Betsy Powell: Expert advice on how Rob Ford can get his second chance

From Betsy Power of the Toronto Star:

Jonathan Miller

Jonathan Miller

Hi, I’m Rob. And I’m a recovering politician.

When Toronto’s world famous mayor leaves rehab and returns to city hall and the campaign trail Monday, Rob Ford might want to get his hands on The Recovering Politician’s Twelve Step Program to Survive Crisis, a 2013 book edited by Jonathan Miller, a former state treasurer of Kentucky. (His editor’s note opens with that take on the well-known Alcoholics Anonymous’ salutation.)

The book includes contributions from a dozen former American politicians sharing their “war stories” and advice on how to survive and transcend a crisis.

The steps include: Tell the truth. Own your mistakes, take responsibility and sincerely say “I’m sorry.” Make an emotional connection. Be first to frame your narrative in your own voice, with facts and sincerity. Present your fix-it plan.

North Americans, generally speaking, like to give public figures a second chance, Miller says, citing former U.S. president Bill Clinton, “the ultimate survivor,” and Marion Barry, the ex-Washington, D.C., mayor whom the New York Post calls the “original Rob Ford.”

Some comeback attempts don’t work out. Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer’s campaign for comptroller last year acknowledged his hooker scandal with an ad that said he’d “failed, big time,” and then he did. Former congressman Anthony Weiner scuttled his political re-entry by getting caught in a second sexting scandal.

Miller says that in his memory, no other scandal-scarred politician has sought re-election with the kind of “comprehensive baggage” Ford has accumulated.

“You’ve had people who suffered from addiction, others accused of hanging with criminal elements, and ethical impropriety. It’s just unprecedented to think of anybody with all of these accusations,” said Miller, a crisis management attorney and founder oftherecoveringpolitician.com.

The mayor and Councillor Doug Ford, his older brother and campaign manager, have promised the 45-year-old Rob Ford will be a “new man” after spending the last two months in a Muskoka rehab centre where he received treatment for alcoholism.

Ford went to the facility April 30 after audio recordings of him making racist remarks surfaced as well as another video allegedly showing him smoking crack cocaine, which was viewed by a Star reporter.

Ford’s actions in the coming days will be critical if he has a chance of persuading voters to re-elect him mayor on Oct. 27, Miller said.

His advice to Ford? Address the public and answer any and all questions — similar to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s two-hour news conference after a bridge closing scandal.

“He (Ford) really needs to have a full, free, honest and sincere admission of wrongdoing and to say, ‘Here are the ways I am going to change my behaviour so you’ll never see this happen again.’ ”

Ford has scheduled a city hall news conference at 3:30 p.m. Monday, but he will not take any questions. That’s a mistake, said Miller, who is married to a Mississauga native and has spent a lot of time in Canada.

“Letting his critics come in and take every single question and answer it honestly and sincerely . . . that is the way to survive something like this.”

Miller would also advise Ford to speak to youths about the perils of drug and alcohol abuse, and donate money to addiction treatment facilities.

The key will be his sincerity, “and whether people really believe that what he is doing is sincere or rather just a cover for trying to find political redemption.”

But after months of defiance, name calling and angry denials about substance abuse and a string of embarrassing and outrageous behaviour, Ford will face a doubtful public. Emailing a photo of himself in a swimming pool and proclaiming rehab is “amazing” might play well with his hardcore base but it will do little to sway skeptics.

Down at city hall, for instance, Ford has invited councillors to join him in his office Monday afternoon for an “informal meeting.” None contacted by the Star planned to attend. Some wished him luck and hoped rehab had done him some good.

“I don’t make time to meet with bigots, sexists or homophobes,” Councillor Josh Matlow said, referring to some of the comments Ford has made in his drunken stupors…

Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith

Former Missouri senator Jeff Smith, a Recovering Politician contributor and another co-author of Scandal and Resurgence, said there’s a “reservoir of goodwill” for Ford, the same way there was for Barry, the former Washington mayor.

While both shared the ignominy of being caught on videotape smoking crack, the two men are popular with a similar constituency: people suspicious of government and media, and who view these politicians “as sort of persecuted underdogs,” Smith said.

“If Ford is able to channel peoples’ sympathies in a way that Marion Barry, I don’t think it’s inconceivable that he could be re-elected, but he can’t come back and have another episode, then it’s over,” Smith said.

Just last week, Barry, who is on a book tour promoting his memoir, Mayor for Life, denied he ever smoked crack in a hotel room when he was mayor in 1990. After going to jail, he was re-elected as mayor in 1994 and later won a seat on council that he still occupies.

Voters also respond to personal scandals differently than they do financial transgressions or those involving abuses of power,” Smith noted. In recent American history, financial scandals are more damaging.

“If it’s sex, a lot of voters are like, ‘what does that have to do with me, that’s between him and his wife and his God.’ If it’s public money, voters are like, ‘that’s my tax money,’ so it’s a different reaction.”

Smith was once a rising star in the Democratic Party and subject of the critically acclaimed documentary Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? His political career ended after he pleaded guilty to election-related fraud and went to prison in 2010 — punishment even his political enemies believed was wildly excessive.

Now a politics professor, Smith said Ford will have to craft his message aimed at the “fence sitters,” and not direct his message to the people “who identify with the sort of grievance-based politics that fuelled his rise.”

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