Mr. Popular: why Rob Ford’s winning over Toronto

Mr. Popular: why Rob Ford’s winning over Toronto

By any measure he’s a terrible candidate for mayor. But his obsession with cost-cutting and his contempt for City Hall have pushed him to the front of the pack. The unlikely allure of Rob Ford

Follow the leader: Ford has downplayed his family’s wealth and crafted an Everyman persona

Fifty-five barbecues.

Over the summer, Rob Ford, aspirant to the office of mayor of Toronto, ample, happy and flushed, ate his way through 55 orgies of hot dogs and hamburgers and handshakes and photo ops. Five he hosted personally; two were fundraisers in his mother’s backyard, attended by loyal supporters and political heavyweights, such as the finance minister Jim Flaherty. The rest were held by community groups and political organizations like the Ontario PC Youth Association. As the weeks passed, the barbecues grew in size, and the cheers for Ford’s speeches longer and louder.

Ask anyone in Ford Country why they plan to vote for him and you get variations on the same litany: he answers my phone calls; he helped me when I needed help; he doesn’t waste taxpayers’ money. At one event I attended, held in a plaza on Dixon Road, Wilma, an intimidating woman in a faux leopard hat, told me she supports Ford because “we need a damn housecleaning at city hall.” Twenty-five-year-old Richard values Ford’s campaign to strip city councillors of perks, like free TTC passes and free parking, and supports Ford’s opposition to the land transfer tax because his wheelchair-bound father needs a new home, but he can’t afford it because of the tax.

The object of all this public affection is a big man but somehow not an imposing one. Ford is a serial smiler who looks up slightly when he speaks. When he shows his teeth, his eyes vanish into a haze of blond, almost albino lashes, and you’re left with the disconcerting feeling that he’s not actually looking at you. There’s something preeningly feline about him, too—he has a tendency to sweep one hand back over his hair (a rather lovely winter wheat in colour), or stroke his cheeks from side to side, perhaps because they are often sweaty.

By the end of the summer, polls showed that Ford had pulled ahead of George Smitherman, his only serious competition. Later this month, we could all wake up newly minted inhabitants of Ford Country. There are many who find that a very scary prospect. To them, Ford is a foul-mouthed buffoon with a long history of embarrassing gaffes and no grander vision of Toronto than a city that could be run more cheaply. His fans, on the other hand, can’t wait to see city hall wrenched from the grasp of big spenders and put into the hands of an ordinary guy who understands the problems facing ordinary people. That man, their man, is Rob Ford.

Mass appeal: “It’s not Bay Street or the Albany Club that’s behind me,” Ford says. “It’s Main Street”

He is a lifelong resident of Etobicoke, the area west of the Humber River that constitutes a kind of buffer state between Toronto and Mississauga. There’s money there—central and southeast Etobicoke in particular—and the meandering side streets off Royal York Road constitute a world of spacious homes, treed avenues, and expansive parkland and golf courses. The feeling changes dramatically as you head north. The neighbourhood of Rexdale is immigrant territory, a down-at-the-heels, dense tract of apartment blocks, strip plazas and industrial parks; parts of it lie directly in the flight path of planes heading for Pearson.

Ford grew up in a secluded enclave off Royal York Road near Chapman Valley Park, the youngest of four kids. His widowed mother, Diane, still lives in the same house. The property isn’t grand, though it has a three-car garage, the front yard is attractively landscaped, and it has the benefit of a large backyard butting up against the park, with a pool and children’s playhouse. For decor, Diane Ford favours Asian urns and statuary; there are large metal urns flanking the garage, several Chinese-style lion statues in the backyard and an American-style eagle posed menacingly behind some bushes in the front yard. Rob Ford’s own home is a modest bungalow in the nearby Edenbridge neighbourhood.

