Mark Towhey: The man behind Rob Ford

From 2015: Rob Ford's former chief of staff breaks his silence on what really went on in the mayor's office

(Jennifer Roberts for Maclean's)

(Jennifer Roberts for Maclean’s)

How do you make sense of Rob Ford? For Mark Towhey, Ford’s former chief of staff, that was never the question. Toronto’s larger-than-life former mayor communed with supporters on an intuitive level, so why question success? But it took sound minds to get Ford elected, and to sustain him in office, before his mayoralty went up in a mushroom cloud of addiction, illness and human spectacle. One of those people was Towhey, who, until now, has kept his counsel about what he witnessed during those three surreal years. A former army man who helped engineer Ford’s 2010 election win, Towhey, took over as the mayor’s chief of staff in August 2012. He had by then held various key positions in Ford’s office, and was credited with pushing key pieces of Ford’s tax-slashing, cost-cutting agenda through city council.

Then, nine months after Ford gave him the top job, news of the crack video burst onto front pages around the world, triggering the year-long political death spiral that ended with Ford taking a leave from his position to seek treatment. It became the most widely shared scandal of Canadian political history, tweeted, blogged and Facebooked within an inch of its sensational life. Towhey watched the catastophe unfurl from the vantage point of an insider cast out: Ford fired him shortly after the scandal broke. Towhey now works as a management consultant, and in 2015 published the explosive book, Mayor Rob Ford: Uncontrollable: How I Tried to Help the World’s Most Notorious Mayor. (Read an exclusive excerpt, here.)

Q: You once told me that your advice for the mayor was between you and him. Why open up now?

A: Most of my advice has been revealed in pieces through police documents that were published by the court in the information to obtain the search warrants. Some had come out through the media. Some of what the media reported was completely wrong, some right, and a lot was in between. So I don’t think the confidence that I held even existed anymore. Second, the reputations of the staff were being hurt by the enabling accusation. It’s important for them that people know they did the right thing. Finally, I needed to do it because my mental health was getting bad. For a while, Twitter had become part of my social life, and I got inundated with questions [about Ford]. So it’s been cathartic. I’m looking forward to the book being out.

Q: You’d become a pretty funny tweeter.

A: I had to be, but you can’t answer these questions in 140 characters, and I don’t want to keep answering them piecemeal.

Q: Your account of your late-night call from Ford in June 2012 is terrifying. The mayor is in his house. His wife, Renata, is there. They’re shouting at each other using highly graphic language. There’s talk of drugs. There’s talk of a gun in the house. The children are there, and one actually wakes up. You’re listening to this whole thing on one phone and your finger’s hovering over 911 on another. Why didn’t you press “send”?

A: I came very close a couple of times, but, as I’m listening to it, I’m also asking myself: What has he actually done? Because he hasn’t actually done anything illegal; no one has been hurt. The gun was obviously a huge red flag. And I started probing, saying, “Rob, tell me about the gun. What’s going on with the gun? And where are the kids?” I’m trying to build a mental picture of what’s happening there: if he had hit her, or if the gun manifested itself as something more than just his bulls–t, because he’s a bulls–tter. Some of it was clearly a performance for Renata, saying things about her in order to enrage or provoke her.

Read more: Mayor Rob Ford: Uncontrollable:An exclusive excerpt

Q: Surely the level of danger was sufficient to justify a call to police.

A: But what was I going to say? I’m listening on the phone to two people scream at each other. There’s nothing illegal or inherently dangerous in that, unless it goes to the next step. I was waiting for any indication that it was going to go to the next step, and it never did.

Q: It raises, for me, an unanswered question: Why, in the face of this behaviour—where he’s endangering himself and others, whether through drunk driving or drug use—would no one take a stand against Rob Ford?

A: I believe we [on the mayoral staff] did stand up to him in every instance. But it’s important to understand that, while we saw him clearly endangering himself, that’s his choice. He’s an adult. Drinking, which was the problem we first became aware of, is not illegal. It’s an illness. He’s not the first mayor of Toronto to have a drinking problem. He won’t be the last.

Q: But you recount an instance when he jumps in a car in front of a staffer and drives away, clearly under the influence.

