Why Rob Ford isn’t done yet

Armed with a possible redemption arc, the Rob Ford saga is far from over

<p>Toronto Mayor Rob Ford runs from cameras after exiting an executive council meeting in Toronto, March 19, 2014. Ford, who made global headlines last year after admitting he had smoked crack cocaine, was caught up in fresh controversy on Monday after a new video showed him agitated and apparently swearing outside city hall. REUTERS/Mark Blinch (CANADA &#8211; Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) &#8211; RTR3HRAW</p>

Mark Blinch/Reuters

Mark Blinch/Reuters
Mark Blinch/Reuters

To reach the big-box floor show that was Rob Ford’s campaign launch on April 17, supporters had to jam through a narrow foyer in the Toronto Congress Centre, a hangar-like complex not far from where their soon-to-be-rehabbing leader was first recorded smoking crack. Here, at folding tables manned by harried volunteers, the denizens of Ford Nation were counted and catalogued, their phone numbers recorded for enlistment in door-knocking expeditions that soon would hang suspended, awaiting the candidate’s return.

Even then, rewards for the believers were meagre—a free beer, a campaign T-shirt, a small plate of nachos—and efforts to stoke up bonhomie inside the hall seemed strained. A cover band played the Rolling Stones’ shopworn campaign staple Start Me Up while attendees posed for photos in front of a de­comissioned fire truck bearing a banner that read “Saving the taxpayer from getting burned.” The event centred on the Fords’ fundraising gambit of selling bobbleheads to the 2,000 faithful—$30 for a standard effigy of the mayor; $100 for one of Ford wearing his tie emblazoned with tiny footballs. “I’m here because Rob Ford is the one,” said Michelle Coppola, a 51-year-old from North York. “He’s shown what he can do, and that’s why we want him. I don’t care about all that personal stuff. That’s his private life. Nobody’s perfect.”

True, but Rob Ford’s imperfection sets a new standard, and the bobblehead proceeds had hardly been tallied when his personal misconduct once again burst into public view. On April 30, the Globe and Mail reported that two of its journalists had seen a recently filmed video showing the mayor smoking from a crack pipe in the early hours of April 26, and the paper posted still shots on its website of Ford holding the small, brass device. The images went up just a few minutes after the Toronto Sun released an audio tape recorded two nights previously in which a slurring Ford spewed lewd and racist babble to patrons of a strip-mall pub. At one point, he described in crude terms his desire to have sex with Karen Stintz, his city council colleague and mayoral opponent.

Not to be outdone, the Toronto Star then published witness accounts of a booze-and cocaine-fuelled night of nightclubbing Ford allegedly went on in March. The mayor had brought along four men, the paper said, that he’d randomly met in the square in front of Toronto City Hall, and the evening was capped by an encounter with Justin Bieber, who mockingly asked Ford if he’d brought “any crack to smoke.”

Even by the astoundingly tolerant standards of the Ford family, the one-night deluge was too much. Early the next morning, on May 1, followed by his usual retinue of cameras, the mayor left his home with a suitcase to enter an undisclosed rehab program, leaving his remaining official powers in the hands of his deputy, Norm Kelly. True to the miasma of chaos and thwarted intentions shrouding Toronto’s mayor, his bid to seek help for addiction met road bumps: his private plane landed in Chicago then turned around before Ford officially entered the United States; Roy Norton, counsul general of Canada in Chicago, confirmed to the Globe that Ford voluntarily withdrew his application to enter the country. Now energy is being spent figuring out where Ford could be; one report has him at a clinic in Guelph, Ont. Doug Ford said he has spoken to his brother and that he is “doing well.”

How the latest allegations and Ford’s hasty exit will affect his political future is now the subject of rabid speculation. The presumption that he’ll readily jump back into the campaign for the Oct. 27 vote strikes some observers as naïve: “He’ll miss a significant part of the campaign,” says veteran political strategist Robin Sears. “It’s unlikely he will be given a clean bill of health by any serious addiction program by the end of the summer. That puts him right against the deadline for serious campaigning, which is usually September.”

Yet the spectre of Ford’s return already dominates Toronto’s public conversation. Will he resume campaigning as soon as the 30 days are up—clean bill of health or no? Can he win? The smart money says no. A poll taken in the hours following the triple-barrelled revelation suggested that John Tory, the former leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, had eclipsed Ford as the second-place candidate in the race, with 27 per cent support to Ford’s 22 (former NDP MP Olivia Chow remained the front-runner with 33). Ford’s amateurish campaign launch spoke to how the past 12 months of disgrace, dishonesty and grimy revelation had driven away the power brokers who propelled him to office four years ago, leaving a shell operation overseen by his brother Doug.

