[T]here is one fact for certain in Toronto municipal politics: Where Rob Ford goes, cameras will follow.
The second mayoral debate of the year—held in the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre and moderated by Ryerson Visiting Professor Ralph Lean—was no exception.
When Ford stepped foot into the room—the first of the candidates to arrive—students’ eyes glazed over, as if in the presence of royalty. And then he, in all of his footballer glory, rushed up the centre stairs of the lecture hall and began greeting the audience as if he were the night’s leading beau. If he had been dancing, the scene could have been straight out of The Ellen Show.
“I’m trying to find my seat,” Ford joked, already sweating profusely. “I hear it’s somewhere up front!”
Around the room, student attendees began sneaking out of their seats and following the mayor. One student in attendance lit up at the opportunity, motioning to his friend: “Man, I wanna get a selfie with Rob!” And just like that, a crowd appeared at the back of the room, and then a line formed, and students began lambasting Ford for photos.
So, in the centre of a packed lecture hall, Ford did what any respectable celebrity figure would do: He held a photo op, thanking his supporters, repeating his favourite catchphrases, “Ford More Years!” and “Ford for Mayor!” The students ate it up, like a fat kid in a chocolate factory.
This was, after all, the Ford Show.
It took calls from Sheldon Levy, Ryerson’s president down on the stage, to get the mayor back into his spot, where he would be doing what he actually came to the university to do: debate, talk politics and showcase his platform. And yet, still, once in his seat—red-faced, as always—Ford was the star of the evening.
Ford, indeed, did deliver: His mispronunciation of the first student questioner, Anya (“What’s your name? Annieya? Anaya?”), set the tone for the night. Everyone giggled. Ford sat in his seat with his trademark grin, hands folded atop his belly.
His on-loop answers to questions caused heckling, jeers; when remarking, “I’m not perfect,” the audience laughed on cue—again, as if he were an overweight version of Ellen DeGeneres; like an unfortunate comedian for the night. The other candidates sat patiently, smiling, their presence only relevant when taking a jab at Ford’s broken past toking from a glass pipe.
Moderator Lean—or, perhaps due to his unforgiving bias against all left-wing candidates, he could be called the Referee—tried to remind the audience that the debate was, in fact, part of his Law, Business and Politics class, but no one listened; the heckling persisted. At the very back, while the rest of the audience pressed Ford to explain his association with drug dealers, three boys in hoodies and beanies screamed, “Go Robbie!”
At the end of the night, what the candidates were vying for in Toronto’s immediate future seemed the least of the attendees’ concerns, because the hoopla surrounding the enigma that is Mayor Rob Ford was too juicy not to watch, to bask in and laugh at. In fact, it seemed the packed house of students weren’t there to learn more about Toronto’s political future, but rather to see Ford in the flesh, to snap a photo with him for Instagram, to be able to say, “Yes, I saw our Mayor, and man, he’s a shitshow!”
In her opening remarks, Karen Stintz addressed Ford and his outrageous following best: “This [debate] is not a referendum on Rob Ford,” she said. “This is a referendum for our city.”
Yet, as much as she and the other candidates tried to focus the attention on themselves, the spotlight remained on Ford. And, when the debate ended, media rushed to Ford, cameras illuminating his sweaty forehead—because, wherever Ford goes, cameras will follow. Eventually, Ford disappeared, hidden somewhere in a throng of reporters. Like a true celebrity, Ford began exiting Ryerson with reporters (practically paparazzi) chasing him.
Standing a foot behind the crowd were candidates John Tory and Stintz, still smiling. The message never sank in, it seems. This wasn’t a debate at all, nor a meeting on behalf of our city; this was, without a doubt, the Ford Show.