A few years ago, just before the last Toronto municipal election, I was at a cocktail party in downtown Toronto that was sponsored by an organization of gay professionals that I used to belong to. We were on the rooftop patio of a luxury condo building near the Gay Village, and I was surrounded by wealthy successful gay men, most of them thin, fit and impeccably dressed, swilling Cabernet and enjoying the view of the downtown skyline at night.
Inevitably during the conversation when they found out I was from rural Eastern Ontario, they would roll their eyes and dramatically apologize for the spectacle of the mayoral election that was then underway. Rob Ford was battling it out with George Smitherman, the gay former Ontario cabinet minister whom they tended to refer to as "our George". Ford was so embarrassing to these men; they felt the need to apologize to outsiders for his presence in the election lest people think their beautiful world-class green city was no better than Hamilton or Windsor or Cornwall or one of those other blue-collar sinkholes. Smitherman was everything they wanted in their chief executive: gay and married, hip and downtown. Ford was so ... Etobicoke, for god's sake.
I was reminded of that party this week as l'affaire Ford unfolded in Toronto. Two reporters from the Toronto Star in the back seat of a car took a look at a drug-dealer's cell-phone video purporting to show the Mayor smoking crack and suddenly there's blood in the water and everyone's demanding his resignation and a police investigation. Reporters are staking out his office and his home, following him into coffee shops and parking garages, sticking microphones in his face asking when he's going to step down.
Compare and contrast with the last federal election, when news was leaked to the Toronto Sun that NDP leader Jack Layton had been found naked in a whorehouse in 1996 during a police raid. Layton claimed he was there for a "shiatsu" massage, and his wife Olivia Chow stated matter-of-factly that her husband exercised regularly and needed a massage - end of story. And that was it. The press took his lame excuses at face value and in fact tut-tutted that the Sun had had the audacity to publish the information in the middle of an election. The OPP investigated, not Layton's presence in an illegal bawdy house, but the source of the leak. Layton's popularity in the polls actually went UP after the revelation. The CBC made a hagiographic fan movie about him after his death which never mentioned the incident.
The reason for the difference? The cultural and media cognoscenti in downtown Toronto, like my companions at the cocktail party, are embarrassed by the mere existence of Rob Ford. He is the living negation of everything they stand for. In a city whose government is constantly trying to regulate the unhealthy consumption of its citizens by banning junk food in schools and denying permits to big-box stores and street-food vendors, he is the morbidly obese consequence of unfettered free choice. His predecessor, obsessed with making Toronto the world's greenest city, replaced car lanes on arterial roads with bike lanes, banned vehicle idling and dotted the city with green roofs and Bixi rental bicycles; Ford favours industry over the environment and drives an SUV to work. The downtown Smitherman supporters sip skinny decaf fair-trade lattes at independent coffee shops; Ford goes to Tim Horton's. Smitherman lives downtown - Ford lives in a bungalow in a suburb that is as foreign to his critics as Africa was to 19th century missionaries. They mocked Ford mercilessly because he was fat, and then laughed when he went on a public diet, snickering when it failed.
The people howling for Ford's head on a platter are physically and emotionally repulsed by him. They have the same reaction to his presence at City Hall that most people have when they find some loathsome grub under a rock - "eew, kill it!" They cannot accept that this fat slob was democratically elected by the citizens of Toronto, so he must be destroyed. They cannot wait until the next election in 2014 to oust him - he has to go NOW before David Miller's Toronto becomes unhip, so an unprecedented campaign of harassment and vilification has been unleashed on him.
I'm not a big Rob Ford fan - I think he's tactless and impulsive in a job that requires a lot of patience and diplomacy. However, the people of Toronto elected him and the proper thing for his opponents to do is wait for 2014 and try to vote him out of office. The current clamour for his resignation is unseemly and undemocratic.