A: I think the staffer who was there was traumatized. He told me about it the next day, because I think he just didn’t know what to do. I’ve arrested two people, including one of my bosses, for drunk driving. I have a zero tolerance for that. There was another instance when a staffer was in the car when Ford [while driving] took a drink of vodka. I learned about that a month or two after the fact. I took steps that I thought were prudent at the time. One, the police already knew that he had a problem and they were watching him. Two, I made sure none of our staff could drive with him, so that they weren’t put in an unsafe position. And we watched him like a hawk. If we had seen any evidence of him being drunk while driving, then, first step, you call the police.

Q: You, like many people in Ford’s orbit, have been called an enabler. What is your response?

A: Intellectually, it doesn’t bother me, because it’s a political game; you fling insults back and forth at people. Personally and emotionally, though, it bothers me, because I wasn’t, and I don’t think the staff were.

Q: Staff did begin buying Ford booze, though, because pictures of him in liquor stores kept surfacing on Twitter.

A: Did the staff enable his drinking? Certainly, they helped. But what they were really enabling was him not creating a spectacle of himself while doing something that’s perfectly legal—that, and us being able to monitor how much he might drink and when. It wasn’t my initial choice, but I don’t think it was wrong, and I allowed it to continue when I took over as chief of staff.

Q: There’s a suspicion, mainly linked to his infamous St. Patrick’s Day outing in 2012, that staff sometimes partied with Ford. In your account, the staff there that night were trying to manage him.

A: They were trying to keep him from doing things. Look, the staff were brilliant. The expectations and pressures on them were so immense, and most were young people who’d never done this before. They stepped up in a way I think is phenomenal.

Q: There are people who believe Ford’s staff engaged in a different form of enabling, that is, helping Ford hang on to power when he was doing damage to Toronto’s reputation.

A: Part of that’s true. We did help him continue in power. I’d argue that he didn’t do any damage to the city’s reputation, and he’s probably one of the best mayors the city’s had in a long time. His personal reputation is in tatters. But probably 300,000 people out there would vote for him today, because he actually gives voice and takes action on things they think are important, and they don’t see anybody else doing that. So did we enable him in continuing to further his agenda? Absolutely, 100 per cent. That was what we were being paid to do.

Q: There were early signs of trouble, though. You refer to a debate about the waterfront during the 2010 campaign. Ford hadn’t been sleeping, and clearly wasn’t fit to handle the event. Then, early in his term, there are instances when you wonder whether he’s got the leadership to sit at the head of Canada’s sixth-largest government. He doesn’t want to talk to councillors. He doesn’t want to do what it takes to get his agenda through.

A: He is an unconventional politician, and he’s an unconventional leader. We thought we could structure an apparatus around him that would play to his strengths.

Q: But did it occur to you, at this point, that he was just too unstable, that he was unfit to hold his position?

A: No; we were concerned. Before the campaign ended, frankly, [campaign manager] Nick Kouvalis and I had conversations about whether he would survive physically to the end of his term. But that was mostly concern for his weight and lifestyle. I saw sleep deprivation, and I’m quite familiar with that from my time in the army. When we were able to get him to sleep some, he got better.

Q: He’s certainly unconventional. How did you manage that?

A: Rob was uncomfortable working with his elected peers on council. He would say to us that all we had to do was get 23 votes [on council]. His job was to get another 400,000 votes from Torontonians. So he wanted to be focused outward, on constituency stuff in the city, and leave all of the wrangling with politicians to us. There’s a certain amount that staff can do, and I think we did even more; we were quite successful. But, at the end of the day, the closer still has to be the mayor.

Q: There came a point where you and other staff were effectively making the mayor’s decisions for him.

A: Yeah, we pushed back on that for as long as we possibly could. I still think it was wrong, but there came a point when the machinery of government had to continue running. The midterm appointment process in January 2013 was an example. He had some input, but not as he’d had initially. By the midterm, he was not engaged at all.

Q: What was the “Night Shift,” and how did it affect your job?

A: That’s what we began calling an ethereal group of people whose names we didn’t know, but who clearly had influence with Rob and [his brother] Doug during the campaign. We’d sit at headquarters with Rob and Doug, and come up with the plan for the next day, or the next couple of weeks. Everything would be set. Then we’d come in the next morning, and Rob and Doug had been on the phone with God knows who. The plan had changed completely. These were people who were not on the campaign team, but the brothers would come in, ready to put their ideas into action. In many cases, they were good ideas we had already considered and discounted because they weren’t workable. Others were complete hare-brained schemes. We were just, like, “No, this is stupid.”

