Ana Bailao is a nice woman. Everyone at city hall likes her. Since voters elected her to represent Ward 18-Davenport in 2010, she has earned a reputation for being an earnest, thoughtful and hard-working city councillor.
But on Oct. 15 she made a terrible mistake.
After attending the Mayor's Ball for the Arts that night, she went for drinks at the Thompson hotel on Bathurst Street. Afterward, she took a cab to her car and started driving home. Police noticed her headlights were off and pulled her over. A breathalyzer test registered a blood-alcohol reading of .13, well above the legal limit of .08.
A few days later, she made a second mistake. At a city hall news conference, she said she intended to plead not guilty to drinking and driving charges. "These charges will in no way affect my ability to do the job I was elected to do," she said then. Fellow councillors of all stripes flocked to her side. "Everyone makes mistakes," said Doug Ford.
"She's an amazing councillor," said Frances Nunziata.
Now Ms. Bailao admits her decision to plead not guilty was wrong. "The media pressure was unrelenting and I was getting advice from dozens of people," she told reporters on Monday. "I listened to that advice instead of listening to my heart."
After thinking it over, she decided to plead guilty instead and went to court earlier Monday. She will lose the right to drive for a year and pay a fine of $1,000.
Ms. Bailao seems genuinely contrite, and her apology "for the hurt and offence I have caused others" appeared heartfelt. She was often in tears as she spoke. "I need to do this to be okay with my conscience and my heart," she said.
Mayor Rob Ford gave her credit. "She did something wrong. She owned up to it. That's the right thing to do. And she's a good councillor and she takes care of her constituents well," he told reporters.
But the whole sad episode speaks to the way we often view drunk driving – not as a real crime, but as an unfortunate but perhaps understandable indiscretion. Why else would her colleagues have rallied to her side without having any idea what happened that night?
Despite all the years of public education about drunk driving – all the gory ads on TV, all the pleas by bereaved families, all the police spot checks – an astounding number of people still get behind the wheel while under the influence. MADD Canada, which fights drunk driving, puts the number of impaired driving trips each year at 12.5-million. It says the number of people killed annually by drunk driving is between 1,250 and 1,500.
Penalties are more severe than they once were, and police much more serious about catching drunk drivers. But many of us still think we can handle a car with a few drinks under our belt.
Ms. Bailao says she felt in control when she made the decision to drive that night. She now says she realizes that no matter how in-control you feel, "one drink is too many."
"The only thing I ask is for people to learn from my example. The decisions you make in a single moment can have life-altering consequences."
Too true, but those words would have carried more weight if she had recognized her special role as an elected official, admitted fault at the beginning and taken the rap.
Instead, she waited three months before having her fit of conscience and deciding to plead guilty.