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What is Doug Ford like as a politician?

What is Doug Ford like as a politician?
Photograph by Erin Leydon

Doug Ford, Rob Ford’s older brother, is now leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party, meaning he stands a good chance of becoming Ontario’s next premier. Which makes now a good time to review what Doug was like during the only other time in his life when he held any kind of government office: between 2010 and 2014, when he served a single term as city councillor for Toronto’s Ward 2—the same ward Rob represented for a decade before running for mayor.

Although Doug was technically just one of 44 councillors, he exercised outsized influence on the mayor, and often dominated headlines even at times when Rob seemed determined to keep a low profile. Here’s what the world learned about Doug during that period.

He’s a hothead

Doug’s sometimes combative way of dealing with the public landed him in trouble on a few occasions over the course of his term as councillor. Once, after saying some disparaging things about an Etobicoke group home for children with autism, Doug told the father of an autistic child to “go to hell.”

On another occasion, when activists applied to have Rob Ford’s campaign finances audited, Doug Ford cornered one of them at a city council meeting and muttered some ominous words, for which he was later forced to apologize by the city’s integrity commissioner.

He told anti-poverty activists to “get a job.” He openly criticized Bill Blair, then Toronto’s chief of police, starting a public feud between the police and the mayor’s office that ended in legal threats. Mark Towhey, Rob Ford’s one-time chief of staff, writes in his book, Mayor Rob Ford: Uncontrollable, that “Doug is a physical bully. He can be quick to anger, and, when opposed, puffs himself up and attempts direct intimidation—threatening physical violence, or some form of retribution or retaliation.”

He likes to cut

It won’t surprise anyone that the brother of Rob “Stop the Gravy Train” Ford has a record of pushing for cost cuts. Over his years in council, Doug joined his brother in advocating for smaller government—although he was notably more permissive than Rob when it came to the city’s community grants. Doug used his position on the city’s government management committee to boost small reforms that he thought would shrink the city’s expenses, like contracting out cleaning services. On another occasion, Doug led a push to buy cheaper parts for the city’s fleet of high-tech street sweepers, which, according to the Star, led to many of them malfunctioning and spewing dust.

But he also loves to spend

The Ford family business, Deco Labels, has made Doug Ford a wealthy man. That personal wealth has, at times, conflicted with his political activities. In 2011, he and Rob ran into legal trouble when a pair of activists filed for an audit of Rob’s campaign finances, alleging that the Ford brothers had improperly used money from their family holding company to finance Rob’s mayoral run. Auditors ultimately determined that Rob had spent more than the legal limit on his campaign, but the city’s compliance audit committee decided not to press charges.

There are other examples of Doug’s largesse, like the time he promised to personally donate $50,000 to revitalize city parks, or the time he famously handed out $20 bills to a crowd of residents at a TCHC building he was visiting. In both cases, his political opponents accused him of vote-buying.

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What is Doug Ford like as a politician?
Photo from FordNation/Facebook
He thinks of himself as a corporate dealmaker

Time and again during his years on city council, Doug Ford proposed making improvements to the public realm using private money. He was on the board of a corporation created by Rob Ford’s office to explore the possibility of funding a Sheppard subway extension with a combination of public and private money. Doug was adamant that the idea, which initially hinged on getting corporations to invest in the subway in exchange for development rights along the corridor, would allow the city to lay track at a reduced cost to taxpayers. “As sure as I’m standing here, we’re getting subways. You got that? There’s going to be a subway on Sheppard,” he told a city council colleague at one point. The Sheppard subway plan eventually collapsed amidst ballooning costs and political strife.

In 2011, after the Board of Trade released a report calling on the city to impose road tolls to pay for improvements to the city’s transportation infrastructure, Doug floated his own idea: why not have a private company dig a tunnel under the Gardiner, build an underground express highway, and then charge people $5 a pop to drive on it? The idea had no obvious support from the mayor’s office, but Doug’s position as Rob’s unofficial spokesman ensured that it earned some skeptical media coverage. The idea, which would likely have cost billions of dollars to execute, was quickly buried under an avalanche of other Ford news and forgotten.

But Doug’s stint as an unscripted, unofficial idea man didn’t end there. Other causes he briefly championed during his time on city council included letting corporations pay the city for the right to rename public buildings. He also championed the idea of bringing an NFL team to Toronto, with a stadium to be paid for by private corporations, with no public money whatsoever. It didn’t happen.

He has a flair for showmanship

Doug’s gift for hoopla doesn’t end with policy. Remember the “Cut the Waist” challenge, which turned Rob Ford’s body struggles into daily news? That was Doug’s idea. And then there’s Ford Fest, an outdoor barbecue, attended by hundreds, which Doug has continued to hold annually.

And don’t forget the ferris wheel

If there’s one thing people remember about Doug Ford’s time as a councillor, it’s the ferris wheel. It was the most famous of Doug’s policy proposals, and it bears all his hallmarks: an ambitious plan to remake a huge chunk of the city, a supposedly foolproof partnership with a private corporation, a surprise announcement that didn’t seem to be fully coordinated with the mayor’s office, and an unceremonious collapse after the plan was held to outside scrutiny.

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In late 2011, Doug became the frontman for a plan to seize control of Toronto’s port lands from Waterfront Toronto, a government agency that had spent years developing a detailed flood protection and redevelopment scheme for the district. Doug made some big promises: by selling land in the Port Lands to private corporations, he said the city would be able to redevelop the huge, industrial area within five or six years. His vision for the Port Lands included a monorail, a luxury hotel, a 1.6-million-square-foot mall—and, of course, the now-infamous ferris wheel, which Doug hoped would be the world’s biggest, dwarfing even the London Eye. Nobody knew it at first, but Doug had a specific mall developer in mind: Westfield Group, an Australian company that had lobbied him a few months prior.

Backlash to the plan was immediate and severe, as academics, activists, politicians and community groups organized to put a stop to what they saw as a corporate takeover. Doug’s plan ultimately died with a whimper. Waterfront Toronto did eventually agree to recalibrate its plans for the port lands, but the current proposal bears no relationship to Doug’s vision.

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