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Rob Ford's legacy of unfeigned populism and political recklessness won't be forgotten

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There has never been a politician in Toronto quite like Rob Ford.

And there is a good chance there never will be one again.

I saw Ford in person a few times over the years, but I had an encounter with him last November that really sticks out.

I was standing outside Mount Sinai Hospital in the downtown of the city after visiting a friend there.

I looked north up University Ave. and saw, coming straight towards me, a middle-aged man walking by himself, in a faded and worn "Ford for Mayor" T-shirt and tattered shorts, holding a Tim Hortons coffee (or tea or whatever) who walked right past me and into the hospital.

And it was Rob Ford. Entirely by himself. No entourage, no aides, no one with him at all.

At the time I was rather flabbergasted. To this day I cannot possibly imagine seeing a similarly well known public political figure in a remotely analogous situation.

But it was totally emblematic of the type of politician Ford was and what also lay at the root of his appeal for so many.

Ford has been frequently described as having had an "everyman" persona -- but those are not uncommon in politics, especially with figures who aspire to populism. What was unique about Ford was that his was entirely unfeigned. It was not a put on or a show for the masses. It was Ford.

He genuinely seemed to care very little what anyone thought of him and he presented himself and behaved, even when on official business, exactly as he was and with seemingly little impulse control -- a quality both highly unusual in politics and one that was very dangerous and destructive for the both the city and ultimately for Ford himself.

There is little of a positive nature that can be said of Ford's tenure as Mayor. If he had a governing philosophy it might best be described as one of nihilism as opposed to conservatism. He seemed to hate the notion of governance or social services at all. There were multiple occasions on council his would be the sole or near sole vote in opposition to a motion -- a pretty shocking circumstance when he also happens to be the mayor.

While normally being a big-city mayor is about building coalitions with councillors and trying to fashion a majority for your administration's goals, Ford was totally uninterested in this -- and likely incapable of it.

He had no visible desire to build bridges or to try to understand the perspectives of those with different views, and this ultimately even alienated his allies on the right. As did his reprehensible and outrageous conduct that was often, quite aside from the drugs,  misogynisticracist, violent, homophobic and juvenile. 

That he was never legally held to account for his conduct also, to many, seemed to be a very explicit representation of how powerful, wealthy white men are treated so very differently by the police and our justice system.

All of this made him loathed by many in Toronto's political class and in the public at large, but it also paradoxically made him deeply and even fanatically loved by others.

The fact that he so openly and avowedly thumbed his nose at social and political convention and that he appeared to be taking on the city's "elites" (despite that he was a man born of and protected by great wealth) and standing up to anyone who got in his way, made him a politician who literally would draw enraptured and cheering mobs wherever he went -- often side-by-side and in competition with jeering and angry people at the very same events!

At one Christmas parade in Etobicoke I attended that Ford marched in there were those (myself included) who refused his attempts to hand out candy, but I also saw people run up to and embrace him or cheer him on as I have never seen happen with any other Toronto politician.

One woman even leaped out of her chair at a beauty salon, with curlers still in her hair, the salon gown still on and with no shoes, to run out to get a chance to see and greet him!

This type of adulation is, to say the very least, incredibly uncommon when it comes to municipal politics. 

argued once that much of Ford's appeal had nothing to do with ideology, but rather with the fact that he became the city's "entertainer-in-chief." You never knew what he would say or do next.

Yet these very qualities that his fans and followers so adored also completely derailed his tenure as mayor, fatally damaged (perhaps a good thing) any attempt at a coherent agenda, led to a series of serious scandals and cannot but have contributed to his issues with his health.

A terrible contradiction for him and the city.

Rob Ford really did embody the rejection of the highly scripted, tightly managed, hollow political messaging spoon fed us by mainstream politicians who are not as very different from each other as they would have you believe. He highlighted the thirst in many to reject this politics and showed that a very real, and potentially very dangerous, anger and rage simmers among those who feel pushed aside, marginalized or left out by government and the political process.

He was an undeniably unique figure. How he came to be able to ride such a wave of civic discontent to power and what that means about Toronto, its residents and its politics is something that will be analyzed, debated and discussed for a very longtime to come.

Image by Natalie Lochwin.

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