Support system: Doug Ford, Rob’s brother and campaign manager

Ford’s father, Doug Sr., was a self-made, hard-working man. He co-founded Deco Adhesive Products in 1962, bought out his partner a decade later, and built the business into one of the country’s largest producers of pressure sensitive labels (the kind you affix after peeling off the paper backing), with three shifts working 24/7 at the Toronto location, and plants in Chicago and New Jersey. The company reportedly has annual sales of $100 million. Rob’s brother Doug Jr. is the company president, spending much of his time in Chicago overseeing the plant there. Rob is the chief financial officer. The eldest brother, Randy, is the general manager who runs the Toronto operation on a day-to-day basis.

Doug Sr. died of colon cancer in 2006, his death painful and devastating to his children. Rob learned about public life from his dad, who was a backbencher in the Mike Harris government from 1995 to 1999. In 1998, Doug Sr. was accused of making racially insensitive comments in a television interview. Rob, perhaps in homage to his father, would face similar accusations in 2008 when he famously complimented “Oriental people” because they “work like dogs.”

The Ford family is certainly tabloid-ready. Kathy, the eldest of the four children, is a recovering heroin addict. In 1998, her ex-boyfriend, the father of one of her children, killed her then-boyfriend by shooting him in the head with a sawed-off shotgun. Several years later, Kathy survived a shot to the head (a different boyfriend and another man were later charged) in an accident unrelated to the earlier gun incident.

Rob is married; he and his wife, Renata, have two children, five-year-old Stephanie and three-year-old Doug. Rob himself was charged two years ago with assault and uttering a death threat against his wife. The charges were withdrawn because of inconsistencies in his wife’s allegations—the couple subsequently entered marriage counselling. It’s rare for a politician with a devoted wife and two cute kids not to take advantage of photo ops, especially when Ford so frequently refers to them in campaign appearances. But Ford and his team usually keep the family away from the media. I made many attempts to arrange an interview with Renata, all of which were denied, and attended several events at which she might have been expected to make an appearance. She never showed.

Rob’s brother Doug is the brains of the family, and the manager not only of Rob’s campaign but also of his own bid to replace his brother as city councillor for Ward 2. One councillor told me that if Rob becomes mayor, Doug will be his Cardinal Richelieu. Rob’s senior by five years, Doug is also über-blond, better looking and not quite so bulky. He is more articulate than his brother, with a slick, menacing smile—a man who rarely missed an opportunity to invite me, without actually meaning it, to stay with him in Chicago. He is a man whose bonhomie can turn off with an almost perceptible click. When I interviewed Rob in his office at Deco and asked about family matters, he evaded, stumbled and in a fit of desperation called Doug into the room. Older brother immediately took control. “Let’s talk about the issues,” he said, and we were soon into boiler-plate campaign tropes like cost-cutting, returning phone calls and the 10,000 homes Rob has visited in the past 10 years. He also made a point of telling me that I’d been given more time with Rob than anyone else in the media. “So,” he said with a suddenly lactating smile, “be fair and balanced, and don’t screw us around. I’ll never forgive you.”

Rob at a fundraiser with MP Jim Flaherty

When Ford wants to convince you that he cares for something besides the bottom line, he mentions his hours as a volunteer coach at Don Bosco, a Catholic high school in the heart of Rexdale. Ford coaches the Eagles, the school’s football team, along with a police constable and former CFL lineman named Oral Sybblis.

When Ford enters Don Bosco, he is immediately surrounded by teenage boys. They trail after him as he moves toward the gym change room, keeping up a steady stream of guy talk (“No way, man!”, “You’re kiddin’ me!”, “How you doin’, buddy?”), giving big bear hugs and trading back slaps and fist bumps. They always refer to him as “coach” or Mr. Ford. When I speak to them, they call me “sir.” They say please and thank you a lot. I know this is partly a show organized for me, but it’s impressive. Ford spends money on these students—he buys them equipment that some of them can’t afford. While I’m there, he tosses one kid a pair of football gloves and jokes, “These are $100 gloves, buddy, so don’t let me down.” It’s not all show, though. These guys are excitable and jokey, but they are scrupulously well behaved for high school boys. Some of them were once troublemakers with uncertain futures, and they, and their parents, credit Ford for the change.

