The weirdest mayoralty ever—the inside story of Rob Ford’s city hall

The weirdest mayoralty ever—the inside story of Rob Ford’s city hall

Loyal councillors have defied him. His approval ratings have plummeted. And his powerful Conservative backers are nervous. How did it all go so wrong? The strange story of Rob Ford’s city hall

Rob Ford
(Image: John Cullen)

On Newstalk 1010, the sly strains of the Hollies hit “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” offered the first clue. Then morning host Jerry Agar burst on the air with a surprise announcement: Rob Ford and his councillor sibling Doug were taking over the station’s Sunday afternoon talk-fest, The City. For the once-staid CFRB, landing the boisterous brother act that Margaret Atwood had puckishly dubbed the “twin Ford mayors” was clearly a coup, but that didn’t answer the more obvious question: why on earth would the Fords want to spend two more hours a week in front of an open microphone when they were hardly suffering from a lack of media exposure?

Rob Ford, after all, ranks as one of the most compelling and exhaustively chronicled figures in Canadian politics, adored and despised with equal gusto. His every pronouncement seems to turn into front-page fodder, his every grimace and belly scratch catalogued by rapt photographers. And who could forget the YouTube footage of comedian Mary Walsh arriving in his driveway, decked out with a velvet breastplate and a plastic sword?

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But by the time Agar announced the show’s February 26 debut, the mayor was none too keen on his press clips, which aptly mirrored his increasingly bleak political fate. Ever since the new year, a small band of independent councillors had been leading an open revolt, dealing him a series of humiliating defeats, first on his budget, then on his cherished subway-building agenda. No matter how he tried to spin it, one conclusion was unavoidable: the mayor was increasingly isolated on his own council.

In Conservative backrooms across the city, there was undisguised consternation. Ford’s predecessors, David Miller and Mel Lastman, would never have allowed themselves to lose such key power struggles, especially so early in their first terms. Ford was becoming an embarrassment—one who could do lasting damage to the party as a whole. “There are only so many votes you can lose,” says a prominent Tory advisor who asked for anonymity, “and then you end up becoming sort of neutered.”

Doug Ford was not going to let that happen. “We’re street fighters,” he had bristled after one council dust-up, and he had decided to take the battle over subways—and the future of his brother’s mayoralty—to the streets. Shortly after the budget vote, he went to Newstalk 1010 with his plans for the Rob and Doug show. Borrowing a page from an American playbook—that of another populist icon named Ronald Reagan—he saw the radio show as a platform to bypass both council and the media, making their case directly to the people. As his brother’s long-time campaign manager, he was also positioning the show as the launching pad for the mayor’s re-election bid three years down the road. No other candidates had yet appeared in their sights, but Rob Ford was firing the first salvos in what amounted to a permanent campaign. He was taking on all comers, including the entire ornery city council and Premier Dalton McGuinty, who, he warned, risked “political suicide” by daring to thwart his subway plans.

Rob Ford
03/25/2010 Rob Ford registers as mayoral candidate (Image: Getstock)

As the Fords clamped on their headphones in the Newstalk studios, they were in a combative mood that matched the station’s promos: “Up next,” an announcer trumpeted, “the polarizing Ford brothers!” True to form, Doug was the first to speak. “Here’s the big guy,” he said, turning the mike over to his kid brother. “Fasten your seat belt, because we’re going for a ride.” For the next 15 minutes, however, that ride was disconcertingly pedestrian, even sophomoric, meandering through the brothers’ biographies as if they’d found themselves caught in job interviews. Then they finally got to the point, urging listeners to mount a grassroots campaign that would force their foes to relent. “Call your local councillor, call your MPP,” the mayor exhorted. “Get straight in their face and tell them you don’t want streetcars. You want subways.”

The show was meant to recapture Rob Ford’s heyday on The John Oakley Show, which had transformed him from an oddball Etobicoke councillor into a frustrated everyman with a canny knack for revving up listeners’ outrage, but this return to the electronic bully pulpit felt different. There was an air of improvised desperation about it, part revenge, part whistling in the dark. Indeed the show seemed like a startling act of bravado for a man who had been regarded only months earlier as the Teflon mayor—a leader with such stratospheric approval ratings that prime ministers had come courting and few councillors had dared challenge his legislative course.

Tuning in, I couldn’t help wondering what had happened. How had Ford let such a massive electoral mandate slip away so swiftly, reducing him to this: an outsider on his own council, trying to drum up support over the Sunday afternoon airwaves?

In the sprawling city hall suite that serves as Ford’s official lair, the mayor’s in-house decorator, his mother, has tried to inject some homey notes. A battered vanity licence plate one might expect to see in some suburban rec room hangs by the doorway, spelling out ROB FORD in bold blue letters that dwarf the prim official signage reading “Office of the Mayor.” Until recently, the plate was attached to Ford’s beige Chevy Uplander, a convenient calling card as he wheeled around the city checking out residents’ complaints about squalid social housing units and street repairs. But after an irate driver famously accused him of giving her the finger when she caught him talking on his cellphone behind the wheel, he retired it in favour of a less obvious identifier: DON BOSCO, the name of the high school whose football team he coaches.

Inside, where the scarlet splash of an Oriental carpet separates black leather couches, the tabletops are strewn with family photos and sports memorabilia, but one oversized photograph on the wall behind Ford’s desk overshadows the rest. It features former premier Mike Harris beside the man who remains the defining influence on the mayor’s life: his late father, Doug, the family patriarch, who spent one term as a fervid foot soldier in Harris’s Common Sense Revolution.

It’s no secret that Harris, now chair of the auto parts giant Magna International, weighs in regularly with advice for the mayor, but when I ask Ford who his political idols are—Ronald Reagan? Margaret Thatcher? Mike Harris?—he waves off all three. “No,” he says wistfully. “My dad’s my political hero, my business hero—he’s my hero overall. End of story.”

Rob Ford
10/25/2010 Rob Ford flanked by his mother, Diane, and wife, Renata, on election night (Image: Getstock)

A dynamic six-footer with a salesman’s ready smile, Doug Ford Sr. was “your classic Horatio Alger success story,” according to John Parker, who sat with him as a Conservative backbencher and now serves as Rob Ford’s deputy speaker in council. The youngest of nine kids, who never knew his own father, Doug Sr. grew up desperately poor on a hardscrabble stretch of the Danforth, and barely made it past grade school. Juggling a patchwork of jobs to help his mother make ends meet, he would arrive home before dawn and, as he recounted to Parker, “slip the money under his mother’s pillow before she woke up.” A talented athlete, he played football for the East York Argonauts and attempted to swim Lake Ontario in the same crossing that turned Marilyn Bell into the nation’s darling, but it was a job as a lifeguard that changed his fortunes. At the pool, he met a statuesque blond swimmer named Diane, who became the mother of his four children and, not incidentally, a driving force behind his success.

