The woman behind the mayor: who is Renata Ford?
Renata Ford is the invisible wife. Most Torontonians caught their first glimpse of her on election night: a smiling, slender blonde, wearing a jacket constructed of leathery gold leaves and standing one step back from her triumphant husband. Immediately afterward, she disappeared from public view. Today Renata remains an enigma, the first mayoral spouse about whom almost nothing is known, including her age, background and occupation.
In Canada, the media generally regard political spouses as off limits. They are, after all, unelected and unpaid. Nowadays, as women out-earn their husbands, head up political parties and dominate graduate-school enrolment, there is less of an obligation or even an expectation for a political wife to play a public spousal role. David Miller’s wife, Jill Arthur, declined, but at least we knew she was a lawyer at the Ontario Court of Appeal.
So is the media discreet, or merely cowardly? You be the judge: a rumour has been circulating for months now about the infidelity of a high-level political wife in Ottawa, possibly involving a female RCMP officer. And yet not a whiff has made it into print (until now). It’s the kind of rumour tabloids and talk shows love in the U.S., Britain and France, and for good reason: a politician’s home life speaks to his character.
In Canada, deference to authority is embedded in our political DNA. We’ve never fought a war of independence, guillotined a king and queen or rammed a Magna Carta down the throat of a recalcitrant monarch. That doesn’t mean we aren’t curious about the personal lives of politicians. A literal bedfellow is a confidante, someone with a potential influence on public policy.
So what’s it like to be married to Rob Ford? A fiscal hawk might be great for taxpayers, but not so great if he’s your husband and (probably) the main breadwinner. I know that if I had two toddlers at home, I’d be less than thrilled if my husband spent hours every week coaching high school football, and occasionally brought home troubled team members for sleepovers. I’d ask, “Honey, where are your priorities?” The city has asked the same question. Surely the mayor of Toronto won’t have time for charity work. Ford’s reply: he’d give up coaching to tend to city business only if a suitable replacement could be found.
Imagine being married to someone who claims to have personally returned more than 200,000 calls in the past decade. A YouTube video of a campaign appearance shows Renata sitting at her husband’s side, nodding like a bobble-head doll, while he waves a fridge magnet with his telephone number on it and tells the audience, “I return phone calls personally.”
As this city’s mayor, will Ford ever stop being receptionist-in-chief? After I left several messages, I received one of his famous 54.8 returned calls per day (although exactly why he bothered is a mystery).
Ford: “Hi, this is Rob Ford.”
Me: “Wow. So you really do return calls.” I quickly repeated my voice mail—that I was a journalist, writing about him and Renata.
Ford: “All media has to go through Adrienne Batra.”
Me: “Well, can you at least tell me how old Renata is?”
Ford: “Sorry, you have to go through Adrienne.”
Me: “Can you tell me when you were married?”
Me: “Well, is your person going to set something up?”
Ford: “You have to go through her.”
Batra, his press secretary, and various assistants all declined my repeated requests for an interview with the Fords and refused to answer any questions.
What we do know is that Rob and Renata met during high school when they were living a couple of blocks apart. They were married in 2000 at St. George’s Golf and Country Club, one of the country’s finest golf courses and site of this past summer’s Canadian Open. Doug Holyday, Ford’s new deputy mayor, was there. Despite his long and close association with the family, Holyday says he hardly knows Renata. “I don’t even know if she has a job,” he told me.
George Spudic, a classmate of Ford’s since junior kindergarten who also attended the wedding, talks easily about his friend. “Everything you see with Robbie, he’s always been like that. He was the cheapest guy in high school. He had a football jacket he got in Grade 9, and he wore it until senior year. He always went home for lunch when he could have gone to the mall.” When it comes to Renata, however, Spudic clams up.
So why the veil of secrecy? It only makes journalists more curious—especially when Ford uses his family to burnish his image. In November, our new mayor, perhaps the only one in recent history with a mug shot, confided to the National Post that his “most relaxing” time is spent with his daughter, Stephanie, now five, and his son, Douglas, three. He added that his great escape is doing the laundry once the kids are in bed. “I divide the whites and the darks, and I’ll be folding clothes. I love it.”
