Many have called him “the street politician who turned city hall on its ear”.
Rob Ford, the outsized and underestimated politician who personified suburban alienation from Toronto’s downtown culture but ended up turning city hall into a raucous reality show, has died after a battle with cancer – the disease that interrupted his bid for a second term as mayor of Toronto and caused him to hand over the candidacy to his older brother Doug. He was 46.
At the time of his death, Rob Ford was councillor for Ward 2 at the heart of Ford Nation, the boisterous fan base that stood by their tax-cutting, anti-union, pro-car, anti-establishment mayor when he was implicated in a crack-smoking video, targeted in an undercover police investigation and exposed as a binge drinker.
His unchecked real-guy persona allowed him to get away with behaviour that would have felled more strait-laced politicians. When he finally admitted to smoking crack after a series of mocking denials, he insisted he was not an addict but allowed that he may have tried it, “probably in one of my drunken stupors” – a lesser-of-two-evils style of Ford apology that rapidly became a jovial pop-culture catchphrase. Meanwhile, the ongoing revelations about his behaviour provided easy material for American late-night TV hosts, such as David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and Jon Stewart.
Mr. Ford’s enduring popularity with Ford Nation, however, was sustained by a moral resiliency that allowed him to make light of his transgressions and find instant forgiveness among the large segment of the electorate – particularly suburbanites annoyed by downtown preoccupations such as bike lanes and green roofs, and immigrants unconvinced they were sharing in Toronto’s prosperity – who were predisposed to believe his claims to innocence.
“I’ve never seen this in a politician before,” said Adrienne Batra, his former press secretary, who joined the Ford team during the 2010 campaign. “It was a rock-star thing, and he was mobbed. This man was so beloved by the people who support him and it just grew. Of course we had scandals, of course we had missteps, but with each misstep his numbers and his support went up.”
Mr. Ford’s great appeal as a street-level politician was that he inhabited a comfort zone where even flaws could be displayed as strengths – the visible proof of a happy normality that bound him to everyday people outside the bubble of professional politics. He delighted equally in offering advice to schoolchildren at City Hall and hosting bulky wrestlers and boxers, winning an arm-wrestling bout with Hulk Hogan and presenting never-knocked-down heavyweight George Chuvalo with the key to the city. He was at ease in his unrefined awkwardness, unslick enough even in his suit-and-tie uniform to be relatable in the eyes of people who found city hall decision making too remote and abstruse.
“He saw what the public wanted and that’s what he provided for them,” said former Toronto councillor Doug Holyday, a long-time political ally of the Ford family. “He returned their phone calls. He was service-oriented. He spoke to people when he saw them. He tried to cut costs to the taxpayer. He tried to be fiscally responsible.”
Rob Ford was elected mayor in 2010 in the wake of the global financial crisis and a 39-day garbage strike that came to symbolize an unworkable, out-of-touch civic government. He was determined to be seen as a hands-on leader who responded personally to complaints about intrusive tree branches and broken water pipes, often in the company of high-level city staff. While he showed little interest in the technical side of municipal government and was frequently missing in action at City Hall, he was an eager glad-hander and a crowd-pleasing spectator at sports events and street festivals – an accessible celebrity with none of the policy-wonk aloofness that distanced professional politicians from voters who longed for human contact and affirmation.
“Clearly there are hundreds of thousands of people who feel like they were cut out of Toronto’s success story,” said Zack Taylor, professor of human geography at University of Toronto, Scarborough. “And then here’s a guy who says all those fancy-pants people with their environmental programs that do nothing for you, they don’t care about you, they don’t see you, they don’t return your calls. But I see you, I’m one of you.”
The fact that Mr. Ford was raised as a millionaire’s son, and that he confronted the complex issues of city-building with simplistic catchphrases like “Subways, subways, subways,” did little to detract from the sheer force of his personality.
“What was astonishing about Rob Ford was his intense humanity,” Prof. Taylor said. “He was a real person in all his flesh and blood, not a packaged commodity. Despite all the messiness in his life, his authenticity seemed able to offset everything else for a large segment of the electorate.”
He rose to power with a promise to “stop the gravy train.” Soon after he was elected mayor, he moved to cancel the largely suburban light-rail project crafted by his predecessor, Harvard-educated lawyer David Miller, killed a vehicle tax that he considered part of a broader “war on the car,” took away city transit workers’ right to strike, privatized local garbage collection for half the city, demanded a property-tax freeze and commissioned a wide-ranging search for savings in the city’s core services. “He hated taxes and felt that any dollar given to government was a dollar stolen from the people,” said left-leaning Toronto councillor Joe Mihevc.
