Rob Ford. Unstoppable?

Rob Ford’s public soap opera is as convoluted as it is fascinating, but is there a finale in sight?
Mayor Rob Ford answers reporters question April 11, 2013 on the Porter Airlines announcement to expand their flight service from Billy Bishop Toronto Island Airport. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Too big to fail
Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Two weeks of madness at Toronto city hall and Rob Ford, his world crashing down all around him, shows no sign of stopping. He has too much to prove to do so now, and the momentum is such that Toronto’s most notorious mayor could not do so were he even to try. The momentum driving him—that he’s now driven by—became established years ago, during those heady days in the fall of 2010, when his campaign team briefly worried that Ford was doing too well in the polls, that they had peaked too soon. Now the mayoralty is like the red shoes from the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, which dance the girl beyond her control through fields and meadows, and Ford cannot get them off.

One old friend worries they may yet dance him to death. Looking back at the span from Ford’s early electoral success to his present meltdown, the one-time key figure from his team, speaking to Maclean’s on a not-for-attribution basis, is aghast: “He’s done. He’s done. It’s over. It’s over. More staffers are going to quit”—and indeed, within days of this conversation more staffers had—”more people from the past that they’ve bullied over the years are going to come forward. It’s going to be unbearable.”

Ford strove to become Toronto’s mayor “to prove something—to his dad, his people, his brothers, everybody. Just to stick it to everybody in his life who never thought he amounted to much,” says the former high-ranking aide. Now all Ford’s people are fleeing the precinct, departures that come either out of concern over Ford’s health and alleged substance-abuse issues, or out of fear his staffers will one day be labelled enablers. “We don’t want to wake up in a week and find him dead in a ditch knowing we could have done something to stop this,” the one-time aide tells Maclean’s. “He resigns as mayor or he’s dead in a ditch—I don’t know what comes first. Honestly.”

Do you really think he’ll resign, Maclean’s asks? “I don’t,” the source says, without hesitation.

During his successful mayoralty bid in 2010 Ford remained disciplined and focused, outstripping expectations in debates against rival candidates and, when required—which was often—delivering pitch-perfect mea culpas on the campaign trail. But aides began to suspect Ford was drifting into substance abuse within his first few months in office, according to the former aide. He “stopped listening” to his chief of staff and former campaign manager, Nick Kouvalis, came into work late or not at all, ceased alerting his office to his whereabouts, and refused to be accompanied by handlers from his office. (Famously, Ford would not accept a driver even after getting spotted using a cellphone, flipping the bird and reading from behind the wheel).

Soon top aides began hearing that Ford was buying mickeys of alcohol, purchases he asked his lower-rung staffers to keep secret.

Those around him tried to contain the mayor, but that has always proven difficult. Ford has fired at least two chiefs of staff in the past two years—Kouvalis and Mark Towhey—after both confronted him about his behaviour, a source says.

Now events as they’ve unfolded over the latter weeks of May have pushed Ford’s biography into the realm of the nightmarish and surreal—a soap opera interlaced with the dark night of a Toronto mayor’s soul, told with the unrelenting momentum of tragedy, with a plot centred around a video file that may or may not exist. According to news reports published by Gawker and the Toronto Star, this iPhone video shows Ford smoking crack from a glass pipe and uttering homophobic and bigoted comments, and has been the object of negotiations between the drug dealers who control it and the news organizations that seek to publish it. The video is so explosive, we are led to believe, that people may have killed in order to possess it.

Anthony Smith, a 21-year-old Seneca College student who died in March with two bullets to the back of his head, is said to be one of the men posing arm in arm with the mayor in a photo provided to Gawker and the Star by the men in possession of the video. According to the Star, one of the two other men is 19-year-old Muhammad Khattak, injured in the same shooting that left Smith dead.

The logic of all this is as convoluted as it is fascinating, and none of it has been enough to persuade Ford to step down. Therefore the story lumbered on for many days so that, on the eve of his 44th birthday—the mayor marked it on Tuesday—Ford suffered the ignominy of knowing that a crowd-funding website dedicated to amassing the $200,000 required to purchase the video had met its goal. The video’s location remains unknown, the drug dealers said to possess it unreachable. Gawker editor John Cook said on Tuesday he would give those in control of the video at least a month to contact him and make the sale.

