Charles Rex Arbogast/ CP Photo
It's unclear where Rob Ford is getting his communications advice these days. I hear a certain former Mike Harris higher-up is informally in the loop, dispensing dos and don'ts through big brother Doug.
But that photo op at the Bean, aka Cloud Gate, for the City Hall media following the mayor on his trade mission to Chicago last Tuesday, September 18, was a bad play from the get-go.
Ford, who probably should have been preparing for his big meet with Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, was handing out business cards to complete strangers who don't know where Toronto is and probably couldn't care less.
It was downhill from there, as Ford got a geography lesson on the whereabouts of Windsor and then re-enacted a scene that's become familiar since his testimony at his conflict-of-interest hearing: a quick exit when questions turned to the latest controversy engulfing his administration. In this case, it was his continued use of office staff, cars and cellphones to help with his football coaching hobby despite the dust-up over just that matter the week before.
The City Hall press corps pretty much ignored the events scheduled to boost trade between Chicago and Toronto to report on the football debacle and another cock-up - the mayor's contention that the trip wouldn't cost taxpayers "one red cent," while councillors there were openly saying they wouldn't be paying for it out of their pockets or office budgets.
It never should have been an issue, of course, but Ford has panned such excursions as time-wasters in the past. And so he did what he always does when he's cornered: he tried to BS his way out of it and just made it worse.
Predictably, the trip ended as badly as it started, with a splat. A scheduled photo op and tour at U.S. Cellular Field was cancelled, then reinstated courtesy of stadium management without the mayor or his brother, Councillor Doug.
One Fordist confided to me that the mayor's communications staff, the lot of them, should be fired. Hard to blame them, really, when more trouble was already brewing back home - the revelation that the mayor used undue influence (maybe), or at the very least crossed an ethical line, when he personally asked city staff about doing some paving repairs outside the Ford family business in Etobicoke.
Oh, what might have been. The ingredients were there for the mayor to hit his Chicago PR pitch out of the park. There are Doug's long-time business and personal links to the city (the family's label business has a subsidiary in the Windy City), plus the fact that, according to a nicely timed press release issued by the Bank of Montreal the day before the trip, Ontario exports more to the state of Illinois than to any country in the world except the UK.
But more to the point, Ford was visiting a lefty mayor, the former chief of staff to the Democratic president, no less, who's adopted right-leaning policies similar to Ford's, including contracting out city services, to try to pull Chicago out of its budget problems.
Seems like plenty of material to spin into a positive narrative for Ford & Co. and take the edge off that ideologue label.
Besides, there was loads of feel-good stuff he could have emphasized. Chicago and Toronto have been sister cities since 91. Members of Chicago Sister Cities International visited Toronto earlier this year to meet with leaders of our cultural community. A delegation of Chicago tech experts took part in the E2 Chicago- Toronto Entrepreneur Exchange. An economic impact study on the flow of trade between Chi-town and the Big Smoke is in the works.
Clearly, someone was paid handsomely, judging by some of the big-biz names on the list of delegates that made up Team Toronto (see sidebar on page 14), to build an impressive team around the mayor.
But the Chicago media, except for a negative article rehashing some of Ford's better-known public outbursts, paid no attention. City Hall reporters came home from the jaunt more dubious than before about whether the excursion would have any real impact.
The tour seems to have widened the growing gulf between the Ford administration and the folks whose job it is to report on the day-to-day at City Hall. Doug suggested that some among the T.O. media were badmouthing the mayor to some of their Chicago newspaper counterparts.
On Doug and Rob's radio show Sunday, September 23, the tensions spilled over, the Ford brothers declaring total war. The mayor accused the Toronto media of being "pathological liars."
Doug turned comedy into farce at council's Budget Committee meeting next day, calling the media "pricks."
He made the talk radio rounds later in the day to explain himself, sort of. First, he apologized on AM640 for the "pricks" remark, then in the next breath said he believes it to be true.
He appeared contrite on CFRB minutes later and repeated a claim, later proved false, that a Global Television reporter was seen "stalking" outside the Ford family business.
Blame the media. Might work for their base. The Ford-friendly Sun was quick with an online poll to make the point.
But let's not mistake childish outbursts for a strategy. It's just Doug going offside again, causing the kind of distraction that's already led to the exit of one press secretary and two chiefs of staffs and counting in a little less than two years.
Doug was changing his story again on Tuesday, September 25, calling for a "truce" with the media. All of a sudden he wants to be buddy-buddy? The onslaught of negative stories may have just begun.
The dramas of the last few days, word is, have put him on a collision course with the mayor's new chief of staff, Mark Towhey, who's had to clean up after Doug a few times in a few short weeks. And who do you think is going to win that battle?
A who's who on Rob Ford's Chicago trade mission
Sussex Strategy Group's VP of municipal affairs has been point man on the casino file for MGM Resorts International at City Hall but tells NOW he wasn't on the Chicago trip "to lobby on behalf of any of my clients. I was there, like other members of the business community, to lend my support to Mayor Ford."
Rob Ford's former chief of staff and campaign co-chair wasn't officially part of Team Toronto, and caught observers by surprise when he showed up. He's reportedly landed a gig through Sussex to conduct market research for MGM. His firm, Campaign Research, was linked to an early poll gauging public support for a Toronto casino.
The rainmaker, political fixer and Cassels & Brock lawyer has been a conduit to the mayor's office for his big-money buds on Bay Street ever since he helped arrange that Harmony dinner to pay of the mayor's three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar campaign debt.
Former PC premier and architect of the Common Sense Revolution was part of the contingent from Cassels & Brock, where he's a "senior business adviser." Harris sits on the boards of several Canadian companies, including, Canaccord Financial, the wealth management firm that this week closed 16 of its 32 Canadian branches.
Executive VP of Qwatro Corporation, but better known as the son of OLG head Paul Godfrey. Qwatro, a self-described "global leader in environmentally friendly cleaning products for industrial, professional and retail markets," has also developed "disinfectants that are effective against both avian and human flu virus strains."