The political genius of Rob Ford

From 2010: How a crass, hot-tempered straight-talker ran the most sophisticated campaign Toronto has ever seen
(Peter Power/Globe and Mail/CP)

Originally published on Oct. 12, 2010

Rob Ford leans back in the nook of his Rob-Ford-for-mayor RV and, sphinx-like, fixes his gaze on something at the far end of the universe. He is just back from a fundraiser at the Mandarin buffet, in uptown Toronto, where members of the local Chinese communities feted his coming victory over the forces of “waste” and “socialism” at city hall. (Ford passed on the chicken balls and deep-fried shrimp, dining instead on roast beef and mashed potatoes.) In a couple of hours he will square off against his opponents in a Citytv debate—a perhaps anxious prospect given that Ford, according to polls the front-runner, will be an even larger target than usual. Now, in the dark calm of the RV, he is ruddy-faced, disengaged, not altogether present. Is he gathering himself for the coming TV battle against George Smitherman, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s one-time pit bull and Ford’s closest rival? No, he says in a small voice. “I’m just digesting my food. That’s a lot I ate.”

However improbable it may seem to Toronto’s elites and the reporters who cover local politics, Ford has good reason to expect that Oct. 25 will make him mayor. Polls have him as far as 24 points ahead of Smitherman, whose victory in January seemed a foregone conclusion. (“In the absence of an incumbent, they made me the incumbent,” Smitherman told Maclean’s.) If Ford does win, it will be in spite of a history of almost Borat-sized faux pas and brushes with the law, including a 1999 Florida drunk-driving conviction that first came to light in August. “We all make mistakes,” says Ford, still in the midst of digestion. “It was bad. I was drinking and driving. But a lot of people drink and drive. I got caught.”

His campaign has combined a reckless use of facts—Ford repeats figures again and again that either do not bear scrutiny or are yanked badly out of context—with a message track that even Smitherman admits he’s followed “with a level of discipline that is admirable.” He will put an end to wasteful spending, eliminate government perks, cut taxes and reduce the size of city government—including halving the number of councillors from 44 to 22 and outsourcing garbage collection. He will do all this at the same time as he builds a new subway line. “People do not want streetcars in this city—they want subways,” Ford likes to say, his expression that of a man who has just taken a sip of sour milk. “If you get behind a streetcar—you’re stuck! Enough with the streetcars!”

Ford will, to sum up, “stop the gravy train”—a phrase the allegedly buffoonish former city councillor allegedly vetted with focus groups for maximum effect. Unlikely as it is that a Mayor Ford could ever live up to it, his pledge to return phone calls from Torontonians in need also resonates. “That is the most powerful thing he’s ever said,” remarks a strategist with a rival camp who is visibly pained by his own admiration for the Ford campaign, which he calls one of the most sophisticated ever seen in a Toronto mayoral race—largely due to its use of cheap but highly effective telephone-based voter-identification techniques.

The question of which political puppet master pulled Ford out of the chasm of his past—the joint that Florida police discovered in his back pocket, an assault charge involving his wife Renata, etc., etc. (both charges were later dropped)—and successfully moulded him into a bankable candidate is now a favourite Toronto parlour game. It is Ford’s image that turns his detractors off: he is enormous, uncultured, uncouth and déclassé, a high school football coach who presents more like a schoolyard bully. He sweats. His encounter with former Globe and Mail city hall columnist John Barber, in which Barber apparently calls Ford a “fat f–k” and Ford retaliates with all the high-pitched nasal intensity of an Anglo-Saxon Joe Pesci, has become the stuff of YouTube legend. How, people ask, is this guy the next mayor of Toronto?

Rival camps, where the city’s top political operatives have congealed around more traditional candidates, speak of mysterious Chicago-based Republican consultants, connections with U.S. Tea Party organizers—anything to soften the blow. Those nefarious forces are easier on the ego than what’s apparently the truth: that Ford’s campaign is being run by his brother Doug, Jr., an older, leaner, more polished version of Rob and a candidate for council in his kid brother’s old ward. Or, worse still, that Ford himself, in his bad suits and crude English, has somehow had a hand in transforming himself into a political force. His campaign has worked so well because, whether or not his platform makes sense, his message is clear. It combines anger over minor aggravations like bike lanes and speed bumps with big, simple populist promises: councillors should pay their own way and the city should focus on filling potholes and collecting garbage, leaving the vision thing—outgoing Mayor David Miller’s thing—out.

Ford, meanwhile, has apparently worked tirelessly in the decade since he became a councillor. Though his campaign handlers recognize how unlikely it sounds, they repeat the claim he’s returned 200,000 calls over the past decade, and say Ford stored away those names and numbers in bankers’ boxes. “I’ve seen them,” says Fraser Macdonald, at 24 years old Ford’s deputy communications director. Hand-scrawled on scraps, the backs of envelopes and napkins, those names became the Ford campaign’s nascent database. No wonder that in March, when he launched his campaign, 1,600 supporters turned out. “It came from out of the blue but it came early,” says Smitherman of Ford’s support. “He’s obviously had a strong base right from the get-go.”