In 1962, after their two eldest kids, Kathy and Randy, were born, he left his job as a top salesman at Avery Labels to strike out on his own, founding the family firm now known as DECO Labels and Tags. Due to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, the company generates an estimated $100 million in annual sales, churning out customized pressure-sensitive labels for the grocery producers that put down roots near the Ontario Food Terminal in Etobicoke. Virtually every supermarket purchase of a logo-wrapped chicken breast or bar-coded toilet cleaner now means a contribution to the Ford family coffers.

Today, the company remains a family fiefdom controlled exclusively by Diane and her three sons, with no outsiders on the board. To the frustration of those attempting to probe the mayor’s campaign expenses, some of which the firm initially underwrote—and which are now the subject of a compliance audit order—the company’s finances are sheltered from prying eyes. So too is any information on executive compensation, including the pay package of DECO’s president, Doug Ford Jr., who donates his councillor’s salary to charity.

For the Fords, their father’s rags-to-riches saga lies at the heart of the family mythology—a narrative of true grit that Rob Ford has adopted as part of his own political persona. Whenever he talks about growing up in the shadow of all that striving, he still sounds awed, parroting the mantra of a stern but adored disciplinarian as if it continues to echo in his ear. His father “would do anything for his kids,” he says, in the staccato burst of maxims that make up his normal mode of speech. “But you gotta work, be on time, never miss a day of work. You don’t sleep in at the Fords’ house. You’re up and at it.”

Despite that strict credo of self-reliance, Ford is, in fact, a product of upper-middle-class privilege who wanted for little growing up and never had to scuffle for a job. Not long after he was born, in 1969, the baby of the family, the Fords moved into the imposing ranch-style six-bedroom house his father built at the end of a leafy cul-de-sac off Etobicoke’s Royal York Road. With a full-sized swimming pool and gardens out back that have hosted nearly a thousand visitors, it was one of the best addresses in an otherwise modest neighbourhood, party central for the Ford siblings and their friends as they were growing up.

Doug Sr. might have been careful with a dollar, but he spared no expense for his kids. When Rob dreamed of becoming a pro football player, his father sent him to a summer football camp—but not just any football camp. He was dispatched to the youth camp of the Washington Redskins, who had just won the 1983 Super Bowl with two of his heroes, star running back John Riggins and former Toronto Argonaut Joe Theismann. From there, it was on to South Bend, Indiana, and workouts at the legendary University of Notre Dame campus—an extravagant tour of gridiron nirvana beyond the wildest fantasies of your average North American teen.

Rob Ford
12/07/2010 Don Cherry’s infamous introduction of Rob Ford at his swearing-in (Image: Getstock)

That experience gave him bragging rights at Scarlett Heights Collegiate, where his determined weightlifting bulked him up enough to play centre on the school’s football team and earned him a reputation as a scrapper off the field. He yearned for stardom on some college roster, but he ended up enrolling at Carleton University in Ottawa, where he found no such glory. He won a spot on the Ravens’ offensive line but appears to have spent most of his first and only season on the bench. University officials say his coach has no memory of him, and some former players suggest he may never have dressed for a game. Although Ford scoffs at that claim, John Lindsay, an Ottawa real estate agent who recalls warming the bench with him, regards the scenario as probable. As Lindsay points out, they were vying for action against older teammates who were seasoned 300-pound hulks. “I know it might sound strange now,” Lindsay says, “but Robbie was a little guy.”

Ford was already well into the 2010 mayoralty race before it emerged that, contrary to his suggestions to a Toronto Star reporter, he had never actually graduated from Carleton. At first an aide claimed that he’d left Ottawa “two credits short of earning a degree,” but soon it became clear that he had dropped out much earlier. Shortly after his first lacklustre football season, he was back home, where a job was waiting on the DECO sales staff. In a family where none of the four siblings has completed a post-secondary degree, that lack of academic credentials did not prevent him from later being named the company’s chief financial officer.

Now Ford will say only that he was summoned home from Carleton to help run the family business—“There were some issues I had to deal with,” he says cryptically—but two years ago a spokesman explained that he’d come back to help his sister, Kathy, a recovering heroin addict, who “fell upon hard times.” A hint of those hard times surfaced in 1998 when her former common-law husband, Ennio Stirpe, the father of her son, arrived at the Caledon house she was sharing with a new boyfriend and killed him with a sawed-off shotgun. Eleven years later, Stirpe had just gotten out of jail after serving two thirds of his manslaughter sentence when he ran afoul of the law again, knifing a girlfriend so savagely she was blinded in one eye. “Ford’s ex-in-law convicted in stabbing,” proclaimed one headline last December—an attempt to link the mayor to the attack that might have seemed unnecessarily sensationalist at the time. Then, within weeks, another incident in Kathy Ford’s turbulent love life brought patrol cars screeching to her brother’s doorstep.

Early one morning in January, Ford’s neighbours allegedly saw a convicted drug dealer named Scott MacIntyre trying to force his way into the mayor’s grey-brick bungalow near Scarlett Road. Agitated about his recent breakup with Ford’s sister, MacIntyre claimed he only wanted to talk to the mayor about retrieving his belongings, but he was charged with uttering death threats, forcible entry and possession of heroin and cocaine. Among reporters on the police beat, his name rang a bell. As it turned out, MacIntyre was the same boyfriend who, during a 2005 party at Kathy’s parents’ house, accidentally “shot the top of her head off,” as Ford put it, requiring her to undergo plastic surgery. Their parents, who had been holidaying in Florida, rushed back to Kathy’s bedside. Eventually, police dropped charges against MacIntyre, who appears to have called 911 before fleeing in Diane Ford’s black Jaguar. “Our family has been through everything—from murder to drugs to being successful in business,” the mayor later told a reporter. “Nobody can tell me a story that can shock.”

Through it all, the family has rallied around the mayor’s sister, building her an apartment on their parents’ property and administering a million-dollar trust fund their father set up for her. “We all backed Kathy 100 per cent,” Ford once explained. “Maybe what she was doing was wrong, but you don’t just throw people out into the street for doing the wrong stuff.”

All four siblings still live within a few miles of the Etobicoke house in which they were raised and a short drive from the family firm where all have spent the majority of their working lives. Fiercely protective, they have a history of circling the wagons at the first sign of trouble—one that helps explain some of the secrecy and insularity Ford has brought to city hall. “The Fords don’t trust anyone,” says the mayor’s former chief of staff, Nick Kouvalis. “They just don’t.”

