Monday was a dark day for George Smitherman, who lost badly in his bid to become Toronto mayor. The next day was even darker — for the liberal Toronto Star, which had become an unapologetic pamphleteer for Smitherman in the weeks leading to the election. On Tuesday, it had to sheepishly report how badly its own propaganda had failed.
In the unhappy recesses of Star headquarters, perplexed editors were forced to accept that the unthinkable had happened: Rob Ford had been elected mayor. The voters of Toronto, who exist in the Star’s imagination as a cheerful, “progressive,” multicultural group of bicycle-loving, environmentally aware supporters of mushy Canadian liberalism, had cast their votes overwhelming for a man whom Star columnists had smeared as a neanderthal.
It was doubly bewildering because the Star had pulled out all the stops to defeat Ford. Seldom has a newspaper bared its bias more shamelessly than the Star did in its protracted campaign to save the city from the horrors it envisioned should the paunchy right-wing council member from Etobicoke North successfully seize the mayoralty. It didn’t wait until the traditional closing days of the campaign to endorse a candidate; instead, it rushed out an editorial a month in advance, declaring Ford “unsuitable for the role.”
What made him so unsuitable? “He’s burdened by a thin platform, numbers that don’t add up and an embarrassing personal history, including substance abuse, outbursts of rage and a mug shot from a Florida arrest.” The Star didn’t say so, but much the same could have been said for its favoured alternative, former Ontario health minister George Smitherman, though Smitherman lacked a mug shot despite admitting years of using “party drugs.”
Having decided that personal attacks were fair game, the Star unloaded columnist Heather Mallick on Ford. Here’s what she had to say:
“Voting for Ford is like sleeping with someone to get revenge on your spouse. It seems like a good idea at closing time, which is what an election is. Last call, and you neck down your last shot of good cold vodka. ‘Sure, whatever,’ is what you say to everything said to you. ‘I hate streetcars too!’ And you leave the lounge of the Empire Hotel on the arm of some big guy. It is Oct. 26, the day after the election, and you wake in a hard, unfamiliar bed. Your eyeballs are congealed chip fat and your contact lenses have gone crispy. Your liver is en route somewhere. You appear to be missing a tooth. And there’s something in bed next to you. It is the sweaty, beer-smelling oik from the bar last night.”
Poor Heather must have been scraping off the chip fat with both hands Tuesday. Not only is last night’s oik in her bed, but the Viagra is just kicking in.
Then there was Star columnist James Travers who warned that “Sudden swings that sweep away the status quo are nothing new. But as World War II reminds, the results are often catastrophic.” Toronto voters will no doubt wish they’d listened to Travers if Ford starts sending tanks into Brampton and Pickering.
Less visceral, but no less understated, was the directive published on the oped page by the Star’s “Director of Communications & Community Relations,” Bob Hepburn. In a panicky diktat, he commanded a trio of also-ran candidates to abandon the race and let Ford and Smitherman fight it out. Sticking around, he warned, would make them morally culpable for the catastrophe that would emerge should Ford eventually win.
Two of the candidates eventually did fold up their tents: Sarah Thomson and Rocco Rossi. Thus emboldened, Hepburn issued a step-by-step guide for Smitherman to overcome Ford’s big lead: Get out the anti-Ford vote, fire the advertising team, and promote an “anybody but Ford” coalition, he advised, instructing Smitherman he “must work fast to create a coalition of voters who believe a Ford-led city would weaken the very fabric of civic administration in Toronto and embarrass the city around the world.”
The candidate took his Star marching orders. During his final weeks, Smitherman focused heavily on the undeniable fact that he wasn’t Rob Ford. While Ford promised to get the city’s finances in order and improve the transit system, Smitherman kept pounding home a single message: I don’t need a platform, because I’m not Rob Ford –isn’t that good enough?
Evidently not. Ford didn’t just win, he overwhelmed the opposition. The paper couldn’t even score a victory out in deepest suburbia, where Mississauga’s mayor-for-life, 89-year-old Hazel McCallion, was returned with 75% of the vote and spent election night denouncing the Star to anyone who would listen.
Hazel McCallion and Rob Ford, together. Lord knows what image that raises in Heather Mallick’s imagination.