Some attribute Ford’s appeal to Tea Party sympathies this side of the Great Lakes, others to recession, others still to Miller’s impotent handling of last year’s garbage strike, in which he is widely believed to have capitulated to a coddled union. Unifying these theories is a sense that city hall has favoured downtown sophisticates over the hoi polloi—a sense that runs particularly deep in largely working-class inner suburbs like Ford’s own west-end Etobicoke stomping grounds.

Taxes have risen: a four per cent property-tax hike last year, new land-transfer and car-registration dues, and such annoying fees as the $133 it costs to buy a new medium garbage bin. Municipal services, meanwhile, appear diminished, particularly for suburbanites who contend the downtown benefits disproportionately from city largesse. For Toronto’s angry motorists, taxpayers, streetcar-abstainers and non-cyclists, Ford’s outward lack of charm is a sort of political catnip—crazy-making but irresistible. “I want change badly, and Ford represents that,” says Patrick Maguire, a 44-year-old teacher who lives in Toronto’s reputedly granola Roncesvalles neighbourhood. “The fact that he scares people is a good thing.”

The interminable road works, endless traffic, plans for an $88-million multi-level hockey arena on Toronto’s waterfront—all of it skews the race toward Ford. “It doesn’t matter what the polls say, quite frankly,” one Toronto councillor who asked for anonymity argued. “If the suburbs come out like they did in 1997 to elect Mel Lastman—and they have not come out since—that’s going to deliver Rob Ford Toronto.” Even something as innocuous as the bicycle has become a kind of subliminal flashpoint. “I think the sense that the current government is anti-roads and cars is what is causing it to seem anti-the-ordinary-person,” says University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss. “The ordinary person in Toronto doesn’t ride a bicycle. And that’s important. The ordinary person drives a car.”

And so it may come as a shock to federal Conservative House leader John Baird that the “Toronto elites” he blames for the long-gun registry may soon see an anti-elitist elected their mayor—one who says charity marathons snarl traffic, so hold them elsewhere; that cyclists can stay safe by staying off the roads; that “Oriental people work like dogs” (“I say that too,” Harry Tsai, of the Taiwanese Canadian Association of Toronto, told Maclean’s amid the pink paper lanterns of the Mandarin buffet); a candidate who says he’s returned 200,000 phone calls in the 10 years he represented Etobicoke North as councillor, but who had only just begun carrying a BlackBerry.

Still, Ford’s is a meagre vision for the city. Asked how he sees Toronto in five years, when it is to host the 2015 Pan Am Games, he replies without hesitation: “The city will be spotless. We’re going to make sure it’s clean. And it’s going to be safe. And we’re going to make sure the city’s—um—Toronto’s going to be on the map by the time the Pan Am Games get here, that’s for sure.” It is sometimes unclear whether Ford actually likes Toronto. How would he describe it to people he might meet overseas—in Vienna, in Paris or Buenos Aires? “I wouldn’t tell them to come now,” Ford answers. “But I’d say in a year or two—come, enjoy.

Because right now I can’t say I’m really proud being part of council in Toronto, with all the money being spent and the high taxes. It’s just a dirty city. I sort of feel embarrassed. Maybe I’m a perfectionist. But I don’t like all the graffiti. The dirt. The long grass and weeds. And all that sort of stuff. I hate that stuff. And I know I’m going to get it all cleaned up when I’m mayor.”

Rob Ford runs a meaty hand over the sparse island of hair atop his head, yanks at his collar, tilts his chin up to expose the fleshy skin of his throat, then collects his face in his fingers. He is a collection of ticks. During debates, as his rivals tear one into the other, he stares stony-faced into space or squints into the audience as though into the sun. Often, and especially when attacked, he contemplates the ceiling, his thick fingers interlaced over his great belly, and grins—as his right-of-centre opponent Rocco Rossi put it during one debate, “sitting back like the Cheshire Cat.”

Ford has the physique of the over-the-hill football player he actually is, the spastic physicality of a Jackie Gleason, and a weakness for soft drinks. At a recent debate at York University, as left-leaning candidate and former Miller deputy Joe Pantalone outlined a policy position, Ford stepped away from his podium and strolled up-stage, where Mark Towhey, a Ford policy adviser, appeared on stage to hand him a bottle of Mug Root Beer. When Ford returned and loosened the cap, the bottle foamed and bubbled madly (Ford frowned and dabbed at the bottle with a napkin). “They’re running him on political Prozac,” says Coun. Brian Ashton, who recalls watching Ford during another debate, in Scarborough: “He sat there and he was literally picking the cuticles on his fingernails—to the point one started to bleed. And he was dabbing away the blood. And I thought, ‘Is this what they’ve got him doing? Stay focused, don’t get engaged, don’t lose your temper, stay on message.’ ”

At another debate focused on arts funding, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Ford arrived five minutes late and pulled a huge white kerchief from his jacket, mopping his brow. He got laughs when in his opening statement he recalled his short-lived theatre career as a tights-wearing actor in a Grade 13 production of “The Princess and the Pea.” When the audience began hissing, the moderator stepped in to soothe the crowd. “I respect that you’re here,” he told Ford, who despite the hammering remained the most composed of the four candidates and left the barb-throwing to Pantalone, Rossi and Smitherman. “I’m not worried about what my opponents are doing or what they’re saying,” Ford tells Maclean’s. “I’m just focused on my message and making sure I deliver the message as directly as possible.”