Unfortunately for gravy-train believers, the consulting firm KPMG could find little evidence of waste. But Mr. Ford’s dogmatic political style wasn’t constrained by such details. The public sector was inefficient by nature, he insisted, and most of his fellow politicians were stereotypical fat cats who couldn’t succeed in the leaner world of business – where he and his brother Doug had honed their entrepreneurial values (albeit as high-paid executives at Deco Labels and Tags, the family label-making firm launched by their father).
Fiscal conservatives and pro-development lobbyists may have found Mr. Ford unsophisticated compared with the usual Bay Street standard of smoothness – he was very clearly not the establishment choice and railed against elitist conspiracies whenever he was backed into a corner, lumping CEOs, union leaders, newspaper reporters and bike-lane campaigners together on a single enemies’ list. But his low-tax strategy and privatizing rhetoric found support, at least until his chaotic personal life began to derail the Ford brothers’ pursuit of their agenda.
Much like Donald Trump, Rob Ford was a populist at heart, a revolutionary figure in a dissatisfied democracy who instinctively sensed how to express the grudges of ordinary people against sinister, amorphous elites – up to and including their own elected representatives, who are portrayed as scheming, incompetent, self-satisfied and out-of-touch.
“Ford was the master of that kind of politics,” said Clifford Orwin, professor of political philosophy at the University of Toronto. “He had an extraordinary ability to persuade blue-collar voters that he was one of them, that he could articulate their grievances and resentments.”
The problem with populism, as Mr. Ford discovered when he was elevated from his gadfly role as a colourful local councillor to the mayor’s office, is that it works best when voiced by angry outsiders. How do you denounce big, bad government when you’re in charge?
The uneasy alliance that Mr. Ford formed with middle-of-the-road councillors was destined to break apart as the brothers dismantled the city’s transit and waterfront plans, while showing no tolerance for dissent or criticism. Mr. Ford was eventually stripped of most of his powers by his formerly supportive allies, but only after the revelation of the crack video in 2013 made it possible for them to assert a higher moral authority.
Still, there was little they could do to undermine his rock-star following on the streets of Toronto or jeopardize his standing with the crowds that cheered him on at the spirited family-run barbecues known as Ford Fests. In the 2014 election, he won his old council seat handily without much campaigning, having previously used a noisy stint in a cottage-country rehab clinic as an opportunity to start fresh with a blank slate.
Rob Ford was the ultimate born-again politician, a lovable sinner who was given a perpetual do-over – each new revelation seemed to beget a sincere pledge that he had already moved on, as if his misbehaviour belonged to a previous self he had long since shed.
Unlike many politicians who need forgiveness, he remained profanely secular. There was nothing overtly religious in his manner, despite his reference to a life-changing “come-to-Jesus” moment in an odd-couple interview with the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge in 2013, where he insisted that he was finished with alcohol – he also claimed with every hint of sincerity that he never did drugs.
It was the phraseology of Depression-era evangelical tent meetings and it was also completely untrue. He was too fun-loving to be a fundamentalist, and the right-wing Republican style of U.S. religious purity wouldn’t have played well with his multi-ethnic, freewheeling Toronto base. Like many of the people who responded to him so readily on the streets of the city, he was happy being imperfect and all too real. In Toronto, the moralizing ascetics tend to inhabit the left wing of the political spectrum, not the right.
The most remarkable thing about Rob Ford may be that he easily ascended to the leadership of Canada’s largest, most diverse and most dynamic city without ever straying too far from the small world of his suburban upbringing – even the suspected crack house where a smiling Mr. Ford was photographed in the company of young men connected to the drug trade was the home of a friend from the mayor’s high school days.
Robert Bruce Ford was born on May 28, 1969, the fourth and youngest child of Doug and Diane Ford, who met at a pool where Doug, a marathon swimmer who once attempted the crossing of Lake Ontario, was working as a lifeguard.
Doug Ford Sr. started out as a meat salesman but made his fortune in the adhesive-label business. He retained a Depression-era ethic of hard work and self-betterment that was passed down to his children as an essential element in the family mythology. Rob Ford worshipped his father – who served a term as a Conservative backbencher under Ontario premier Mike Harris in the so-called Common Sense Revolution – and was devastated at his death in 2006.
