How Rob Ford won Toronto

The inside story behind the most improbable mayoral victory in recent Canadian history


In the weeks after Richard Ciano and Nick Kouvalis joined the Ford For Mayor campaign last spring, the two market researchers and conservative political activists launched into a series of interviews with their new, colourful candidate for the Toronto mayoralty race, plumbing the depths of Rob Ford’s past. “Is there anything we need to know?” Ciano, who is 36, and Kouvalis, 35, asked Ford—repeatedly—once they’d dealt with the obvious: the homophobic slurs, drunken outbursts, the talk of “Orientals” working “like dogs.” Nope, said Ford. And that was the end of it.

Until August, that is, when Ford, Kouvalis and a 14-year-old campaign volunteer were zipping through the streets of downtown Toronto—and Ford got a call on his cellphone. Kouvalis had instructed Ford many, many times to stop answering his own phone. One day, he told him, he would be sorry. “He didn’t listen,” Kouvalis says. “That’s his brand. He answers the phone.” This time it was Jonathan Jenkins, of the Toronto Sun, asking Ford about a Florida marijuana charge dating back to 1999. Ford looked over at the 14-year-old and, on the question of whether Miami police had ever plucked a joint from his back pocket, apparently chose to prevaricate. “No, to answer your question,” he told Jenkins. “When I say no, I mean never. No question. Now I’m getting offended. No means no.”

Kouvalis, sensing something amiss, got Ford off the phone, fast, then had the driver pull over. Outside, away from the 14-year-old volunteer and blanketed in the traffic din of Toronto’s busy Yonge and King intersection, he asked Ford “what the hell was going on?” They made an odd couple. Kouvalis, with his olive complexion and carefully manicured charcoal-black goatee, once rivalled Ford for size but has lost 180 lb. since undergoing a surgical procedure to reduce his weight (now skinny, he continues to walk with the gait of a heavy man). His obvious capacity for menace is tempered by an equal capacity for charm and by his palpable intelligence. Ford is fair, ruddy-faced, still large and still as vulnerable to the self-inflicted gaffes that marked his decade on council.

Yet together, the pair managed to combine street smarts, discipline, technical and logistical savvy, and sheer luck to beat back the marshalled forces of God and George Smitherman, Ford’s only serious rival in the end. Ford took the Toronto mayoralty by a substantial margin—47 per cent to Smitherman’s 36. If Ford’s brother Doug Jr. bore the title “campaign manager,” it was Kouvalis who was the architect of what became perhaps the most improbable election victory in recent Canadian history.

It was Ford’s adoption of powerful buzz words like “stop the gravy train” and “respect the taxpayer,” which captured Toronto’s anger over wasteful spending at city hall and other annoyances, that helped win the day. His campaign pledges included a promise to rip up Toronto’s streetcar lanes and replace them with buses and subways; pesky marathons and charity runs that snarl Toronto traffic should go to parks and bike paths instead. He vowed to save the city $2.8 billion over four years by replacing only half the staff who retire (he also wants to slice city council in half, down to 22 councillors). By doing away with the city’s century-old fair-wage policy, which requires that private contractors are paid the same as union employees, he claimed he’d save $80 million a year. Ford also said he’d turf the land transfer and vehicle registration taxes. All this was designed to exploit the hangover felt by many Torontonians post-Mayor David Miller, whose inability to hold the unions to account in last year’s garbage strike tainted his seven-year run at city hall. Yet it wasn’t just anger that propelled Ford to victory—it was Kouvalis’s masterful campaign and his tough-as-nails control of the Fords. “No one’s ever stood up to these guys before,” Kouvalis told Maclean’s. “I did.”

Out on the street, Kouvalis listened as Ford delivered a salty account of a 1999 Valentine’s Day he spent with his now-wife Renata that went badly awry—“Go ahead, take me to jail,” he had told a Miami policeman. Kouvalis immediately instructed him to call Jenkins back at the Sun and cop to the marijuana charge (which, anyway, had been dismissed), then arranged for a press conference the next day, when Ford told reporters the whole story—the very story he’d neglected to tell his own handlers months earlier. “The reason I forgot about the marijuana charge . . . is because that same evening, I was charged with failing to give a breath sample,” he told reporters, following a tightly scripted confession. “I have never claimed to be perfect.”

Though initially surprised by the DUI revelation, Ciano and Kouvalis were unperturbed. “I said, ‘Just watch,’ ” recalls Ciano, a former national vice-president of the Conservative Party of Canada. “We’re going to go up after this.” Sure enough, Ford’s team of campaign outsiders—young, new to Toronto, arguably from the fringes of Canada’s political mainstream—watched as Ford’s popularity rose in the days following his DUI confession. Still, they were awestruck by the extent of the bump. “We didn’t think we’d go up 10 points,” Ciano says.