That message is unchanging and concrete. When Toronto Star municipal affairs columnist Royson James, a frequent debate panellist, asked Ford about his governance vision for Toronto, Ford launched into a long dissertation on the humble speed bump (his antagonism toward the speed bump is well known: in 2007, Ford went as far as to say they “indirectly kill people” by reducing emergency response times). “I admit I’m not a smooth talker, a polished speaker,” he says. “But a lot of people like that. They see you’re just a normal person. I speak in layman’s terms, I speak in terms that people can understand, and answer the question as directly as I can.” Asked about Smitherman’s debate performance, he says: “He talks and talks and talks but I try and follow him and I just can’t follow him. I can’t make heads or tails what he says sometimes. As soon as you’re a smooth talker, something’s fishy. A lot of people told me.”

Sleek is the antithesis of the Ford campaign. A YouTube video released late last month outlining Ford’s financial plan contained the candidate’s strangely halting monotone, odd jump cuts, and a soundtrack reminiscent of the music SCTV once favoured in its parodies of TV kitsch. As Rossi has it in a line that he’s made part of his debate repertoire, the clip “makes Mr. [Stéphane] Dion’s videographer look like a genius.” Such criticism only seems to endear Ford further to his supporters. “When you insult him, you insult us, as far as I’m concerned,” Jeff Green, a 43-year-old camera operator who is between jobs, told Maclean’s before a debate in North York. “I’ll tell you right now, I’m voting for Rob Ford.”

Like many of his supporters, Green says he backs the former councillor because Ford once returned his call, then guided him through an arcane procedure at city hall—even though Green lives outside his ward. That reputation for customer service has delivered Ford some unlikely allies. Last spring, Peter Genest, owner of Hits and Misses, a punk record shop on the western edge of downtown Toronto, wanted to ask his councillor—Pantalone, as it happens—about a $555 licence he’d been required to buy to deal in second-hand goods.

Genest says Pantalone’s office sat on his query for over a month. When the Toronto Star published a story on Genest’s gripe, the reporter quoted Ford condemning the fee: “If they want to put people out of work it’s a good way of doing it.” Ford followed up with an email and a call to Genest offering further help. Not long ago, Genest took him up on that offer, and says Ford’s office got back to him the next day with a useful contact. “I don’t agree with everything he says,” Genest admits. “But I’ve only lived back in Toronto for 3½ years and his office has helped me out twice.”

Should Ford become Toronto’s mayor, it will be a win foreseen by his father, Doug Sr., a self-made businessman, backbencher in the Mike Harris Tories, and a towering figure in his son’s imagination. “Before he passed away in 2006, he knew I was going to be mayor,” recalls Ford. “He said, ‘You’re what people want.’ ” Doug Ford grew up on the Danforth—then a tough Toronto neighbourhood—without a dad, the youngest of 10 children. He later made his fortune with the Deco Labels & Tags company, which Ford and his two brothers now run. “He had a drive,” says Ford. “He had a desire that he wanted to be successful, nothing was going to stop him.”

That drive is now shared by Rob and Doug Ford, who at the Mandarin buffet fundraiser sit side by side. Left briefly alone, hovering above their plates, they confer in low voices with an almost telepathic sibling ease, never once turning to look at each other. They have gathered into their campaign team an equally conspiratorial group of outsiders, many of them new to the Toronto scene. One, Nick Kouvalis, who lives in Windsor, Ont., and who once led a populist rebellion within the Ontario Progressive Conservatives against John Tory’s leadership, runs the day-to-day operations, and has introduced for the first time in a Toronto mayoral race a technique borrowed from Barack Obama: the so-called “telephone town hall,” which sees a tranche of Toronto blanketed with calls inviting residents to participate in a phone meeting hosted by Ford, who discusses hot-button issues and takes questions; he eventually asks participants to indicate whether they plan to support him by punching a button. The calls have formed the basis of the campaign’s ever-growing database—and of Ford’s state-of-the-art campaign. His rivals have only just begun catching up to the technique.

Ford lumbers back to the table, settles in next to his brother and attacks another plate from the buffet. Watching him, slow moving and barely communicating with his hosts from Toronto’s Chinese communities, it’s still hard to believe his is the campaign to beat. Suddenly, a section of the group stands to say its goodbyes. Doug Ford stands too, but his brother the mayoral candidate keeps eating. Doug jabs him with a thick finger. “Rob! Rob!” he says. “Say goodbye!” And Rob Ford looks up from his plate.