“There’s a rock-solid connection between Doug Sr. and Rob,” said former Tory backbencher John Parker, later a Toronto councillor. “But the distinction that has to be made is that Doug Ford Sr. was a genuine self-made success story. Rob and his brother take on the aura of self-made people, but they were born with silver spoons in their mouths.”
If Rob Ford felt any guilt that his own lifestyle had strayed so far from his father’s values, he never showed it, and always seemed to believe that he embodied the up-and-at-’em Ford work ethic – coaching high school football teams in the mud and the rain, for example, when he could have been swanning around at City Hall. Characteristically, he favoured the hard slogging of the ground game, where big stolid players like himself exhibited their toughness, to prettier displays of passing.
“Football is the key to the psychology of Rob Ford,” Mr. Mihevc said. “When life gets you down, you pick yourself up and get ready for the next play.”
While other city hall politicians were poring over their briefing binders at council meetings, Mr. Ford liked to study football betting sheets. His left-wing colleagues used to tease him about this, but eventually they joined in the betting pool – if only to beat Mr. Ford at his own game.
“He thought it was a studied art, which it ain’t,” Mr. Mihevc said. “But even when he got cancer, even when we’d go mano a mano on an issue at council, the football bet was still on – he did not take things in a personal way.”
Though he presented himself as an expert coach, delighted in wearing team jerseys with his name emblazoned across his broad shoulders and used his personal football foundation to raise funds for underprivileged players, the highlight of Mr. Ford’s sports career was a brief stint as a bench-warmer at Carleton University before he dropped out. He retained fond memories of the Washington Redskins youth camp he attended as a teenager, and when he entered rehab in 2014 to deal with his drug and alcohol issues, he was amazed to find that it brought back the good feelings of training camp. He remained a Redskins fan, provided NFL picks for Washington radio show The Sports Junkies after being stripped of most of his mayoral powers in 2013, and offered support for the Redskins name when it came under attack for being a racist slur. His idea of a perfect Sunday was to sit in front of the TV and watch three football games in a row – the model leisure activity for a working-class hero.
In high school he was a diligent football player, and managed to avoid the temptations that entrapped two of his siblings. His brother Randy and sister Kathy had severe problems with substance abuse and frequent encounters with police – Kathy’s ex-husband killed her boyfriend, the father of her daughter, and Kathy was later shot and wounded by another boyfriend, a fellow drug addict. Doug Jr., while more circumspect in his behaviour, was allegedly a major dealer of hashish while in high school, according to a Globe and Mail investigation. One of Doug’s associates at the time, David Price, was given the high-paid job of director of logistics in Rob Ford’s office after the crack-video story surfaced.
“You can’t teach loyalty,” Doug said, in what could easily pass for the Ford family motto.
After his short stint in university, Rob Ford took a job at Deco, the Toronto-based family business, but his lack of commitment was obvious.
“Robbie just did not have a passion for labels,” a fellow employee told The Globe. He drifted a little, lost a vote for Toronto City Council when he was 27, and was charged with drunk driving and marijuana possession in Florida (the drug charge was eventually dropped). In 2000, he was elected in north Etobicoke’s Ward 2. The same year, he married Renata Brejniak, with whom he would have two children, Stephanie and Doug.
As a councillor, Mr. Ford was a born contrarian, opposing spending on social services, decrying fellow councillors for their high office expenditures, violating all rules of political correctness and decorum by blaming cyclists for their deaths on the roads, downplaying expenditures on AIDS prevention (“If you’re not doing needles and you’re not gay, you won’t get AIDS, probably”), remarking that “Oriental” people are slowly taking over because they “work like dogs.” He also drunkenly insulted a man and woman at a hockey game and then denied that he was there – a foretaste of the trouble his “drunken stupors” would get him into as mayor.
Little in Rob Ford’s life made him reassess his priorities or actively work to change his behaviour. When he was chosen to run a city, the responsibilities of office fitted him poorly, and he drifted away back to Etobicoke – and often into trouble.
“I always felt there were personal issues with him,” Ms. Batra said. “To be really candid, between myself and my colleagues at City Hall, we were busy running the city. We did our best to keep the wheels of government going, to keep the mayor’s office going, the slate of the agenda moving forward, in spite of his absences. ”
He liked himself the way he was and, increasingly, other people did, too. His celebrity status compromised his judgment – there was an undisciplined, attention-seeking side to Rob Ford, a man accustomed to being indulged and pampered.