However steep the odds against him, Ford’s past resilience makes him a marvel—the political equivalent of an inflatable punching toy. The last missing segment in Ford’s tragicomic arc is redemption. No surprise, then, that strategists for rival campaigns acknowledged this week that the 45-year-old remains very much part of their calculations. Armed with a compelling comeback story, they note, a renascent Ford could reignite the anti-tax, pro-automobile, anti-elitist sentiment that carried him to power in 2010. “He’ll come back and he’ll swear that he’s seen the light,” said a senior operative in Tory’s campaign. “He’ll go to church every Sunday and talk about his struggle and how he has a destiny in life.” All of which makes the latest disclosures feel like a tipping point. Either the rise and fall of Rob Ford has reached its final, traumatic chapter, or there’s a whole new volume to be written.

Rob Ford’s low-voltage campaign launch may have seemed decidedly at odds with the high-profile international buzz now surrounding him. But it revealed a less-evident truth: away from the klieg-lights, the late-night barbs with Jimmy Kimmel, the posing for selfies in Hollywood, a mayor denuded of much of his authority was facing serious erosion of his “man of the people” political brand.

MACLEANS-FORD-04.17.14-TORONTO,ON: City of Toronto mayor Rob Ford launches his 2014 mayoral election campaign in front of thousands at the Toronto congress centre.
Rob Ford’s 2014 campaign launch at the Toronto congress centre. (Photo by Cole Garside)

Signs were evident weeks earlier, on April 5, when a reportedly intoxicated and belligerent Ford was denied entrance to a private function during a Toronto Maple Leafs game, in the exclusive Directors Lounge in the Air Canada Centre. The Ford camp was quick to blame the powerful sports conglomerate Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), which owns the ACC. The mayor had never been refused elite ACC access before, said Doug Ford, who attributed the snub to his brother’s lone “no” vote to a proposal spearheaded by MLSE that the city contribute $10 million to a soccer-field expansion: “In the past, the doors are always open but now it seems like the doors are closed,” he told reporters. “It doesn’t matter to us.”

MLSE denied the allegations, but there was little doubt the mayor had made an adversary in its newly arrived CEO Tim Leiweke, the first major business figure to criticize him publicly. Ford allowed his “stop the gravy train” politicking to interfere with good investment for the city and was bitter the MLSE hadn’t gone through him first, Leiweke claimed. In terms of optics, the spectre of the most powerful man in Toronto sports dissing the sports-loving mayor was a definite chink in Ford’s civic armour.

Another blow landed weeks later with the April 25 ousting of Eugene Jones as head of Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC), the country’s largest public housing provider. Ford appointed Jones to helm the scandal-plagued organization in 2012 and often toured properties with him, posing for photo ops that reinforced his champion-of-the-little-guy rep. Ford remained Jones’s staunch defender despite a scathing ombudsman’s probe that found the TCHC mired in bloated, self-serving bureaucracy—questionable hirings, promotions and pay raises—the very “gravy train” Ford vowed to eradicate. Jones’s firing for “abject failure of leadership” left TCHC without a leader for the second time in Ford’s tenure—and punctured his campaign boast, one listed on the “Promises made / promises kept” handout at his launch, that he had “renewed public faith in TCHC.”

Ford was furious. “This is one of the worst days, one of the worst days, in Toronto’s history, losing a man of this calibre,” he told reporters, promising to rehire Jones if he was re-elected—and fire the ombudsman.

Thus began a five-day descent that saw Ford careening from sobriety and official duty to rages said to be induced by drugs and liquor. His anger allegedly roiled over into the early hours of the next morning when he was filmed in his sister Kathy’s basement smoking from the telltale pipe and ranting about what had happened to Jones, who is black: “No n—er gets fired in my town,” Ford said, according to a drug dealer interviewed by the Star. “When I get re-elected that n—er is going to be back in charge.”

By Sunday, Ford had rallied to circulate amid the throng celebrating Khalsa Day, Sikh New Year, at Nathan Phillips Square—his first appearance at the event since his 2010 election. Amid a mob clamouring for his photograph, Ford reiterated his family-values mantra: “I love the Sikh community,” he said. “They’re hard-working, family-oriented people, and that’s right down my lines.”

