Ford Fest 2013 was a carnival of retail politics and free hamburgers.
In the opinions of some Torontonians, Rob Ford is an ineffective mayor who misleads the public about the City’s budget, his own accomplishments while in office, and his alleged drug use. On Friday evening, Thomson Memorial Park in Scarborough became a kind of alternate universe where, instead of any of those things, Ford was a king.
The event was Ford Fest, Ford’s annual public barbecue. In past years, he’s held it in Etobicoke, at his mother’s house, where the backyard can easily accommodate hundreds of guests. This year’s change of venue is part of what the Ford brothers have described as a “tour” of the city. Others have interpreted the move as a bid to get a jump on the 2014 mayoral campaign in a key battleground district. (A second Ford Fest is expected to be held in Etobicoke later this summer.)
The mayor’s camp pegs Friday’s attendance at around 20,000, which would be an all-time record high. While we have no way of confirming that number, it doesn’t sound that far fetched. The park was already crowded by 6:30 p.m.
There were a few globs of people around some kiddie midway rides that had been set up in different places, and some attendees had gathered around a tent where a cover band was playing songs by performers like Adele and Rihanna. But one of the biggest draws was a little portable awning off to the left of the bandstand. It was surrounded by a crowd four or five people deep, and there was a 20-minute lineup to get at whatever was inside. Was it free beer? A balloon artist? A guy with lobster claws for hands?
No. It was Rob Ford. Except for a couple forays over to the microphone to give stump speeches, the mayor would spend almost the entire event in that exact spot, receiving adulation, shaking hands, and hearing complaints. He was literally holding court.
A man in the handshake line said his name was Tony, and that he lived in East York. He said he was a Ford supporter, and that newspaper reports about the mayor’s alleged misbehaviour didn’t bother him in the least.
“If anything, they make our resolve even stronger,” Tony said. “Even if it was true, and it takes a little crack to do what he’s done for the city, he’s done more than any other mayor.”
Tony was a white guy in his forties, but he wasn’t in the majority. The crowd was made up of people of many ethnicities and of all ages. Seeing Ford Nation gathered in all its diversity was a reminder that the mayor was elected with 47 per cent of the vote in 2010. If Ford Fest was anything to judge by, his appeal remains broad. His latest approval ratings lend some support to this notion.
The only lineups longer than the mayor’s were the ones for free food and drink. At the height of the event, the wait for a hamburger was well over 90 minutes. (The lineup for beer was somewhat shorter.)
A 26-year-old Scarberian named Daniel, who had been waiting in the burger line for 45 minutes, had only heard about Ford Fest earlier in the day. He said he had no defined opinions about the mayor. As to the drug allegations: “If it happened, it happened,” he said. “I don’t really care.”
Ford Fest peaked at around 8 p.m. when the leader of the cover band, a Filipino singer named Jenny James, serenaded the mayor with a song she’d written about him. It was an upbeat, guitar-driven anthem that wouldn’t be out of place over the opening credits of a Rob Ford Saturday-morning cartoon. (Which, come to think of it, would be a great way for the mayor to expand his reach beyond the Sunday talk-radio crowd.) Members of the audience had been provided with printed lyric sheets, as though we were expected to doff our hats and sing along. (You can listen to the song on YouTube, if you’re curious.)
Afterward, Mayor Ford took the mic. The newsworthy part of the speech was an announcement that Councillor Norm Kelly (Ward 40, Scarborough Agincourt) would be the next deputy mayor, assuming Doug Holyday (Ward 3, Etobicoke Centre), the current deputy mayor, is elected as the next Etobicoke-Lakeshore MPP in August. Ford also recommitted himself to building more subway stops in Scarborough. This is a 2010 campaign promise the mayor has never come close to fulfilling, but has lately been trying to revive. As he put it:
Ford: There’s one thing I promise I’m gonna get: those subways. Mark my words, these subways are coming.
Crowd: Subways! Subways! Subways! Subways!
Ford: I have to be politically correct. I could tell you where we wanted to send those LRTs [that is, Scarborough’s light-rail transit line, which is already planned and funded], but like I said, I can’t. I gotta behave. LRTs can go somewhere, but subways are coming to Scarborough. Guaranteed. Guaranteed.
In reality, the mayor has limited say over how and where money is spent on transit infrastructure. This type of guarantee, without any actual funding or plan, is one only a monarch could make. At Ford Fest, though, Ford was king, and he acted the part.
This post originally said that Ford Fest happened on Saturday evening. In fact, it was Friday.