If there was ever going to be a public reckoning for the four belligerent years of his mayoralty, his diagnosis and subsequent treatment for liposarcoma, a rare form of cancer, effectively blunted the attacks by his critics.
His own council victory and the 34 per cent of the vote won by his brother in the three-way mayoral election of 2014 were sharp reminders of how many Torontonians remained faithful to the Ford family values whenever they seemed at odds with higher absolute standards.
“I am not perfect,” Mr. Ford liked to say, almost as a statement of pride, after he was caught out by media investigators whom he once derided as a “bunch of maggots.” Seemingly negative Ford stories would boost his support in polls among voters who didn’t believe or didn’t care what the media had to say.
Rob Ford’s enduring popularity was based on this intimate sense of connectedness.
“A lot of educated Torontonians failed to understand how closely he identified with what I’ll call the working class,” Mr. Mihevc said. “His voters were the people on the outs who want in – the immigrant, the person stuck in their car or on a bus for an hour and a half on the way to work, people who don’t see the state as obviously supporting them in their lives. His tone and his character articulated their rage and alienation.”
What began as a personality cult took on a deeper meaning once he was elected mayor. The power of Ford Nation became synonymous with a broader Tea Party-style of disaffection that other politicians needed to acknowledge and reward. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, so unlike Rob Ford in his own respect-the-taxpayer brand of conservatism, made a point of palling around with the mayor who had endorsed the Tories in the 2011 federal election, hosting him at Quebec fishing trips and attending a backyard barbecue at his mother’s home. The late federal finance minister, Jim Flaherty, was a Ford family friend who helped arrange $660-million in taxpayer funding for the Scarborough subway extension.
Drab, sensible rationality just wasn’t Mr. Ford’s style – he liked the big splash and the overstatement, even envisioning himself as prime-ministerial material after he admitted to smoking crack. He once referred to himself in the kind of endorsement his supporters cherished as “300 pounds of fun” – though his football-lineman girth increased while he was in office and caused his brother Doug, a fellow council member, to institute a public Cut the Waist Challenge, complete with old-fashioned upright scales from the family business. The weekly weigh-in was an awkward brotherly contest played out on a civic stage, a strained exhibition of the Ford family dynamic. To see Rob dominated by a brother who lacked his charm was a reminder of where he was positioned in the family hierarchy – the nominal leader of one of the world’s great modern cities had to defer to an exhibition of public shaming.
The Fords saw themselves as the Canadian Kennedys. This might seem an unlikely comparison, but what was indeed Kennedyesque was their unstoppable sense of dynasty. As Rob Ford’s verbose spokesman, ideas man and slick backroom boss, Doug Ford was the details-oriented perfectionist with little time for the daily messiness of urban democracy. Early on in his brother’s mayoralty, he shocked his colleagues on council by announcing a ready-made (but short-lived) waterfront project incorporating a Ferris wheel and a mall that overrode years of civic planning. His power-behind-the-throne ambitions undermined Rob Ford’s stature on council.
“I knew how seriously limited Rob was when it came to policy and priorities,” said Mr. Parker, a suburban city councillor who initially supported Mr. Ford’s policies. “But I also knew he was a vote-getter who surrounded himself with good people in the transition period as mayor. We all thought his brother was going to be a good influence in the process because he was more polished and articulate. We didn’t realize what a destructive guiding force he was going to be – he acted like he’d just bought another family business.”
Doug Ford styled himself a martial-arts expert, but his taut, don’t-mess-with-me aura seemed better designed for CEO stare-downs than wheedling city hall negotiations in a weak-mayor system where the chief magistrate had limited power beyond his aura of authority. If the Fords had a reputation for intimidation at city hall, it was Doug who personified the bully style, famously berating citizens in the council chamber’s gallery with such intensity that the mayor ran to his aid in a brotherly show of strength – and plowed into the petite councillor Pam McConnell as if she were a helpless tackling dummy.
In the strange, one-of-a-kind Ford mayoralty, this passed for normal and even understandable. It was just Rob being Rob, a man whose impulsive and overpowering emotions of family loyalty easily outdistanced a more thoughtful response. “He operated purely by instinct and played to the crowd,” Mr. Parker said. “You just go where your gut leads you. You don’t have to put a lot of thought into it. And it worked, for him and for Ford Nation.”
Rob Ford leaves his wife Renata; children Stephanie and Doug; mother Diane; brothers Doug and Randy; sister Kathy; and extended family.
The Globe and Mail.