By mid-August, such polling was seen by Team Ford as yet more proof that Ford’s perceived missteps actually translated into better standings in opinion surveys. It was all according to plan—an approach to running him that Ciano dubbed the “wind in our sails” strategy. “We knew that the attacks on Rob, in terms of his character, past statements, even his physical appearance, were going to be vicious,” Ciano says. “We had to come up with a strategy early on to make that a sail our opponents could blow wind into—make every attack proof of the gravy train. It was, ‘You see? They’re trying to keep the gravy train going!’ ” His handlers delight in pointing out that the barbs directed at Ford—a Stephen Marche Globe and Mail column that used the word “fat” 17 times, say—merely generated more donations to his campaign. So did his Everyman lack of sophistication. “Our polling said, don’t put him in a $2,000 suit,” says Kouvalis.

More serious has been Ford’s ongoing feud with the Toronto Star, which his team believes has waged an anti-Ford campaign. In July, the daily—the largest paper in Canada according to circulation numbers—printed an article quoting two unnamed sources who described a confrontation between Ford, a long-time high school football coach, and a student player. A Toronto District School Board official confirmed there had been a dispute, but offered no further detail. Ford disputes the story. “They just hate me with a passion,” the mayor-elect told Maclean’s recently. “And they don’t pull any punches. You know. I’m taking legal action against them, unfortunately.” (Ford concedes, however, that “although I hate their politics, the Star covers the sports the best.”) He has not given an interview to the Star since it ran the story.

The first real test of the Ford team—and proof of the “wind in our sails” strategy—actually came a month prior to the DUI episode, when, during a meeting with campaign insiders, Kouvalis got a phone call alerting him to a new, potentially devastating situation. “I have to leave,” Kouvalis said, abruptly standing. “Rob’s done something he shouldn’t have.” The intelligence concerned a recording of a telephone conversation obtained by the Star that was said to feature Ford offering to buy Dieter Doneit-Henderson, an HIV-positive gay man he’d met weeks earlier in a bid to atone for a past anti-gay slur, the prescription painkiller OxyContin—commonly known as “hillbilly heroin.” No one on the Ford campaign had heard the recording, and the Star was sitting on the material. Kouvalis and others feared the Star might release it at the worst possible moment—a week before the election, say—for maximum damage. “I won’t deny it,” says spokeswoman Adrienne Batra, “we thought it was over.”

Kouvalis pulled aside Fraser Macdonald, the team’s 24-year-old deputy communications director—whose prior political experience consisted largely of his involvement in a model parliament club at Queen’s University—and told him to “do everything you can to get that tape.” With the kind of ingenuity that would become a hallmark of the Ford campaign, Macdonald responded by creating an online Twitter account under the pseudonym “QueensQuayKaren”—a Smitherman supporter who in her online profile describes herself as a “downtown Toronto gal who likes politics, my cat Mittens, and a good book.” Under that cover, Macdonald befriended Doneit-Henderson online; within two days, he’d convinced the man to provide him a copy of the recording. Its contents horrified the campaign, casting real doubt on the future of Ford’s bid. “Why don’t you go on the street and score it?” Ford can be heard asking Doneit-Henderson, who continues to press him 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.”

What to do? Kouvalis, Batra and Macdonald favoured leaking the recording to a journalist selected according to the likelihood of a sympathetic hearing—a way of putting the campaign ahead of the story. “We sort of looked at the Tiger Woods vs. Maple Leaf Foods approach to crisis management,” says Macdonald, referring to the infidelities that led to the American golfer’s fall from grace, and Maple Leaf’s 2008 listeriosis outbreak. The latter had weathered its storm by clinging to openness and transparency; Woods emerged from hiding as damaged goods. For the Ford brain trust—Kouvalis, Batra and Macdonald—the choice was clear. Not so for Rob and Doug. “The Fords didn’t want to leak it. They wanted to see how it would play out,” says Kouvalis. “I leaked it on them.”

If the Fords were unhappy about Kouvalis’s characteristically unilateral management, they didn’t have time to act on it. (“Campaigns enhance democracy,” says Kouvalis, “but you don’t practise democracy on the campaign trail—you do what you’re told.”) Kouvalis handed Ford a speech that explained why he’d offered to help a man “score” illegal OxyContin, and Ford read it dutifully, noting that Doneit-Henderson “sounded disturbed” and that he felt threatened by the man’s proximity to his house and family. “He was beautiful,” Kouvalis says of Ford’s performance. The leak and Macdonald’s subterfuge ultimately saved Ford’s candidacy, and the incident only seemed to endear Ford to a segment of the electorate, one that appeared to grow with each passing gaffe.