Q: Was the Night Shift ever more than a nuisance to you?

A: It was particularly problematic when a plan to fund a new phase of the Sheppard subway [line] came to a vote. We had agreement with the mayor and 26 council votes lined up. The very morning of the vote, Rob and Doug come in, and they’ve talked to the Night Shift. They’ve changed their minds and they’ve withdrawn their support for our own plan. I had to go into a meeting of those councillors and, without betraying my disgust, explain to them that the plan has changed and the mayor’s going in a different direction.

Q: Let’s talk about Doug Ford, who was elected to his brother’s council seat when Rob ran for mayor. The popular myth was that they were a two-man mayoral team, with Doug bringing the brains and Rob bringing the heart. Is that true?

A: It’s not that simple. They’re brothers. They’re incredibly competitive with one another, but they’re incredibly supportive of one another. Behind closed doors, they’ll beat the snot out of each other—verbally, I mean—but that’s what brothers do. Doug’s a smart guy, but he was not the brains of the mayor’s office, that’s for sure. Rob was making the decisions. Doug would come with ideas and Rob would just dismiss him and we’d go Rob’s way.

Q: Didn’t Doug hatch an ill-fated plan for the city’s waterfront that Rob felt he had to back?

A: Yeah, the Doug Ford Ferris-wheel plan was obviously destined for failure the minute we heard about it.

Q: Why couldn’t Rob say no?

A: Because he’ll always protect his brother. Doug will go out in public and say critical things about Rob, but Rob will never do the same to him. He’ll say them in private, or within the inner circle, but he’ll never disrespect his brother in public. As I understand, the waterfront plan became public before it should have, and Rob doubled down, just to support Doug.

Q: I was surprised to read that Doug wanted a doorway built into the wall between his council office and the mayor’s office. It seems symbolic—not least because Rob secretly didn’t want it.

A: It was very symbolic. Rob was having a hard time saying no. What allowed him to was the cost. To put a door in, you have to use unionized city labour. It was going to cost thousands, and they both threw up their hands. Rob was very glad not to have that door. If he’d had it, his life would have been miserable far earlier. Doug spent more than enough time in the mayor’s office as it was.

Q: Have you read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad?

A: I’ve tried.

Q: Marlow is the guy who goes up the river to find a lurid, frightening world. Did you ever feel like Marlow?

A: [laughing] I’m probably not literary enough for that metaphor. It was an enormous challenge, but part of me likes problem-solving. Working with city staff, figuring out how to take an idea to do something differently—privatizing garbage, building a subway, fundamentally changing a labour agreement—and getting it done. That’s a thrilling challenge. And then: How do we get Rob Ford to maximize his potential?

Q: It seems to me he disrespected you. He was reluctant to give you positions you deserved, or passed you over. He nickel-and-dimed you on your salary when you became chief of staff. Did that not make you angry?

A: Did it frustrate me? Absolutely. But that’s the way he was. The closer you get to Rob, the less well you’re treated. But I always believed he was the mayor, and I was hired to help him. He didn’t get elected to help me. Even when he made decisions I thought were unwise, if they weren’t illegal and no one was going to get hurt, then—you know—he’s the client. Plus the fact I needed the money. I wasn’t in a position to walk away from a salary, and I had no time to line anything up, because I was too busy.

Q: Ford says he’s going to run in 2018, so two questions: Could he return as mayor? Should he?

A: He shouldn’t be mayor again. Well, let me rephrase. He’d have to be demonstrably stronger so he doesn’t run into the same issues. A sober Rob Ford is a pain in the ass to work with, but he knows what people want, and he’s willing to stand up for them in a way nobody else will. Could he be mayor again? Absolutely. I think that, by 2018, people might be ready for a Rob Ford to come back, if he’s clean and sober.

Q: You emerged from this a damaged man, having let everything slide, from your debts to your cataracts to a broken tooth. Have you gotten your tooth fixed?

A: I finally did. And I got my eyes fixed, so that was good.

Q: And yet you say—astonishingly—that you’d do it all again. Really?

A: Yeah, I wouldn’t want it to be as painful. I’d rather he not be an addict, but it was unique from any position in politics or business I’ve seen. It was an opportunity to tackle small ideas and big ideas and see them happen in a short time span. It’s a wild ride.

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