An audio recording made the next night in an Etobicoke bar made mockery of that claim, as Ford was captured uttering a torrent of profane, sexist, homophobic, racist remarks. By then, Ford’s penchant for vulgar, socially unacceptable comments was enmeshed in his public persona, along with his spotty city hall attendance and debauched nocturnal wanderings. Lines were blurring, with questions raised concerning Ford’s relationship with the proprietors of one of his favourite haunts, Muzik, a club on Toronto’s Exhibition grounds that boasts a difficult-to-obtain extended 4-a.m. liquor licence.

Muzik’s owners, registered lobbyists with the city who had requested lease extensions and clampdowns on raves near its sites in the past, had also catered Fordfest, the Ford Nation jamboree thrown by the Fords for their followers. The mayor was a presence in Muzik’s white-curtained VIP lounge frequented by NBA stars, rappers and civilians ready to drop at least $1,000 on bottle service, years before any allegations of drunken public behaviour surfaced, a former Muzik employee told Maclean’s, noting that Ford’s habit was to arrive at opening and stay until close: “He was definitely out of control.”

But the recent audio recording suggested something the public had not heard from Ford before, disillusionment with the process: “I’m f–king sick of politics, dude,” he said at one point. And, in what might be his most shocking comment, he said he might have to vote Green provinically.

Talk about the ongoing mayoralty race focused not on policy but Ford’s wants—his lewd comment about opponent Stintz (“I’d f–king jam her) and how, were he to be defeated, he’d like it to be to Olivia Chow: “I’d rather lose to Olivia Chow than to anyone, man,” he said, adding: “Once I’m gone, I’m gone. I’m going to California.” At another point he sounded equally sure of victory: “Look at my record; I’m going to win, we’re going to win . . . ”

MACLEANS-FORD-04.17.14-TORONTO,ON: City of Toronto mayor Rob Ford launches his 2014 mayoral election campaign in front of thousands at the Toronto congress centre. (MACLEANS-FORD-04.17.14-TORONTO,ON: City of Toronto mayor Rob Ford launches his 2014 mayoral election campaign in front of thousands at the Toronto congress centre.
Rob Ford at his 2014 campaign launch. (Photo by Cole Garside)

Two days later, on April 30, Toronto Transit Commission CEO Andy Byford questioned that assertion when he refused to commit funds to a subway extension, a Ford election promise, in case of regime change at city hall: “We don’t want to waste money,” Byford said. Again, an angry Ford was forced to play defence: “I’m pretty frustrated,” he told reporters, adding that he’d finance the subway by doing something he vowed not to do: raise property taxes. Hours later, after the one-two-three punch of video stills, the audio, and dust-up with Byford, came Ford’s prepared statement admitting that he had a problem—albeit only with alcohol—and that he would take “a leave from campaigning and from my duties as mayor to seek immediate help.” The order in which he listed his civic responsibilities spoke volumes.

Recovering, both physiologically and mentally, from this downward spiral won’t be easy. Ford remains on the city payroll while enrolled in what is believed to be a 30-day treatment program, though his lawyer Dennis Morris has said there’s no time limit on how long he’ll be gone. Healing from addiction requires both commitment and new behavioural patterns, Patrick Smith, CEO of Toronto-based Renascent addiction recovery centres, told Maclean’s last year. The real work begins the day after any program officially ends, Smith says: “The most important thing we can do in 21 days is have influence on what someone is going to do on day 22.”

Harder still may be recovering ground lost on the political battlefield now that Ford is bereft the human support system necessary to turn a campaign around. For all the talk about his instinctive understanding of voters, Rob Ford the campaigner is very much a product of his advisers. Team members from his 2010 run recall campaign manager Nick Kouvalis giving Ford a list of six answers to use when responding to reporters, no matter the question. It’s a time-tested method known as message-tracking—the first day’s lesson in Campaigning 101. To Ford, who by then had spent 10 years on city council, it was a revelation. “You mean I don’t have to answer the actual question?” a former aide recalls him exclaiming. “That’s great!”

The primer counted among numerous benefits Ford gained that year from a circle of conservative organizers who gathered around him despite his family’s reputation for ignoring advice. Chief among them was Kouvalis, a brash young strategist from Windsor, Ont., who joined on the proviso that the Fords, especially, Doug, obey his orders. Kouvalis and his team saw Ford’s stubbornness as an asset—catnip to working-class suburbanites who believe free-spending downtown liberals were treating them as cash machines. So they equipped him with a timeless slogan, “stop the gravy train,” and made mulishness his brand. As policy chief Mark Towhey later told Maclean’s: “Everyone knows that Rob Ford will stand there and bang his head against the wall until he falls down dead.”