Just watch me: Ford on his Caribana parade float

Ford has always been passionate about football, having played throughout his high school years at Scarlett Heights Collegiate Institute in Etobicoke. Though he’s coached there and at other schools, his avocation blossomed at Don Bosco, in an area where joining a gang was a more likely outcome for some boys than joining the school’s then-moribund football team. He put $25,000 of his own money into the project and has since set up a foundation to help fund and equip teams in vulnerable neighbourhoods. “Practice starts at three every day,” he says. “Lateness is not tolerated. Swearing and racist comments are strictly prohibited—if I hear swearing, practice stops and everyone has to do four laps of the field. A kid misses a practice, he doesn’t play in the game. We go three o’clock to six, every day. Doesn’t matter if it’s cold or raining. We teach life lessons here.” Ford also says he insists that all his players attend classes, do their homework and maintain passing grades. “They memorize my number,” he says, “and they can call me anytime. I’ll be there for them.” He has appeared in court several times as a character witness for boys in trouble, and at times he has ended up letting some distraught young man sleep over at his home.

Those young guys bring out the best in Rob Ford. He’s an exemplary coach with an honest concern for disadvantaged young men (though an incendiary temper sometimes gets the best of him; he was asked to leave his coaching job at another school, Newtonbrook, after a shouting match with one of the players). He’s also a genuinely nice guy, albeit somewhat in the manner of the amiable high school goofball you can’t help but like. Problem is, the city doesn’t need a coach. The city needs a mayor.

Rob Ford prides himself on being an ordinary guy, and there is little in his history to contradict him. If he made much of an impact in high school outside the football team, it isn’t recorded in the Scarlett Heights yearbooks, though he says he also has an artistic side, having taken lead roles in school productions of The Princess and the Pea and Greasers. Summers, he worked for the family firm, where, he says, he got no special treatment. He graduated in 1988 with average grades, leaving to study political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, where he played for the Ravens, the school’s football team. He didn’t graduate, opting to leave a few credits short so he could return to Toronto to help at Deco. He eventually moved into management. Then, in 2000, Ford ran for councillor in Etobicoke North, inspired by his father’s political career and by a love for politics so ungrounded that he occasionally fantasizes about becoming prime minister (while acknowledging that his inability to speak French might be an impediment). He defeated the incumbent Elizabeth Brown by about 1,600 votes, taking just over 40 per cent of votes cast, and has been a fixture at city hall since.

Ford is a genuinely nice guy, albeit in the manner of the amiable high school goofball you can’t help but like

The posters on the glass wall of his office in city hall have all the sophistication of someone who’s running for president of his high school’s student council. The biggest is an ad for AM640 Toronto Radio (a jock-oriented station for which he’s a regular political commentator), and the other shows a crude drawing of a matador with a cape, the text reading “Rob Ford—T.O.’s bull fighter.” Inside, the walls feature many a framed caricature of him from the dailies, a large oil painting of Toronto harbour in the 19th century, a Chinese urn some five feet high, and certificates of appreciation from such groups as Faith Open Door Ministries, the Toronto Police Service, the CNIB and the Sikh Spiritual Centre. There are shelves of football memorabilia, and a “Local Hero” certificate from the Toronto Argonauts.

He doesn’t have many friends at city hall—and not just because, in a largely left-leaning council, he is something of an anomaly. John Barber, until recently the Globe’s city hall reporter, apparently called Ford a “fat fuck” to his face during a scrum a few years ago, and the schoolyard shouting match that followed was captured on film and can be seen on YouTube. Barber declined to speak to me for this piece, quoting American presidential candidate John McCain: “Never get into a wrestling match with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it.” Ward 7 Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, also on the right of the spectrum, might have been seen as a natural ally, but relations could understandably have cooled after Ford called him a Gino boy, a snake and a weasel. Councillors, especially in nearby wards, resent the way Ford trespasses on their turf, handling constituent complaints instead of forwarding them on (Ford replies that this wouldn’t be an issue if his colleagues dealt as expeditiously as he with calls and e-mails). He’s described Ward 4 Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby as a “waste of skin.” Councillor Pam McConnell says, “He screams at me, berates me as a mouthy woman, a commie. He looks at people as with him or against him, and looks at me as someone to be dismissed. I’m downtown, left, a different gender, so not relevant. He sees himself as the norm, and it is so frightening to think that he might lead a city whose motto is ‘Diversity is our strength.’ ”