Anxiety over how Ford’s mayoralty could end comes amid unprecedented, fast-paced developments at city hall. Indeed, it has been a relentless chronology. The Gawker and Star reports about the existence of the video at first prompted Ford to make only a half-hearted denial, then remain silent for seven days. Last week, amid mounting pressure and the jabs of American television satirists, the mayor’s brother, Councillor Doug Ford, attempted to defuse the situation, holding a press conference on Wednesday that awkwardly mixed combativeness with hurt. “Never has a Canadian politician or his family . . . been targeted by the media this way,” Doug, who is named after his father, the former Ontario Progressive Conservative who Rob worships, and who has indicated a desire to run for the Tories himself, told reporters. “They zealously, and I say zealously, stalk my mother, my children, the media hides in the bushes at our cottage.”

So unforgiving has the logic of the scandal been that even the most loyal players have been forced out. Ford fired Towhey, who had been with him since the election, last Thursday, a day following Doug’s address and a week after the Gawker and Star stories first appeared. A crisis-management consultant who had trained border police in Afghanistan prior to joining Ford’s team, Towhey told Ford to seek treatment for his substance-abuse issues when the scandal first broke, according to a source.

But his departure did not come until the following week, after the mayor became distraught over the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s decision, announced on Wednesday, to fire the mayor from his position as coach of the Eagles, Don Bosco Secondary School’s football team—a job Ford adored. That night, the mayor asked Towhey to help organize a party for his former players and to retrieve thousands of dollars of football equipment Ford had donated to the high school. “It was late at night, and Mark told the mayor straight up: ‘It’s a bad idea, a mistake, I’m not going there to do that, you need to sober up,’ and he fired him that night,” a source tells Maclean’s. “Mark went to work the next day and they had another scrap and that was it.” Security guards escorted Towhey from the building through a maelstrom of reporters and cameras. “I am no longer the chief of staff,” he told them. “I did not resign.”

A press conference followed on Friday. At that time Ford, using carefully worded language and with a new, close-cropped haircut that made his face appear even rounder than before, denied being addicted to crack cocaine: “I do not use crack cocaine, nor am I an addict of crack cocaine,” he said, adding: “As for a video, I cannot comment on a video that I have never seen or does not exist.” Ford spoke in a clear and combative voice and, in contrast to his appearance in the days immediately after publication of the Gawker and Star accounts, looked emboldened. Yet the presser unleashed even more furious developments.

On Saturday the Globe and Mail published a long-awaited and lengthy exposé alleging that Doug Ford dealt hashish in the west Toronto district of Etobicoke for several years during the 1980s. Doug, unlike his brother, appeared to relish the opportunity to go on camera and rebut the story, giving multiple interviews. “Have I smoked marijuana in high school? Absolutely I did, like everyone else,” Doug, wearing an open-necked shirt and a gold chain, told Global news reporter Jackson Proskow. Yet he made his position clear: “I have never been involved in the drug trade,” he said. On Sunday, the two Ford brothers, in better days dubbed the “twin Ford mayors” by the writer Margaret Atwood, appeared on their weekly Newstalk 1010 radio show, during which they refuted the Globe account and reiterated the mayor’s denials that he smokes crack—indeed, the mayor now maintained categorically that no video exists. “Bunch of maggots,” Ford said of journalists. “Sorry, maybe I shouldn’t have said that.”

The following afternoon—the Monday—Ford apologized to reporters for that remark, part of the same hastily called press conference in which he also acknowledged the abrupt departures of his two spokesmen, George Christopoulos and Isaac Ransom. “It’s business as usual,” Ford told reporters. “We’re just soldiering on.” Earlier in the day Ford, accompanied by security, had been seen at city hall marching from office to office, opening one door, then another, apparently seeking out Christopoulos and Ransom, who had left their resignation letters on Ford’s desk and then left the building.

Monday carried even more disturbing news reports, however, initially from the Globe, centred around a tip from a senior Ford staffer to police indicating that someone in the mayor’s office knew the address and unit number of the drug dealers in possession of the iPhone video, and linking that video to a homicide. Ford, looking dazed during the press conference, the weight of the world in his bloodstream, glossed over reporters’ questions about the police investigation. “Everything’s fine,” he said. “I have no idea what the police are investigating.”