Ciano, whose role in the campaign soon evolved into pollster of record, and Kouvalis, his partner at Windsor, Ont.-based market research firm Campaign Research, never anticipated how poorly their opponents would run their competing mayoralty bids. That lack of imagination—neither dreamed of such gormless rivals—almost lost them Ford’s bid when in late September a Nanos Research telephone poll gave Ford a 24-point lead over Smitherman, causing the campaign to wonder whether Ford had peaked too soon. “When we wrote the original campaign plan, we said, ‘Let’s hope it stays a four- or a five-way race and let’s surge at the end,’ ” says Ciano. “We didn’t expect to surge like we did at the end of August. But our opponents just were so hapless.”

Ford’s main competitors—left-leaning Joe Pantalone, right-of-centre Rocco Rossi and Smitherman—began stumbling early. “Everybody was talking about transportation in the beginning of this election,” says Batra. But the Ford campaign’s extensive internal polls showed wasteful spending was a bigger issue among voters. “Yet that seemed to be the last thing any of the other candidates were talking about,” says Ciano. The Ford campaign drew much of its effectiveness from a novel approach to the city of Toronto. “The conventional wisdom is conservatives don’t win in Toronto,” Ciano says. “One of the things I’ve been sort of frustrated by at the national, provincial and mainstream party level is this emphasis on target seats and focusing only on certain areas, leaving others aside. It’s a flawed approach.”

Getting at Toronto’s amorphous conservative vote meant, among other things, deploying technology never before seen in a Canadian municipal election to bypass traditional media outlets. Kouvalis and Ciano used telephone town halls to call some 40,000 homes simultaneously and invite respondents to a talk-radio-style event hosted by Ford. At a cost of $10,000 a pop, the technique exposed participants to Ford, created grassroots excitement, facilitated small donations and grew the campaign’s database. (Ford’s team didn’t adopt just any technology—a Rob Ford iPhone app, for example, was rejected because, in Ciano’s words: “Okay, like, I’m trying to think, who are the iPhone users who would actually support Rob Ford? I think it’s me and Fraser MacDonald.” The Ford team opted instead to concentrate on text messages.)

Kouvalis rehearsed his candidate hard for the 100-plus debates the candidates lumbered through over these last nine months. Quick to anger, Ford could lose his cool. Kouvalis practised his candidate, picking at his sensitivities—for example, Doug Ford Sr., his father, a former Mike Harris provincial Tory who died in 2006—over and over again like he was picking at a scab. Ford was all focus throughout the campaign as a result.

As Ford’s fortunes rose in the weeks before September, Smitherman’s plodding campaign stuttered. Internal polling conducted at the height of summer by his team suggested that, as Smitherman spokesman Stefan Baranski puts it, “People knew precisely nothing about what George Smitherman stood for.” Remarks another high-ranking Smitherman strategist: “We had a sense mid-July that this Ford campaign was completely unstoppable—a juggernaut. By mid-September it was evident Ford was going to win.” He adds: “There’s something liberating about that. George just turned it on.” That fire, combined with Rossi’s departure from the arena in mid-October, tightened up the race, according to public opinion polls, putting Smitherman nose to nose with Ford—a major achievement. (Still, Kouvalis’s internal polls had Ford consistently 10 points ahead, findings so at odds with the newspaper numbers that Doug Ford admitted he became suspicious of Kouvalis).

Yet there was nothing unorthodox about the Ford team’s campaign. “Lookit,” Kouvalis says, “this is already in the manuals—the thing is, people like to do things the old way.” All the Ford campaign sought to do initially was get the candidate to 30 per cent. If they could do that, Kouvalis figured they could use wedge issues—immigration and the fair-wage policy, as it turned out—to carve off chunks of support from their opponents.
In the end, Kouvalis had a secret weapon: he knew the Smitherman team had been operating off provincial Liberal databases—Dalton McGuinty’s lists, people the Ford team’s own intel said were going to vote Ford. On election day, Ford’s campaign concentrated on getting out its vote, knowing that the Smitherman team’s push would bring out a good number of Ford voters too. “They were pulling in our vote for us,” he says.

Much has been made in the Toronto press of Ford’s history at city hall—10 years and little evidence he has any talent for marshalling support among councillors to back his agenda. Some take comfort in this: Ford’s plans are so radical, they say, but there’s no need to worry he’ll ever cobble together a coalition to push them through council. Yet four years of stasis at city hall isn’t likely—Kouvalis has committed himself to staying on for the Ford transition. “We made a lot of promises,” he says. “I think I know how to get them done.” And such concern over Kouvalis’s proven effectiveness should extend up to McGuinty’s Queen’s Park. “I think the Liberals are going to want to see Rob happy,” he says. “They’re going to have to write a lot of cheques.”

With Kate Lunau