Just watch me: Ford on his Caribana parade float

I found many more councillors willing to criticize Ford. His spotty attendance at city hall is much mocked, especially in the fall, when he devotes considerable time to football coaching. As Ward 20’s Adam Vaughan put it, “When I heard he had decided to run for mayor, I wondered if he knew it was a full-time job.” Ford concedes that he misses three hours of council meetings twice a month so he can fulfill his obligations as a coach, but that he’s otherwise at city hall. I sat in for two days of council meetings in May. Technically, he was there. He was in the building. He took his seat late, often left the chamber for long periods, would return for short stints, leave again, chat with adjacent councillors, miss votes, get up frequently for glasses of water, look bored. Kyle Rae says Ford, unlike some councillors, never attends a meeting of a committee he doesn’t sit on. In particular, he avoids budget committee meetings where he would have an opportunity to ask questions that concern him most, but he prefers to wait until he can grandstand on budget issues in council. Rae and others say he doesn’t do his homework—doesn’t read his reports, which means he wastes council time asking questions to which he should know the answers.

That lackadaisical attitude has had more serious consequences. On April 30, the city’s integrity commissioner recommended that Ford be reprimanded for revealing confidential information about a planned property purchase by the city on AM640 Radio, concluding that “Councillor Ford failed to read the report, failed to check his assumption that the matter…could be revealed in public.” It was his first official reprimand, but it wasn’t the first time the integrity commissioner ruled that Ford had violated the city’s code of conduct. In February last year, he carelessly misread a report and concluded that Councillor Vaughan had voted to appoint one of his donors to a city committee. He accused Vaughan on AM640 of influence peddling. City council voted that he withdraw his allegations, apologize to Vaughan, apologize to all of his colleagues and “pledge to recommit himself to respect the code of conduct he has previously sworn to uphold.”

Sometimes, his big mouth is more costly. The city’s insurer covered a $12,717 tab for Ford’s legal defence against a libel suit brought about by Lenna Bradburn, until recently the executive director of municipal licensing and standards. Bradburn was infuriated when Ford blurted on AM640 that she was “in over her head.” He later apologized on air and claimed he only had his constituents’ best interests in mind, and the case was settled.

Court costs aside, Ford styles himself as the cheapest employee at city hall. He proudly violated council policy on expense accounts, which until recently forbade councillors from paying for office expenses out of their own personal funds. Ford continues to pay his own expenses: $648.90 in 2008 and $708.78 last year—paltry amounts, which means he’s cheating his constituents of benefits, like a local constituency office or informational newsletters, that residents of other wards enjoy. Nonetheless, his parsimony seems to sit well with voters who bristle at the thought of an office expense budget in excess of $50,000 (the city allocates $50,445 to each councillor to cover such basics as photocopying, postage, meetings, travel and so on). But Ford is rich. He can afford to pay his own office expenses. He can afford to host barbecues for constituents at his old family home.

He, or someone close to him, has an acute sense of how to inflame outrage among cash-strapped citizens. For years, city councillors received free TTC passes, free parking privileges, tickets to the zoo and other perks. Ford argued over and over again that councillors should pay for those privileges like every other citizen. A video clip he made and disseminated on the topic is a masterpiece of populist outrage. He was always voted down in council and finally took the matter to the Canada Revenue Agency, which agreed with him: TTC passes are, it turns out, a taxable benefit. Those other perks may be as well. “Touchdown!” Ford gloated.