Rob Ford
01/10/2011 After a budget meeting with police chief Bill Blair (Image: Getstock)

That wariness became apparent as I waited for an interview last February, when the mayor’s new communications director, George Christopoulos, pulled me aside to make clear that one area of inquiry was off-limits: any questions about the mayor’s wife, Renata, the petite mother of their two kids, six-year-old Stephanie and four-year-old Dougie, who has rarely been seen in public since Ford’s election night victory party. An elusive figure who has fled reporters’ overtures, she has, however, made her presence felt through a series of 911 calls. The first one to make headlines summoned police to their home in late March 2008, resulting in an assault charge against Ford that was later withdrawn. The most recent came in on Christmas morning, when Renata’s mother phoned police from the mayor’s house to protest that he had been drinking and was threatening to take their children to Florida against his wife’s will.

Even before Ford’s mother-in-law recanted, Doug Ford rushed in to perform damage control, explaining that it had all been a misunderstanding: “Rob was not drinking as reported—it’s just inaccurate,” he told Toronto Sun columnist Joe Warmington. The Sun was promptly supplied with photos of the mayor and his kids in the swimming pool at the family’s condo north of Miami, where Renata had indeed not joined them. According to Warmington, the mayor was “clearly embarrassed” by the fuss. “Look,” Ford appealed to Warmington, “I think you know a lot of people who have problems behind closed doors.”

For a family with such a staggering number of problems, politics might not seem like the most natural choice of pursuits. In fact, Rob Ford can’t even remember the subject coming up around the family dinner table. Then, in early 1994, Doug Holyday arrived at DECO’s headquarters with a request. A successful insurance broker with a seat on Etobicoke council, he had decided to run for mayor of the borough—a position that would be wiped out four years later with amalgamation—and was determined to recycle his old campaign signs. To his delight, Doug Ford Jr. came up with decals to do the job, and even went one step further. He joined the steering committee of local businessmen behind Holyday’s campaign, hurling himself into the fray with the enthusiasm of a freshman invited to his first frat party.

In retrospect, it seems telling that it was the mayor’s older brother who first got the “political bug,” as Holyday calls it, but a year later Rob and Doug convinced their father to throw his own hat in the ring. As Bob Rae, the New Democratic premier of the day, flailed at one of the worst economic crises to hit Ontario since the Great Depression, the brothers watched their father swearing at the nightly newscast. “I said, ‘Dad, stop cursing at the TV and do something about it,’ ” the mayor recalls.

Doug Sr. set his sights on the Conservative nomination in the provincial riding of Etobicoke Humber and convinced his middle son to try his hand at managing the campaign. Holyday agreed to join the team along with his pal Morley Kells, who was running for the Conservatives in a neighbouring riding. To their surprise, the nomination meeting turned into a nail-biter that went on to a series of late-night ballots, where Doug Sr. squeaked to victory by a mere seven votes. For his youngest son, who worked the floor, that melodramatic night was a game changer. Months before the general election that would carry his father into office on the crest of Mike Harris’s 1995 landslide, he realized that he, too, wanted into the political game.

Now many of the players around Ford’s city hall can be traced back to that long-ago Etobicoke fight. Tom Barlow, the man his father beat, is the mayor’s lawyer in the ongoing inquiry into his campaign expenses. And one of Ford’s first acts as mayor was to anoint Doug Holyday as his deputy, putting an avuncular face on the city’s confrontational labour negotiations. Even Morley Kells, who once sat with his father in Harris’s caucus, works three days a week coordinating Rob and Doug’s schedules. From that vantage point, Kells can see the similarity between father and son, including a shared streak of hard-right Harris-style conservatism that is beyond either’s powers of articulation. “He never said a helluva lot,” Kells recalls of Ford père. “He just sat there in front of the microphone and voted the party line. With the Fords, whatever course they’re on, you’re not getting them to budge even with a sledgehammer.”

Rob Ford
04/07/2011 Rob Ford gleefully power washing graffiti in the St. Clair and Dufferin area (Image: Getstock)

Although the family places a high premium on loyalty, Doug Sr.’s went unrewarded when Mike Harris kept a campaign promise on redistribution that did away with his seat. In 1999, he retired without a whine. If he failed to leave much of a mark as an MPP, he did make friendships that would prove a boon for his son. In the legislature, he formed an unlikely bond with his seat-mate, Jim Flaherty, one of Harris’s brightest stars and now the federal finance minister who doubles as the Conservatives’ overlord for the Toronto area.

The Fords backed both of Flaherty’s failed provincial leadership bids as well as that of his wife, Christine Elliott, and in return Flaherty was the only federal minister to endorse Ford in the mayoralty race. Since then, he has been instrumental in forging the mayor’s ties to Stephen Harper. Last July, Flaherty helped arrange a private day trip for the Ford brothers and their wives to the prime minister’s official summer residence at Harrington Lake—or as Rob Ford prefers to call it, Harper’s “cottage.” That outing was widely regarded as a thank-you for the mayor’s efforts in helping the Conservatives win nine new Toronto seats, but a private tête-à-tête out in the prime ministerial motorboat—with Laureen Harper at the wheel—may have also offered Harper a chance to enlist the mayor’s help in the upcoming Ontario election.

Other politicians might savour the chance to boast of such an intimate strategic summit, but Ford prefers to play good ol’ boy. “I don’t want to get into it,” he says with an aw-shucks shrug. “We just had a private day together and I caught some big fish. In fact, I think I actually caught the second biggest fish ever in his lake.”

Despite reports that Harper never baited a hook, he too seems to have felt he had a big one on the line. A month later, when the Fords hosted an invitation-only tribute to Flaherty in their mother’s backyard, the prime minister dropped by to cast further goodwill upon the waters. Lauding Diane Ford for nurturing a political dynasty, he urged Ford’s faithful to get back out on the hustings and work for what he termed a “trifecta”: a Conservative victory in the October provincial elections that would put every level of the region’s government in the party’s hands. At the time, that prospect still seemed like a distinct possibility, and it is a measure of how swiftly Ford’s approval ratings sank last fall that, only weeks later, Conservative leader Tim Hudak scrupulously avoided any association with the suddenly problematic mayor.

Still, with the Liberals’ tenuous hold on a minority government, Harper and Flaherty have a continuing stake in Ford’s fate. In March, when the prime minister came to town to break ground for the Island airport tunnel, he tried to give the beleaguered mayor a rhetorical boost with a personal testimonial on the joys of subways. At his side was Flaherty, who seems to feel responsible for the irrepressible Fords. During a meeting with the finance minister, one councillor recalls him telling her, “If you have any trouble with the boys, call me.”

