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Opinion: Rob Ford's mysterious popularity – why Canada’s most scandalous citizen is the new Bill Clinton

Clinton’s dalliance with an intern now looks dull in comparison with the Toronto Mayor’s behaviour, but the dynamics of the two scandals have deeply polarised electorates in similar ways.

Redmond Shannon

ON THE FACE of it, Rob Ford is to Canadian politics what Paul Gascoigne was to soccer in the ‘90s. Heavy-set, spiky blonde hair, red-faced, an emotional addict with a dysfunctional personal life. But just like Gazza, Rob Ford is man whom some can’t help but love.

Ford’s popularity is a mystery to the world, to the rest of Canada, and to most Torontonians. And even though his infamy is reflected in one ‘90s icon, his popularity is actually explained by another.

On 1 May this year, the senior producer of our local TV newscast started the morning meeting with a sigh, asking “is anyone else as sick of Rob Ford as I am?” The only surprising thing about this is that it took a year for one of us to say it. We have closely witnessed the most insane, scandal-plagued 12 months that any politician from Canada, or probably anywhere, has ever had.

I don’t really need to list the events for you. He’s a 22-stone global news machine. CNN recently sent our station a platter of food. Just to say thanks. Thanks for the Ford. And for each Ford event that makes the news abroad, there are perhaps half-a-dozen more that make headlines here.

The early years

This proud Canadian was born just days before the summer of ‘69. Robbie, as his family call him, was the youngest of four children and grew up in a quiet suburb outside Toronto. His father, Doug Sr, founded a successful printing business and later became a member of provincial parliament in Ontario. It all sounds pretty normal and comfortable, but the Fords had issues. Some alleged, some admitted.

His sister Kathy has reportedly struggled with drug addiction and was once shot in the face. An investigation by The Globe and Mail newspaper last year alleged that both of Ford’s brothers, Doug Jr and Randy, were drug dealers in their youth – something they deny.

As a teenager, Rob aspired to play American football in the US, but after a year warming the bench for a Canadian university team, he dropped out and returned home to work for his dad. In 2000, he was elected a city councillor and spent a decade gaining a popular reputation as the guy who’d get that pothole fixed.

Ford ran for mayor in 2010 on a platform of doing away with controversial junkets, privatising city services and limiting property taxes. It struck a chord in the suburbs – areas where city services are less apparent. Ford romped home. Robbie was now Mayor of Canada’s largest city.

Escaping scandal 

But the election map looked like a micro version of a US presidential election. The expansive ‘burbs went for Ford. The more-densely populated downtown voted for left-wing candidates. Red ‘hoods, blue ‘hoods.

It wasn’t long before the scandal-o-meter began ticking over, but it all really exploded in May 2013, when the crack video was first reported. And it was then that the Ford story began to mirror that of a certain US president. The Rob Ford saga can be understood by remembering Bill Clinton’s escape from impeachment.

Rob Ford and Bill Clinton both went before the media and offered very carefully-worded denials. Ford said “I do not smoke crack cocaine, nor am I an addict of crack cocaine.” Six months later he said that, because the second word of that sentence was “do” rather than “did”, it meant he was not lying. Clinton waved his finger in 1998, saying “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” The denial immediately refined the euphemistic definition of the term “sexual relations”.

Doug Jr has dutifully played the role of Hillary. Doug – a city councillor – has remained loyal to his baby brother after every accusation, standing by his side during a series of live TV denials. Just as Hillary famously alleged a “vast right-wing conspiracy” over the Lewinsky and Whitewater scandals, Doug has equally alleged a left-wing conspiracy was poisoning his brother’s reputation. When confronted with proof of Rob’s actions, Doug has regularly been forced to backtrack, and has been close to tears when speaking to the media.

The evidence

As for the evidence itself. Ford’s as-yet unpublicised first crack video is the 2013 equivalent of Monica Lewinsky’s stained dress. Both were very deliberately kept, and eventually found their way into the hands of the authorities. But both are exhibits that failed to hold enough legal weight to bring down men who were convinced that their mandate trumped all scandals.

Clinton’s dalliance with an intern now looks dull in comparison with Ford’s behaviour, but the dynamics of the two scandals have deeply polarised electorates in similar ways. In both cases, each side became less and less willing to listen to the other. Fans of Clinton said they didn’t care what he did in his own time, a long as he got the job done. Ford’s supporters say the the same. To Republicans, Clinton’s actions were morally abhorrent and grounds for resignation. To Toronto liberals, the same argument is used against Ford.

On 7 November, 2000, Americans went to the polls. The choice was Clinton’s Vice President Al Gore, or George W Bush. We all know what happened next. The result ramped-up an era of partisan politics that plagues Washington to this day.

One week after that famous poll, Rob Ford entered politics, eventually driving a similar wedge through Toronto.

This October, city residents return to the ballot box, and no matter who wins, it seems as though one half of Toronto will be shaking an ideological fist at the other.

Redmond Shannon is a reporter and producer for CBC News in Canada.

Read: Toronto mayor heads back to work after rehab… but wants his office’s locks changed

Read: Toronto’s controversial ‘crack-smoking mayor’ to enter rehab

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Redmond Shannon

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