That would hardly be the word he’d use to describe the incident at the Air Canada Centre on April 15, 2006, by overwhelming consensus the locale for the low point in his political career. Drunk and obnoxious, Ford had to be escorted from a Leafs hockey game by security staff after savagely insulting a couple, Dan and Rebecca Hope, who were objecting to his raucous rants. Ford called the man a “right-wing commie bastard,” and shouted, “Do you want your little wife to go over to Iran and get raped and shot?” The Hopes brought the matter to the attention of the city clerk once they discovered who Ford was. (The councillor had given his business card to two men sitting near him, and they turned it over to the Hopes.) Ford lied, said he wasn’t at the game, complained that he was the victim of a “hatchet job,” and finally had to fess up, offering as justification that he was coping with personal problems and had had one too many beers.

Why does this man stand a chance at becoming mayor? He’s a man who claims the arts are important but frequently votes against arts funding, a man who feels his every ridiculous misstep or gross violation of common decency can be remedied by simply saying “I’m sorry,” a man who has described cyclists as a “pain the ass,” a man who offered me bottles of wine as a gift when I visited him in his office and seemed puzzled that I thought it inappropriate, as a journalist, to accept what might be read as something other than an act of generosity.

He’s a contender because he is a master of retail politics. He is the Walmart of politicians. Price point is everything. There’s a reason he skips council meetings, avoids committees and has only a glancing acquaintance with reports and documents—he understands that his constituents don’t care if he isn’t fully up to speed on a seemingly arcane policy issue, but that they will care very, very much if he answers their calls and deals with their concerns promptly (other councillors point out that he often turns up at a problem site with more city staff than necessary, impressing complainants with how seriously he has taken their issues). I spoke with David Soknacki, city councillor for Ward 43 from 2000 to 2006 and currently chair of Downsview Park. Soknacki supported some of Ford’s initiatives and is a fellow right-winger. What matters most to voters, Soknacki says, is that “Rob will prioritize basic customer service needs, from bylaw enforcement to street repair to solid waste collection.” Ford himself claims that the top concerns for citizens (and he knows, he says, because he organizes “telephone town halls”) are personal-impact issues, such as city hall spending, taxes and crime. They don’t care as much about bicycle lanes or the environment.

To some, even his embarrassing behaviour might come as a perverse recommendation. With Ford, what you see is what you get, and there’s something reassuring about that, even when what you get is not exactly what you think you should want. Everyone has marital and family problems. Ford has them in public. Everyone wants to tell off someone: cab drivers, cyclists, dog owners, whiny special interest groups. You don’t have to—Ford will do it for you. Everyone has ohmigod moments when they’re told what they did when they were drunk. Ford understands. Everyone hopes to be forgiven when they screw up.

His love of politics is so ungrounded he occasionally fantasizes about becoming prime minister

Sometimes, what you get is what you do want. Ford’s Web site,, is a model of transparency, recording how he and other councillors voted on most issues that come before council. No other councillor posts this kind of information. The same site lists the individuals and corporations who contributed to his 2006 election campaign (30 corporations, 29 individuals and the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters union). Every councillor’s expenses are detailed. The numbers are available on the city’s Web site, but not as conveniently arranged for comparison purposes as they are on Ford’s.

Ford adeptly manipulates class issues, which everyone pretends to ignore because Canada isn’t supposed to have a class system, but of course it does. Ford claims to hold the interests of the common man close to his heart, despite the fact he has little in common with the proletariat to whom he’s appealing. He’s wealthy but has the smarts not to look or sound so. That matters in the real world when it comes to issues like contracting out city services, which Ford endorses. Contracting out can be smart business, no doubt about it, and Rob Ford is a businessman, a fact he frequently emphasizes. Contracting out probably means lower taxes for most of us because there are always desperate people who will work for less. The city will save money, and so will you. City workers surviving on a decent wage might see their livelihood snatched away, but hey, here’s the upside—no garbage strikes.