When Rob Ford first ran for city council, even Doug Holyday wondered why he was the candidate, not his big brother, Doug, who was five years older, more gregarious and clearly the brains of the family. Today, Holyday has his own thoughts on the question. “I was always of the theory that Doug wanted to have his father and brother in politics,” he says, “because that gave him a freer hand to run the business.”

Rob Ford
08/02/2011 Stephen Harper’s cameo at a barbecue hosted by Rob Ford’s mother (Image: Getstock)

In the Ford family, business has always come first, and well before their father’s swift, devastating death from colon cancer in 2006, Doug Jr. had been handed the keys to that kingdom. Taking over as DECO’s president at 29, he expanded the company into the U.S., commuting every week to Chicago, where he established a foothold in the $15-billion North American label industry that has secured the family fortune—and thus the political franchise it helps underwrite.

As for that political franchise, few knew that the Fords had a long-term game plan. John Tory discovered it in 2003, when he was running for mayor against David Miller. Advised that he ought to seek out the blessing of Ford’s father, who was then regarded as the reigning power broker in Etobicoke, Tory arranged a lunch date with the retired MPP. When he arrived, he found Doug Sr. waiting to size him up along with Diane and all three of their burly blond sons. After an hour of pleasant chatter, Diane Ford got to the point. “She said, ‘Well, we think you’re a pretty good fellow and we’re going to support you for mayor,’ ” Tory recalls. “ ‘You can serve for a couple of terms and then it’ll be Robbie’s turn.’ ”

Tory was dumbfounded at that scenario. At the time, Rob Ford had already cemented his reputation as the odd man out on council, the lone obstructionist who voted against almost every motion and was widely dismissed as a buffoon. Ford’s colleagues would look on in trepidation whenever he rose to speak, bouncing from leg to leg with gathering fury, his voice rising as a tide of crimson flooded the flesh above his collar.

Six years later, when they tuned in to the mayoral debates, they were astounded by his transformation. Conservative campaign wizard Nick Kouvalis had bunked into a second-floor DECO boardroom, drilling Ford in focus and messaging techniques. Still, veteran councillor Pam McConnell was alarmed by his preternatural calm: “I thought, ‘What have they done to him?’ ” she says.

With Ford’s election, the quintessential political outsider—council’s perennial pariah—became the ultimate civic insider, the 64th mayor of the country’s largest city. But a change in office does not always bring a change in world view. The first sign that Ford’s image makeover might not have been more than campaign trail–deep came when Don Cherry showed up to swear him in, sporting a hot-pink floral number and ranting about “all the pinkos out there that ride bicycles.” Not only did Cherry’s tirade crystallize much of the inchoate fear and frustration that had helped bring Ford to power, it also set the tone for the new administration, designating anyone who wasn’t onside as the enemy.

That polarization only increased as Ford’s team lowered a bubble of secrecy over his office, which quickly became known as Fortress Ford. Inside its glass-walled reception area, the wooden double doors that had been open under David Miller were locked to all but a select group of insiders. Ford’s then–press secretary, Adrienne Batra, kept tight control of the mayor’s every appearance and refused to release his schedule to the media except through freedom of information requests. After reporters questioned why Ford had met with one of his largest campaign donors, Vaughan developer Mario Cortellucci—a former supporter of Mike Harris who had once backed a controversial scheme to haul Toronto’s garbage north to the abandoned Adams Mine—the mayor’s staff even stopped including the names of his meeting partners on those schedules, further reinforcing the impression of a bunker mentality.

Rob Ford
09/19/2011 Rob Ford in council chambers during the debate over service cuts (Image: Getstock)

Grilling councillors on their support for the mayor’s agenda, Ford’s team handed out plum committee assignments only to those deemed sufficiently loyal—a degree of partisanship that even Lastman had never displayed. Under him, left-leaning councillor Joe Mihevc had been named chair of the Board of Health; under Ford, he says, “I was basically told, ‘You’re going to be on the pencil-sharpening committee.’ ” As Mihevc sees it, the Fords have yet to grasp the individualist nature of council, where, without a party system, every vote is a minuet of negotiation, not a sudden death playoff. For the Fords, Mihevc says, council “is a football game—a game of power and domination.”

Last summer, during the marathon public hearings on Ford’s proposed budget cuts, one young speaker stunned Mihevc with an insight into how Ford believes that game ought to be played. Protesting cuts to TTC service, Stephen Braun identified himself as a lineman Ford had once coached on the Newtonbrook Secondary School squad. “Mr. Mayor, you’re running this city like you coached football—like a schoolyard bully,” Braun said, recalling Ford’s advice to his offensive line: “Go low and go for the knees.”

That approach echoed the modus operandi of Nick Kouvalis, who leaped at the chance to stay on as Ford’s chief of staff. For him, the job was not so much an exercise in governance as a long-form version of another campaign—this time for Ford’s 2014 re-election. One result was that the mayor often seemed to be running against an institution he already helmed. Months after he took office, he was still reciting his well-rehearsed campaign mantra decrying the city as a mess. To first-time councillor Mary Fragedakis, who had spent eight years as co-owner of a corporate conferencing firm, it seemed a bizarre approach for a leader whose team often likened him to a CEO. “What surprised me is that he and his brother always trash-talk the city,” says Fragedakis. “I don’t know a CEO who doesn’t believe in marketing.”

Kouvalis had mapped out a detailed four-year strategy for Ford: a year fulfilling signature campaign promises; two years of drastic budget cutting that were sure to ignite an uproar; and finally, in the last year, presenting a kinder, gentler face that would return him to power. Ford was following that script when, on his first day in office, he cancelled David Miller’s blueprint for a city-wide light-rail network, known as Transit City, without so much as submitting it to a vote.

That move, more than any other, bore the fingerprints of Kouvalis, who feels almost as passionately about subways as Ford does. When he doled out the administration’s key dossiers among staffers, he kept the transit file for himself. It was Kouvalis who went to the province, deep-sixing Transit City and insisting that even the above-ground portion of the Eglinton-Crosstown light-rail line be buried, no matter the cost. Although provincial officials at Metrolinx went along with it, one member of its board, Paul Bedford, the city’s former chief planner, insisted on inserting a clause into the memo of understanding that stipulated council must approve the about-face—a caveat that went unnoticed until it later proved Ford’s undoing.

Kouvalis was determined to impose discipline on an administration that Conservatives across the country were regarding as an ideological bellwether—no easy task—but his greatest challenge was reining in the mayor’s chief confidant and advisor, Doug Ford. It was he, after all, who had hired Kouvalis, and who weighed in on almost every decision that crossed the mayor’s desk. The bond between the brothers is the stuff of legend, and some of that legend dates back to their days at Scarlett Heights Collegiate, where there was an unspoken rule: nobody messed with the Fords. Today, they go out of their way to underline each other’s toughness, even recounting their own boyhood brawls. On their radio show, Doug, a trained kick-boxer, has reminisced about the times they were caught “dropping the gloves with each other.”

