedian Mary Walsh and a cameraman. After asking to get by with a couple of nervous chuckles, Ford retreated back through his front door, where he called 911. When the police didn’t show up fast enough, Ford got agitated and called 911 again, venting his frustration on the operator. Everyone wants to know what happened next – did Ford curse out a female 911 operator, as the CBC reported? Or did he merely express his frustration in salty terms, as he and his brother claim? (When Doug Ford is doing damage control for you, and not the other way around, you know you’re in trouble.) As the claims and counter-claims escalated, a ridiculous run-in gained real stakes: Either a public broadcaster is mis-reporting damaging allegations, or the mayor of Canada’s largest city is lying to protect his reputation. Either way, embarrassing personal information leaked from the city’s law enforcement. But for Rob Ford’s relationship to the city, the damage has been done. The fact remains that, confronted by a pair of media wahoos–one of whom bore a camera, and the other he mistook for one of his old adversaries, the men-who-dress-up-as-women–he ran inside and dialed 911. Days after the city was noted in the global press for the shark-fin ban, it had reclaimed its rightful place as a national laughing-stock. Mel Lastman called in the army to deal with a snowstorm because he was worried that blocked roads would hamper emergency services, and he didn’t want to risk an unnecessary death. Rob Ford dialed 911 because he was either scared of or irritated by a TV personality with a plastic sword in his driveway. Then he called back because the police hadn’t arrived fast enough. Fear and entitlement are not winning qualities in a leader. Mary Walsh’s act might be obnoxious, but Rob Ford’s helplessness is even harder to watch. As columnist Rob Granatstein wisely pointed out in the Star, Ford would have made a great ombudsman, using his bull-headedness to help citizens to get good customer service from city hall. He was, by many accounts, a great constituency guy. But his personal amiability didn’t scale, and he doesn’t seem to know how to handle the curveballs his job throws at him. We’ve gone from a mayor who operated by juggernaut, to a man who, at times, hardly seems to be a mayor at all, peering in from the edge of council, peering out from his front window. We have three years left on the clock. Ford’s apologists at the Sun say that the Ford-bashing is getting a little repetitive. I’m inclined to agree: It would be nice to have fewer legitimate reasons to unload on the man. I think everyone would welcome a good-news story at this point. One can only subsist on Schadenforde for so long. That leaves me with two questions: Can Rob Ford learn to become a leader on the job? And if not, how will our system pick up the slack? __ Ivor Tossell writes the Urban Studies column for Toronto Standard.

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