That promise resonates with citizens. Last year’s labour disruptions alienated voters from a city hall they saw as incapable of reining in excessive union demands (and sounded the death knell for Miller). Ford paints himself as hostile to an elite that would include his most significant rivals: former Ontario cabinet minister Smither­man and backroom Liberal Rocco Rossi. In contrast, Ford campaigns on a program of single-minded, if often simple-minded, cost-cutting strategies that appeal to a crabby electorate. Although, if you do the math, the Ford program falls apart—it’s not possible to slash taxes and fees while putting more police in schools and building expensive subways instead of cheaper LRT lines.

That Everyman persona, that plea to take politics back from an elite, positions the Ford campaign as Canada’s answer to the Tea Party phenomenon in the States, a movement that stokes the politics of rage, that revels in simple answers to complex questions, that evinces a shuddering disdain for any cultural product or intellectual argument that might be seen as elite. Ford claims to have Liberal supporters, NDP supporters, supporters across the political spectrum. “It’s not Bay Street or the Albany Club that’s behind me,” he says. “It’s Main Street.”

As the man now in the lead, he wants to sound mainstream, which means his campaign organizers work hard to keep him on message (which almost always seems to be about making the city “accountable for every tax dollar”), moderating his vehemence, replacing it with the same jocular, good-ol’-boy tone he uses with the football team at Don Bosco. On city issues other than financial ones, the man’s ignorance is embarrassing. It was excruciating to watch him flounder helplessly at an Art Gallery of Ontario debate on architecture and city planning (the audience laughed when he claimed to have made Rexdale look like Rosedale), or hear the guffaws at a televised debate prior to the G20 when Ford, apparently unaware that downtown would be sealed behind a fence, declared it was a great opportunity to show Toronto off to world leaders by taking them to the Rogers Centre and other sights.

He’s a contender because he’s a master of retail politics. Price point is everything

There probably won’t be a repeat of an event like his penitential visit last May to an HIV-positive gay couple—his attempt to apologize for ignorant comments he’d made some years ago about HIV transmission. The meeting blew up in Ford’s face when the clearly troubled couple began pestering him for access to OxyContin, and then taped him suggesting he might be able to get it for them illegally. (Ford claims he was co-operative because he feared what the man would do to his family if provoked and wanted to get him off the phone.) At any rate, he apologized (again), and it seems to have worked. Though the incident constituted further evidence of a lack of judgment, it seems not to have made a dent in his support.

Toward the end of the summer, Ford had become a more confident debater, dismissing Smitherman’s increasingly shrill attacks with the equanimity of a man in first place. At an August debate on immigration, Smitherman accused Ford of pledging to ban refugees from settling in Toronto. Ford didn’t disagree. Toronto, he said, shouldn’t accept refugees because the city already has enough trouble taking care of its current population. Some audience members applauded.

I asked David Crombie, mayor of Toronto from 1972 to 1978, and Mel Lastman, mayor from 1998 to 2003, for their opinion of Ford. I wanted to hear what they thought were critical traits for the city’s mayor. Their short lists were slightly different, but each gave considerable weight to the ability to work with council. It’s important because the mayor of Toronto, for all the prestige the office bestows, has only one vote. “Having to work with other councillors deepens a mayor’s understanding that council is where the power is invested,” Crombie said. “Good public policy comes from sustained partnerships and relationships.” Even Lastman, who wasn’t famous for playing nice, told me, “You have to work with other councillors. You have to get along.” Name-calling, grandstanding and truancy didn’t appear on their lists.

At the end of one council session a few months ago, I followed Ford out of the chamber. We hadn’t been introduced, and he didn’t know who I was. He and two other men entered the elevator. The two men talked city business, gripped by some arcane details of civic administration. Ford, lost in his own thoughts, paid them no mind. He was looking at himself in the mirrored wall of the elevator, tilting his head from side to side, stroking his cheek in that caressingly feline way he touches himself, smiling approvingly. He likes what he sees. He believes Toronto loves him, believes Toronto can’t wait to be annexed into Ford Country. He may be right. I could almost hear him purr.