Rob Ford
10/24/2011 Mary Walsh, as Marg Delahunty, visits Rob Ford’s Etobicoke home (Image: Getstock)

Not only do they share a nickname—“Hey, Jones,” they’ll quip—but in council they seem to confer in unspoken shorthand, eyes never meeting, agreement sealed in a phrase or a nod. Once, during a bitter debate, I watched as the mayor strolled by Doug Ford’s council seat, his little finger grazing his brother’s in wordless solidarity.

At DECO, Doug was clearly the boss, the alpha male who jetted around the continent rustling up business, all swagger and Vegas style, a chunky gold chain at his neck, but when he arrived at city council, it was no-frills Rob who had the commanding title. Adjusting to that new balance of power has not always been easy for the mayor’s big brother. In fact, Doug’s ubiquity and his tendency to use the corporate “we” when discussing civic affairs quickly raised questions: had the mayoralty turned out to be a package deal? Or was Doug Ford really running things at city hall?

Insiders say he is not, despite appearances, mainly because he has no patience for the slow-grinding wheels of civic governance. While Doug has been blamed for some of the administration’s worst public relations blunders, he also orchestrated one of its greatest triumphs. A day before his brother’s impending budget defeat, he unearthed a big industrial scale from the bowels of the family factory, whipped up some hokey decals and invited the entire country to join in the distraction of their weekly weigh-ins. “They don’t always agree,” says Kouvalis, “but Doug is the one guy Rob can count on to have his back at all times.”

“People have been criticizing me my whole political career,” said the mayor, “but it’s like football, you get right back up”

The brothers’ unique relationship made Kouvalis’s job a nightmare, and when he and Doug Ford were vacationing in Florida over the 2010 Christmas holidays, they agreed they could no longer work together. Weeks later, a blow-up with one of the mayor’s aides hastened Kouvalis’s exit, but Doug rushed to assure reporters that he wasn’t being fired. He would remain on standby as a $1-a-year advisor to the Fords. “Nick is part of the family,” Doug said. “He spilt blood for us.”

Officially, Kouvalis was replaced by Amir Remtulla, an unflappable former public affairs chief for Molson Coors Canada who had made his mark 10 years earlier as an executive assistant to Case Ootes, then Lastman’s deputy mayor. But the real power to emerge from the new dynamic was Mark Towhey, Ford’s policy director, who is widely referred to as the mayor’s Rasputin.

A veteran of the mayoralty race, Towhey drafted Ford’s original platform. As his buzz cut and fireplug build betray, he spent 13 years in the Canadian Forces, with postings in Berlin, Cypress and the Golan Heights. Later, he worked with the United Nations, training border police in a remote northern province of Afghanistan. Soon after he retired as a captain in 1996, he hung out his shingle as an international crisis consultant with a client list that includes the Department of National Defence, the RCMP and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. On his corporate biography, he boasts of steering organizations through “crises ranging from wildfires in the minefields of the Middle East to riots and hostage takings in Africa,” but like many in Ford’s inner circle, Towhey won his spurs in Etobicoke politics. A former Conservative riding president, he worked on two failed federal campaigns before making his own unsuccessful bid for the party’s nomination in 2007. That sparse political resumé may partly explain why the Ford administration has been lurching from one disaster to the next. Conservative MP Patrick Boyer, who beat Towhey for the nomination, attributes Ford’s troubles to Towhey’s “complete lack of practical political and government experience.”

Rob Ford
01/11/2012 Outside Rob Ford’s house after the police were called about a suspicious incident (Image: Getstock)

His messianic brand of libertarianism has also alienated many of the mayor’s potential allies on council. A true believer in minimalist government, Towhey has written enthusiastically about turning over public services to the private sector—a conviction some councillors say puts him to the right of even the Fords. During the mayoralty campaign, an entry on his blog, Coffee With Mark Towhey, set off a firestorm of controversy. He argued that the city should get out of the transit business and put the TTC’s assets up for sale. “Someone would buy the subway system,” he wrote. “There would also be buyers for some parts of the streetcar and bussing networks.” As for those underused bus routes that no entrepreneur in his right mind would want, he suggested cancelling them and offered this advice to their hapless riders: “Well, life’s tough. Instead of being the only three people on a 60-passenger bus, perhaps these people will have to introduce themselves, get to know their neighbours and share a taxi.”

Now Towhey oversees Ford’s mission to drastically shrink the size and scope of the city’s government, which prompted last year’s $3-million Core Service Review by international consulting firm KPMG. Catchily framed as a hunt for gravy, it was meant to confer an authoritative stamp of approval on the mayor’s drive to begin cutting or selling off all public services not deemed vital. To Towhey’s dismay, KPMG found that the vast majority of the city’s services qualified as essential, but, as he points out, changing the culture at city hall is an “iterative” process. With two years to go, he says, “we haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg.”

Towhey also has a keen sense of what will pass muster with Ford Nation, that electoral phenomenon that lofted the mayor to power and is credited with keeping his core support at a steady 30 per cent. Strangely, for a politician constantly boasting that he has brought a business mindset to city hall, Ford has given short shrift to one of the city’s most powerful corporate lobbies, the Board of Trade. When Shelley Carroll—a budget chief under David Miller—pointed out the perils of alienating such an influential group, Towhey waved off her concerns. Corporate fat cats aren’t considered part of the anti-establishment Ford Nation. “He said, ‘It’s not our base,’ ” she recalled.

As celebrated as Towhey is as an ideologue, among councillors he is best known as Ford’s chief enforcer, pressuring swing voters to line up behind the mayor’s agenda. “He can be very heavy-handed,” says one new arrival on council who has experienced Towhey’s muscle flexing first-hand. Under him, both Ford’s allies and independent voters started receiving detailed cheat sheets spelling out how to vote, and stories abound of Towhey arriving at councillors’ offices, closing the door and upbraiding them like wayward schoolchildren for failing to back some agenda item dear to Ford’s heart. But no one I interviewed would speak of it on the record. “People are afraid,” one veteran councillor told me last fall. Now, as newly elected councillors have found their footing, daring to stand up to the mayor, many admit their rebellion has been driven, in part, by a backlash against Towhey’s intransigence and intimidation. Over months of interviewing elected officials and staff, whenever I asked who was really running city hall, the answer was always the same: Mark Towhey. “Towhey thinks he’s the mayor,” says Councillor Adam Vaughan.

