Rob Ford’s city hall: Going through the motions

Rob Ford’s big day back after rehab fell flat at City Hall. That’s not a bad thing.

<p>City hall is shown in Toronto, Monday, Nov.26, 2012. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has been ordered out of office after a judge ruled Monday he broke conflict of interest rules. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette</p>

Toronto City Hall. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is greeted by a media throng as returns to his office at city hall in Toronto on Monday June 30, 2014, after his stay in a rehabilitation facility. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is greeted by a media throng as returns to his office at city hall in Toronto on Monday June 30, 2014, after his stay in a rehabilitation facility. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Rob Ford returned to work today, and nothing—and everything—was the same. The media crush at city hall was back, with reporters and interested onlookers stacked two lines deep in the crook between Ford’s office and the elevator. The anti-Ford group was set up nearby, a rainbow Pride flag lying next to a picnic blanket covered with pamphlets and Ford novelties: a squeeze toy, a matryoshka nesting doll. (Despite all Ford’s purported lack of interest in the arts, he’s sparked a small boom in the tchotchke industry.) An elderly supporter of Ford’s pushed his way through the pack and knocked a reporter’s microphone to the ground before launching into a refrain of He’s a Jolly Good Fellow above the din of reporters shouting questions at Ford. Yes, after a seven-week stint at a Muskoka rehab facility, Ford was back, and the chaos could only revive memories of the heady days of the crack-cocaine scandal.

The lure of the spectacle certainly drew Anna and Trevor Walker, who happened to be at city hall to get their marriage licences and stuck around to drink it all in. “It’s like our honeymoon,” said Anna.

“We didn’t know this was happening today, but I’ve been wanting to catch him live since the first video leaked,” said Trevor, a 27-year-old musician, speaking about Ford as if he were another act to be taken in. Anna, too, doesn’t want the show to end. “I kind of hope he wins, so we can see his shenanigans,” said Anna, before quickly catching herself. “I’m definitely not voting for him, though.”

But on Monday, it was almost as if everyone—onlookers, media, political partisans, Rob Ford himself—knew the motions, knew their parts, and simply went through the paces. In his long, emotional speech, Ford apologized to the media, all the while limiting access to his press conference to a select group of print publications and refusing to take questions. He apologized to councillors and to Karen Stintz for his lewd comments, but failed to apologize for his homophobic and racist invective. As Ford’s speech went on, the crowd remained mostly silent, until Ford began to sloganeer, prompting chants and moans from each side to come in drips and drabs, before a madcap torrent at the speech’s end. Stephen Handler, the lone attendee wearing a Ford Nation shirt, stood by his man: He believes Ford can still build consensus, that the drugs and alcohol don’t matter (“I’m willing to overlook that”) and that there’s nothing to the the Globe and Mail‘s allegation that the Fords abused their power by lobbying city hall on behalf of a potential partner of their family business, Deco Label. (“They would’ve done it in public . . . but it would have been a lot tougher, so they tried to do it in a quieter way.”) But when Ford’s 15-minute speech was over, there wasn’t much for Handler to do other than attract the eager eyes of cameras, whooping loudly about “Ford Nation” continuing strong and throwing up the devil horns.

The circus was in town, but it didn’t have the energy of before. The blue velvet ropes that held reporters back to allow an alley for the notorious mayor to enter his office from the elevator—removed in a symbolic gesture by deputy mayor Norm Kelly’s rather peaceful interregnum—were back, only, this time, as a black Tensabarrier stanchion. There were, rather notably, no U.S. network cameras to be seen, a far cry from the days when The Today Show‘s Matt Lauer flew in and a CNN war correspondent joined the regulars in Toronto’s press gallery.

In the meantime, councillors put on brave faces and insisted that nothing has changed with Ford’s return. “We managed before he left, we managed after he left, and we’ll manage now that he’s back,” said Councillor Pam McConnell. Outside city hall, at two different press conferences, mayoral candidates John Tory and Olivia Chow both insisted that their opinion remained unchanged; Tory continued to call for Ford’s resignation, while Chow rebuked him for his record, rather than his addiction problems.

Will the fervour ever return? If it does, it’s only logical it needs time to rebuild itself. After all, seven weeks off will do that to the sheer momentum that a onetwothree haymaker combo of newspaper revelations produced on that otherwise anonymous Wednesday evening in late April. But it’s losing steam, and that’s a good thing. While the Rob Ford comeback show raged on, a committee meeting for the board of health took place. There will be an executive meeting on Wednesday; council meets on July 7. That’s what’s on the docket these days, not power-stripping votes and council rebukes. Rob Ford is back, but the city is definitely back, too. Let’s see if things really do stay the same.