Even then the stories kept piling up. On Tuesday, the Star reported that it had been Towhey who called police with the tip, prior to his dismissal and after having had a conversation with David Price, a long-time associate of the Ford family. Price, who now works under Ford, asked Towhey “hypothetically” how the mayor’s office would react if it knew the whereabouts of the video, according to the Star. Price, the report says, also suggested that Smith, the young man in the photograph standing alongside Ford, might have been killed over the video. Towhey said in such a situation his advice would be to go to police, which is just what Towhey did, according to reports—not telling Ford, and giving an interview to two homicide detectives. (Toronto police sources told the Star that homicide detectives handled the interview not because they are probing a homicide, but rather because they are adept interviewers.) The Star says police also asked Price for a statement regarding the matter.

That Toronto police investigators have sought to talk with members of Ford’s staff in connection to a video that’s alleged to show the mayor consuming an illegal substance speaks volumes about the state of the mayor’s office. That is to say: This is like no mayoralty ever seen before in Canada. The suggestion is that members of Ford’s office were engaged in a scheme aimed at securing a video that Ford says does not exist.

It seems unlikely, however, that the mayor will do anything but hold fast to his office. And in fact, since Tuesday, Ford has dug in even further, holding a bellicose press conference after two more staff resignations in which he told reporters that all was well and that he had no intention of stepping down. This was despite yet more daily news reports, still based on unnamed sources, alleging that Ford may have known the whereabouts of the iPhone footage immediately following publication of the initial Gawker and Star reports. More recently, a Star account has cast further doubt on whether the homicide of Smith is connected to that footage.

Polling numbers published by the Star on Monday show he has maintained the support of his base—his numbers remain unchanged since prior to the scandal breaking—and that in a hypothetical race against Toronto New Democatic MP Olivia Chow, Ford would pull in a respectable 36 per cent of the vote to Chow’s 56.

Time and time again since first getting elected to council in 2000, Ford has demonstrated himself to be congenitally unable to give in unless absolutely forced to do so. In one celebrated case he twice lied to media outlets about a 2006 incident at a Toronto Maple Leafs game in which he was intoxicated and verbally abusive to a couple visiting Toronto from out of town. “This is unbelievable,” he told the Star. “I wasn’t even at the game, so someone’s trying to do a real hatchet job on me, let me tell you.” He later relented, telling reporters: “Being in politics, you’re in the spotlight all the time. I made a mistake. I made a major mistake. I really regret it.”

But perhaps the most instructive parallel to the present circumstances came during the 2010 election, when Ford’s campaign team was confronted with the existence of a recorded telephone conversation between Ford and Dieter Doneit-Henderson, an HIV-positive gay man Ford had met weeks earlier during a campaign stop designed to give Ford the chance to atone for a past anti-gay slur.

In that recorded phone conversation Ford offered to buy Doneit-Henderson the prescription painkiller OxyContin, also known as “hillbilly heroin.” Ford’s campaign had learned that the Star had obtained this recording and felt sure the paper was preparing to release its contents when they would be most damaging to Ford’s mayoral bid. Kouvalis, Ford’s campaign manager, directed a young member of the team, Fraser Macdonald, to secure a copy of the recording, which Macdonald did by creating a fake Twitter account, befriending Doneit-Henderson through that account, and persuading him to provide the recording. The contents of the conversation shocked Kouvalis. “Why don’t you go on the street and score it?” Ford could be heard asking Doneit-Henderson, who continued pressing Ford for help getting the drug. “I’ll try buddy, I’ll try,” Ford says. “I don’t know this s–t, but I’ll f–king try to find it.”

Ford’s campaign team knew the recording might well lose them the election. But faced with the alternative—the Star releasing it—Kouvalis supported a plan in which Ford’s campaign would leak the tape to a sympathetic reporter. Rob and Doug disagreed. “The Fords didn’t want to leak it. They wanted to see how it would play out,” Kouvalis told Maclean’s in 2010 shortly after the election. “I leaked it on them.” The gambit worked—in the end, Ford’s offer to help the ailing Doneit-Henderson appeared misguided but strangely appealing.

Kouvalis is no longer part of Ford’s team, and Rob and Doug are now victims of their own worst instincts. “He doesn’t listen to good advice and they don’t trust anybody, these guys,” says the anonymous former aide, adding of the mayor: “I think the stress is too much for him and I think that if it’s true that in the past Rob had drug or alcohol issues, I think it crawled back into his life. None of this is worth it. He’s got two kids. He’s 350 to 400 lb. He needs to f–king wake up and get healthy. Or he’s going to be dead.”