On the last Tuesday in August, many councillors tuned in to the CBC’s Metro Morning with a mixture of shock and disbelief. In the studio, Doug Ford was waxing rhapsodic about the notion of a mega-mall project, complete with a Ferris wheel and a monorail, on that benighted stretch of the eastern waterfront known as the Port Lands. As gasps rippled through the municipal body politic, Pam McConnell, one of two councillors whose wards cover the area, was shaken by more than Ford’s scheme to plunk down a glitzy retail Disneyland on that 1,000-acre plot of prime lakefront real estate. Earlier, Ford had labelled Waterfront Toronto, the 10-year-old tri-government agency charged with developing the waterfront, a “boondoggle.” Now McConnell wondered what was behind those comments.

On the CBC, Ford had alluded to a presentation where detailed plans for the project had been unveiled and “everyone’s jaw just dropped.” As McConnell and fellow area councillor Paula Fletcher soon discovered, that “visioning” exercise took place at an August 16 in-camera board meeting of the Toronto Port Lands Company, a city agency David Miller had stripped of its development mandate, turning it into a waterfront property manager. As they also discovered, Doug Ford had a connection to the TPLC’s president, Michael Kraljevic, a former real estate executive. They had played on the same high school football team, though Ford insists he hadn’t spoken to the man in 25 years. “Rob and I specifically ran against backroom deals,” he says. “I can assure you, no one influences Rob and me.”

Rob Ford
01/16/2012 Ford kick-starts his weight loss campaign (Image: Getstock)

A paper trail revealed that the mega-mall scheme had been in the works since shortly after Rob Ford took office. In February 2011, Kraljevic wrote to Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment, questioning its environmental assessments of the Port Lands. In May, a lobbyist for an Australian mall developer, the Westfield Group, had met with Doug Ford and the mayor’s new chief of staff to discuss the possibility of a shopping centre on the site. By the time the August 16 TPLC board meeting rolled around, two high-priced architects, Eric Kuhne and Mark Sterling, were presenting elaborate drawings for a Westfield-backed mall—drawings that included an ice palace in the Hearn generating station, an industrial white elephant on which Ford’s campaign donor Mario Cortellucci and his partners held a long-term lease. Astonishingly, TPLC had paid the architects $55,000—a sole-source contract of the very kind Rob Ford had once railed against as a councillor.

Still, it wasn’t until a week later that it became obvious a bureaucratic coup was in the works. An August 22 report from the city manager recommended, out of the blue, that Kraljevic’s TPLC replace Waterfront Toronto as the lead agency in developing the Port Lands. “All of us kind of had this wake-up call,” Fletcher remembers. “It was like, ‘Whoa!’ ”

When the mayor’s executive committee promptly endorsed the report, the full import of the putsch was clear. It would pave the way to auctioning off some of the city’s most valuable undeveloped real estate—almost all of it contaminated post-industrial land awaiting soil remediation and basic services—at fire-sale rates.

Already, Doug Ford’s boondoggle comments had provoked panicked calls from one of the waterfront’s biggest developers, Texas-based Hines, demanding to know if their deal was off. But when Pam McConnell told the mayor’s brother he had shaken investors’ confidence—perhaps even threatened a multi-million-dollar development—he seemed uncomprehending. “He said, ‘Send them my way and I’ll make a deal with them,’ ” McConnell recalls. “I said, ‘Councillor, that’s the problem: we’ve already got a deal with them.’ ”

With so many deals in the works, the question now was why the mayor and his brother were so eager to speed up the sell-off. Some councillors speculated that their goal lay far from the waterfront: earning a quick windfall to fund one of Ford’s pet campaign promises. “Many councillors believed the rush for the money was about using it for other projects,” Paula Fletcher says, “like the Sheppard subway.”

By mid-September, more than 140 experts, including urbanist Richard Florida, had released a letter damning Ford’s vision as “ill-conceived” and “reckless.” Ordinary citizens who had scarcely heard of the Port Lands joined in the outcry, protesting a scheme that smacked of a cozy deal and had no community consultation. Even Jim Flaherty, whose office oversaw the federal stake in Waterfront Toronto, was reportedly furious.

Rob Ford
02/26/2012 The Ford brothers launch their radio show (Image: Getstock)

Then, days before the Port Lands proposal was to land at a full meeting of council, Jaye Robinson, a hand-picked member of the mayor’s executive committee, shocked her colleagues by announcing that she could not support it. For Robinson, who had received hundreds of apoplectic messages from movers and shakers in her ward, that break with the mayor did not come easily. “I like to work behind the scenes,” she says. “But I felt I couldn’t take responsibility for such a sea change.”

Even when Fletcher and McConnell had amassed enough support to forestall Doug Ford’s Ferris wheel dreams, they worked all through one night to craft a motion that allowed both sides to claim victory. Neatly shelving TPLC’s takeover attempt, it confirmed Waterfront Toronto as the lead agency to steer development in the Port Lands, but underlined the need to speed up its timetable. As the proposal won unanimous approval before the packed council chamber and members of the public erupted in a raucous standing ovation, Doug Ford was left at his desk, staring straight ahead, so obviously humbled that his brother strode over to grasp his hand.

The Port Lands furor did have one unexpected upside, seeding a new era of civic activism that hadn’t been seen since the early ’70s when urban guru Jane Jacobs rallied neighbourhoods to stop the Spadina Expressway. “Ironically,” says Myer Siemiatycki, a professor of urban politics at Ryerson University, “Rob Ford’s greatest achievement to date has been to reinvigorate a more robust civic democracy.”

That outcry, in turn, marked a turning point for many of the 14 newly elected councillors, who had felt too awed by Ford’s soaring approval ratings to challenge his legislative juggernaut. “Until then,” says Jaye Robinson, “there was a feeling the mayor could get anything through.”

On the eve of the Port Lands debacle, a Forum Research poll showed Ford’s approval ratings had plummeted nearly 20 points. So alarmed were many backroom Conservatives that in October a delegation led by Paul Godfrey, the onetime éminence grise behind the Lastman regime, arranged a top-secret meeting with Doug Ford, warning it was time for the mayor to get his act together or risk harming the party brand. According to sources, Godfrey urged the Fords to offer voters a more compelling civic vision and drop their brass-knuckle tactics, but he also informed Doug Ford that it was time for him to vacate the spotlight. “The tone,” says one source, “was very stern.”

For a brief interlude, the mayor’s brother seemed to be following that advice, but within weeks he was back in front of the TV cameras announcing a partnership between Build Toronto, the city’s chief development arm, and Tridel to erect a 75-storey high-rise. Taking command of the press conference, he made clear that he remained his brother’s deal-maker-in-chief. “I’m getting the word out there,” he declared. “All developers, come knock on our door.”