Ford has also used the media to get out of sticky situations. After he was caught on tape suggesting to a fibromyalgia sufferer, “Why don’t you go on the street and score” some OxyContin, he and his handlers fed a story to the press saying he feared for his family’s safety and therefore was humouring the caller. In 2008, during a scrum following his now notorious domestic dispute, he used his daughter as armour. On the evening of March 26, the day of Renata’s 911 call, Ford stood holding Stephanie in the doorway of his mother’s home. A Star reporter asked if Renata was OK. “Yeah, everything’s fine. No problems here,” said Ford. His lawyer told the media that the previous night around 10:30 p.m., Ford himself had called 911 after walking in the door to “verbal abuse” from Renata. The lawyer added that Ford thought his wife’s behaviour was “irrational” and that he left for his mother’s house with the couple’s two children. Renata’s parents, Tadeusz and Henryka Brejniak, later told a reporter their daughter was seeing a doctor and “getting help.” When reporters wanted to talk to Renata, Henryka said, “There’s no way she can talk. She’s so upset.”
Ford was charged with assault and threatening death. The case went to court about two months later, but the Crown withdrew both charges, citing inconsistencies in Renata’s statements. Two years later, mysterious signs popped up on University Avenue: “Wife-beating, racist drunk for mayor!” To the media, Ford said, “I never laid a hand on my wife.” Within weeks, he was elected mayor, with Renata standing by his side.
While the human race keeps evolving, the particular species known as the political wife hasn’t. Some retrograde rule (or modern marketing guru) requires wives to stand by their men no matter what. Eliot Spitzer’s wife did, after he was caught in a prostitution ring. (Her story helped inspire the popular new TV show The Good Wife.) So did the late Elizabeth Edwards, at least initially, after her husband fathered a child with his mistress. Renata may have stood by her man on election night, but then she quickly retreated.
In November, I dropped by their home, a 1960s white-brick bungalow. In the driveway was a tan Chevy Uplander SUV with the vanity plates “Rob Ford.” A black plastic panther crouched by the front door. In addition to a few Christmas lights on the bushes, the lawn ornaments included two plastic snowmen, a small tinsel tree and random pots of plastic flowers. A small sign on the windowsill read “Welcome to our home.” I rang the doorbell, but if anyone was home, I wasn’t welcome.
So I decided to try the next-door neighbours. Seventy-seven-year-old Zdravko Gagro, a fervent Ford supporter, invited me in. He told me he was touched when, in 2003, he was in hospital for a double kidney transplant and Ford shovelled his driveway. During the election, his wife, Neda Gagro, baked a platter of Croatian goodies for Ford’s campaign office. But despite living side by side with the Fords for eight years and being on friendly terms, the Gagros said they knew very little about Renata, only that her parents came nearly every day to look after the children.
The Gagros and I sipped Croatian espresso from small china cups in their immaculate kitchen. Then Zdravko took me outside, where I had a clear view of the peeling shingles on Ford’s roof and his small, wedge-shaped backyard with its faded red-and-white Molson Canadian umbrella over the small patio table. Although some houses on Edenbridge Drive back onto parkland, Ford’s backs onto a municipal-truck depot and a community centre. Real estate records show that the three-bedroom house is about 1,200 square feet and was purchased in 2002 for $490,000.
To the Gagros, the state of Ford’s home is a sign of his integrity. “I think Rob is doing a good job,” says Neda. “He doesn’t own a fancy car or a fancy house. He spends nothing. That’s the type of mayor we need.” Her husband agrees: “The city needs somebody who will stop throwing money at bums.”
Before heading back to the subway, I decided to try the Ford house one more time. I had scribbled a note to Renata asking for an interview. When I rang the doorbell to drop it off, two beaming kids peeked out the windows. To my surprise, Renata’s mother, Henryka, answered the door. She accepted my note and told me her daughter would be with me in a few moments.
Standing alone at the entrance, I glimpsed a small house with worn floors and a popcorn-finish stucco ceiling. Dated polyester sheers hung in the living room window. The sofas were covered with old sheets and blankets. Fiscal hawk, indeed. Renata’s father then appeared in the kitchen and whispered something to her mother, who turned to me and said, “She’s not home. My husband says she went out.”
Ten days later, I dropped by the house for the second and last time. Again, Renata’s mother answered the door, and again, she said her daughter wasn’t home. I got back into the taxi, which was waiting in the driveway. Suddenly, the garage door rumbled open and a blue SUV backed out quickly, forcing us out onto the street. We couldn’t see who was driving. But when the taxi driver realized I was taking down the licence plate, he said helpfully, “It’s a Ford Escape.” We were both too shaken to hear the pun.
Perhaps a house is just a house. Or perhaps it says something more profound about a person. As we drove away, it occurred to me that if this bungalow reflects Ford’s vision for Toronto, if it is a metaphor for the future of our city, then maybe we’re all in for four hard years. Of course, that may be why so many of us voted for Ford in the first place. We’re all married to him now. For richer or for poorer, for better or for worse.