Rob Ford
03/09/2012 Groundbreaking for a tunnel at the Island airport (Image: Getstock)

In some ways, Doug Ford could be excused for that chutzpah. Faced with the awkwardness of trying to make conversation with the mayor, many lobbyists and real estate tycoons preferred to take their case to his brother. Among Doug’s newfound pals was Ralph Lean, a Bay Street lawyer who had been a key fundraiser for both Mel Lastman and Mike Harris, and, like most members of the city’s Conservative establishment, had backed George Smitherman, not Ford, in the mayoralty race. But as soon as the votes were counted, Lean moved to rectify that miscalculation.

Along with Harris, John Tory and a handful of others, he organized a post-election fundraising gala called the Harmony Dinner to help candidates pay off their campaign debts, but the lion’s share of the proceeds went to Ford, who owed a whopping $639,527. Since then, Lean has emerged as one of the perennial backroom Tories hovering behind Ford’s throne. But despite hanging out with the mayor at a hockey game in Florida last Christmas, he admits he doesn’t really know him. “Rob is quite a nice fellow, but he’s shy,” Lean says. “Doug’s a businessman—he’s easy to talk to. He knows how to work a room.”

Last winter, Lean and Doug Ford cooked up a plan to revive the Mayor’s Ball for the Arts, a long-dormant Lastman institution, which aimed to raise $1 million for the Toronto Arts Foundation while accomplishing a much more urgent goal: convincing the city’s wary culturati that, despite the mayor’s threats to cut arts grants and sell off theatres, the Fords are not cultural philistines. “There was a message out there that Rob didn’t support the arts,” Doug notes, “which was just not true.”

Kicking off ticket sales last January, Lean invited some of the city’s leading arts patrons to a reception in the private members’ lounge above the council chamber. There, before a crowd that included former Lieutenant-Governor Hilary Weston, the Ford brothers gave brief impromptu speeches designed to establish the family’s bona fides as enthusiasts of the arts. After the mayor welcomed the crowd, predicting the ball would be “fantastic”— an adjective he seems to apply to everything, even some lost council votes—Doug regaled guests with tales of their father as an art collector who would travel the globe buying up treasures by the crate load. “My mother would go ballistic,” he recalled. “The house was just loaded with paintings and sculptures. The condo in Florida, the plant—they’re packed with art. We’ve even got all these Chinese vases that we bought at auction when Honest Ed’s restaurant went out of business.” In a crowd where collections lean toward the Group of Seven, awkward glances were exchanged, but Ford was unstoppable. “People tend to think of Rob and I in terms of sports,” he said. “But Rob, in school he loved theatre. In Grade 13, he was in The Princess and the Pea.

In January, as Rob Ford’s 2012 budget headed to council after nearly six months of stormy public consultations, he faced an insurrection. Surprisingly, it came not from his usual foes on the left but from a quartet of newly elected centrists dubbed the “mushy middle”: Ana Bailão, Mary-Margaret McMahon and two former school board trustees, Josh Matlow and Josh Colle. Frustrated by growing protests from constituents, they began meeting quietly behind the scenes—once at a Yonge Street pub called Scallywags—to craft a motion that would reverse $19 million in cuts to services on which the mayor had adamantly refused to budge.

Cobbling together enough support to win, they went to Ford with a face-saving plan: if he agreed to their proposed rollbacks, they would give him full credit for an about-face that was bound to be popular. To their astonishment, the mayor spurned any notion of a compromise. On the day of the debate, the tension in the council chamber was palpable as swing voters were repeatedly summoned upstairs to the private members’ lounge where Mark Towhey and his staff wielded their powers of persuasion. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” says McConnell. “I watched people being—some might say lobbied, but I’d call it bullied.”

One of the key targets was Etobicoke councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby, who would later admit, during a subsequent vote, that Doug Ford had warned her executive assistant he intended to “execute” her in the next election. Two council newcomers, Bailão and James Pasternak, were given similar messages about electoral retribution. As all three knew, these were no idle threats. In the midst of the last municipal ballot, two councillors who had scrapped with Ford years earlier found their wards blitzed with robo-calls in which he urged voters to support rival candidates. One of them, long-time Etobicoke councillor Suzan Hall, went down to defeat; the other, York Centre’s Maria Augimeri, won by only 89 votes.

Ford’s threats only stiffened his opponents’ resolve. Bailão, Pasternak and Lindsay Luby all ended up helping to deal the mayor the first major defeat of his term. Unlike the Port Lands vote, this one hadn’t been spurred by Ford’s brother’s misadventures; the mayor had lost control of his own budget, a setback that—had it happened in Parliament—might have provoked a motion of non-confidence. As the final tally of 23-21 was announced, cheers went up in the council chamber. The rebels, rechristening themselves the “mighty middle,” hugged and swapped high-fives. Amid the jubilation, Joshe Colle, who had authored the winning motion, summed up their apprehension with an image from The Godfather. “I just hope I don’t go home and find a horse’s head in my bed,” he quipped to a reporter, only half in jest.

Paul Godfrey arranged a top-secret meeting with Doug Ford, warning him that the mayor was harming the Conservative party brand

Although the centrists had gone out of their way not to crow over their victory—allowing the mayor to rightly claim that, for the first time in recent memory, the city had reduced spending from the previous year—he did not return their magnanimity. Days later, Josh Matlow had just finished a guest spot on Metro Morning, where he had underlined the group’s respect for the mayor, when he heard that Ford himself had been on the John Oakley Show denouncing them as “two steps to the left of Joe Stalin.” For Matlow, that swipe had a special sting. His wife’s family is from the Ukraine, where millions died under Stalin’s campaign of mass starvation known as the Holodomor. “I was very saddened by it,” he says. “I’d just gone to bed the night before feeling really optimistic. I hope he’ll arrive at a place where he can work with others.”

That same thought crossed the mind of Toronto Transit Commission chair Karen Stintz, who had refused to join the rebels on the budget vote. In fact, during a charged moment in the debate, she had warned one council rookie who was about to defect that his career would be finished if he defied the mayor. Days later, as bravos poured in for the renegade councillors, she promptly staged a rebellion of her own. She circulated a petition calling for a special meeting of council that resurrected part of the Eglinton-Crosstown light-rail line that Nick Kouvalis had worked so hard to bury.

Over the following weeks, as Stintz and company won a succession of transit votes that left Ford’s fixation with subway building in the dust, each with a wider margin of victory, there was no doubt that Ford had lost control of council. While his budget defeat might have been excused as an understandable disagreement over civic priorities, the repeated smackdowns on his transit agenda amounted to a stinging repudiation of a key campaign platform.

For many councillors, it was Ford’s reaction to those setbacks that sealed the impression of an administration veering off the rails. Instead of reluctantly heading for the high road, the mayor seemed intent on lashing out at whoever blocked his path. Accusing Stintz of stabbing him in the back, he discovered he couldn’t fire her and took his revenge out on her ally, TTC general manager Gary Webster, in a shocking demonstration of the politics of spite. Webster’s sacking sent shivers through the city bureaucracy, where 7,000 staffers had already been warned that their jobs were vulnerable. It also prompted the city’s ombudsman, Fiona Crean, to reiterate her call for a Public Service Act that would protect bureaucrats from the threat of such political payback.

Even Ford’s deputy speaker, John Parker, finally parted ways with the mayor over his subway obsession. Arguing that transit was one of the mayor’s most important files—one that could shape the city for decades to come—he lamented how badly it had been “mishandled” by Ford’s team. “I’m not sure the best thinking is being brought to bear on this,” he said.

Inexplicably, the more opposition Ford encountered, the deeper he dug in his heels. On the Friday afternoon I interviewed him, he had just suffered another setback, but he waved it off like the irksome beads of perspiration he constantly wicks from his brow. “People have been criticizing me my whole political career,” he said. “But it’s like football. You get right back up…and you keep moving the ball down the field.”

For weeks, I had been watching Ford at council meetings, trying to figure out what makes him tick. He almost never speaks and seems to spend much of his time tilted back in his front-row seat, arms clasped over his ample belly, eyes fixed skyward, like some inscrutable, badly tailored Buddha stuck on an inconvenient but necessary streetcar.

Then, one afternoon in the midst of a debate, he suddenly strode toward my section of the public gallery, face alight. It turned out I was seated among two classes from Martin Grove Collegiate, one of the high schools whose football team, the Bears, plays against his Don Bosco Eagles. “I see I’m in Bear country,” Ford beamed. As he chatted up the surprised students, two staff members arrived with stacks of his gold-embossed business cards and fridge magnets—all courtesy of the family firm—which they handed out to the students with abandon. Ford seemed chatty and engaged, recognizing the team’s quarterback and inviting him to join his summer football program. “Call me,” he urged the teenager, who betrayed little interest. “It costs $200,” Ford persisted, “but we can work something out.”

Never before had it seemed so apparent that the mayor’s real passion lies on the football field, where he now spends so much time and money helping kids, often from disadvantaged single-parent backgrounds, capture what seems to be some lost Rosebud moment of his own. Many councillors speculate that one reason the mayor’s schedule is kept under such tight wraps is the amount of time he devotes to that coaching—at least 12 hours a week for 10 weeks every fall. During the election campaign, he had promised to quit those duties, conceding that there wouldn’t be time for them once he was mayor, but he says he never found a replacement. “I wasn’t going to let those kids go by the wayside,” he says. “That’s not going to happen.”

Still, it seems inconceivable that a man tasked with running the sixth-largest government in the country should spend so much time pacing a high school football field when his council is staging an open insurrection and his electoral mandate is slipping through his fingers with the speed of a fumbled pass. As if those games didn’t contribute enough to his much-discussed absences from city hall, the mayor can often be found driving around the city tending to the hundreds of calls about potholes and cratered sidewalks that pour into his office. For Ford, answering such taxpayer complaints has become a personal crusade—some say an obsession. Council colleagues who expected him to abandon the pastime as mayor now find that he has simply metamorphosed into what some refer to as the city’s highest-paid constituency assistant. “I love going out and helping people,” Ford tells me in unvarnished earnestness. “Everywhere I go, people will say, ‘Twelve years ago I remember when you helped me get my garbage picked up.’ ”

For much of the past year, a cadre of Conservative advisors has tried to convince Ford that overseeing a resident’s trash collection might not be the best use of his energies as mayor. Get a mission statement, they tell him. Rally voters around some compelling urban vision, they urge, and welcome your council opponents aboard. But as one long-time friend concedes, that isn’t really Ford’s style, which he sums up, diplomatically, as “disengaged.”

Council veterans point out that Mel Lastman, too, was easily bored with the humdrum details of civic sausage making, but even the self-styled Bad Boy knew enough to surround himself with an astute chief of staff and a pair of smooth-talking aides adept at coddling councillors whenever he needed their votes. In the absence of any such inclination on the mayor’s team, Ford has left a leadership vacuum—one that allowed his transit agenda to unravel in an unprecedented spectacle of ineptitude. Still, all may not be lost. A new breed of councillors—smart, fair-minded and passionate about the city’s fate—is beginning to step into that void, gradually crafting a consensus on city building that, so far, has replaced combativeness with collegiality. In the absence of a mayor willing to lead, council as a whole may be learning to assert its collective authority.

In the meantime, it would be a mistake to write off Ford as some hapless pothole fixer. He might not be able to spout the sort of lofty urban rhetoric that editorial writers crave, but as he well knows, when taxpayers arrive in the voting booth, they are less likely to remember high-falutin’ theories than who fixed their pothole. Ford calls it his “ground game,” every name and number filed away in his campaign database. “Every call is five yards at a time,” he tells me. “You’re movin’ the ball down the field.”

Besides, with the repudiation of his transit agenda, he has been freed to turn the rest of his term into an extended campaign about a complex debate that he has reduced to an inanely simplistic choice: subways versus streetcars. The issue is tailor-made for him—ripe for exploitation as a populist wedge that will pit downtowners against the suburbs. Already he has framed it as a kind of civic culture war, accusing downtown elites of trying to treat their suburban cousins as second-class citizens by depriving them of underground transit. That line of attack exploits old grievances that have lingered since amalgamation and are sure to feed the resentments of Ford Nation. “That’s what Ford has exploited brilliantly,” says Liberal strategist Patrick Gossage. “That’s going to be the driver of municipal politics for the next few years.”

With little hope of reclaiming his grasp on council, Ford can return to familiar ground, the combat zone of the campaign trail where he is at his best—tilting at elitist windmills and whipping up emotions with easily grasped slogans. Once again, he is the lone outsider battling the establishment, even if he is doing so from the top job at city hall. After following his progress over recent months—a frenzied, madcap course that seemed perennially poised to spin out of control—I can’t forget an image from his star turn as a Cannon Doll in the National Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker last Christmas. As one of two dolls in a dream sequence of toys come to life, Ford played the warmonger, urging his nursery companions to battle, all 330 pounds of him swathed in a giant red tunic strung with oversized ball fringe, a wig of fake blond curls peeking out from his floppy red fool’s cap. Then, suddenly, his toy cannon unleashed an explosion of smoke and flames over the stage. As pandemonium broke out and gunpowder clouds billowed overhead, he began jumping up and down with maniacal glee. There wasn’t anything stagey about it; in fact, it didn’t seem to be an act. For a moment, I totally believed it: Rob Ford had just launched a war, and he was having the time of his life.