They aimed their message at a previously untapped demographic, activating lower-income voters in the suburban penumbra of Toronto’s gleaming downtown. Residents of districts Ford won earned less, owned less and were less likely to hold degrees than neighbourhoods won by his main opponent, the former provincial cabinet minister George Smitherman, according to an analysis performed by Zack Taylor, a human geographer at the University of Toronto. They were, in short, people who don’t tend to vote in municipal elections.

The resulting win—47 per cent, to 36 for Smitherman—was impressive enough that even now Ford draws heavily from his old team’s talking points. But the people who wrote them are gone. Towhey served a stint in the mayor’s office as chief of staff, yet was fired in the thick of the crack scandal and now hosts a radio show. Press handler Adrienne Batra left for Sun News Network, where she works with Paige MacPherson, Ford’s former social media co-ordinator. Fraser MacDonald, who helped protect Ford from a mini-scandal in which Ford agreed to help an HIV-infected man illegally obtain Oxycontin. Kouvalis decamped to Ford’s only serious rival on the political right, John Tory.

The impact of that last defection is hard to overstate, because Kouvalis took the core of his 2010 team with him. Among them: strategist Stephanie Gawur; fundraising chief Stefano Pileggi; and Mitch Wexler, the data and demographics brain who, four years ago, drew the road map to Ford’s victory by identifying neighbourhoods most receptive to his message. Already, they’ve signed up 3,000 volunteers for Tory, a degree of organizational depth that Ford can’t hope to match. “What their campaign loses, and what will be a strength for John’s, will be capacity on the ground,” says Wexler. “We’re so far ahead right now compared to where we were at this point of Ford’s campaign.”

Still, for all the bold talk, Ford’s opponents are acting as if he remains in the race. Chow, for one, built her campaign on the theme, “It’s time for Ford to go,” and hasn’t deviated from her message. “It has very little to do with his personal stuff,” insists John Laschinger, her campaign manager. “It’s about his performance.” A senior source in Tory’s camp, meanwhile, believes Ford will be back by mid-June, brandishing a redemption story that will reinforce his image as a flawed hero.

What no one can say is whether he can stay on the wagon, or if he does, how his presence might affect the final vote. The mayor has done a good enough job painting himself as a victim—beset by a liberal media, henpecked by left-wing council opponents, even “hated” by his wife and children (which the Star reported he said at Muzik)—that a mopped up, sober version of him could slip seamlessly into his old role as underdog, with the added bonus of a crowd-pleasing redemption scenario. Voters have forgiven before. Marion Berry won two mayoral terms in Washington, D.C., after doing jail time in the early 1990s for crack use and possession.

But fully six out of 10 Toronto voters have recently told pollsters that under no circumstances would they cast a vote for Ford. Sears, the political strategist, is skeptical that Ford acted soon enough to re-establish himself as a serious candidate. “Redemption might have been possible if he had done the smart thing and bowed out when the whole thing blew up; he could have come back in January, February [of 2014],” he says. “Then he would have had enough runway to deliver that message. The calendar is his enemy now.”

What’s more, says Sears, Ford’s primary political problem is no longer his history of substance abuse but the racist, sexist and socially unacceptable views to which he has repeatedly given voice. “I think that’s going to have a very corrosive impact on the core of his base, which is socially conservative and family-oriented—fathers with daughters,” he says, adding that blaming booze or drugs won’t make the problem vanish. “We all know people who say stupid things when they’re drunk. But they don’t say things like that.”

The result may be to turn Ford from a contender to a game-changer—a second or third-place also-ran who can’t push past his 20-25 per cent of support, but whose presence shifts the balance of power. “I think Ford and Tory are going to cut into each other’s vote, and Chow’s going to win,” predicts Denis Pilon, a York University political scientist who follows Toronto politics (he spoke to Maclean’s before Ford checked into rehab, but had predicted the mayor’s recent crash). “It was a coalition that propelled Ford to power and he is going to lose key parts of that coalition.”

Bobble head Rob Fords at his 2014 campaign launch. (Photo by Cole Garside)
Bobble head Rob Fords at his 2014 campaign launch. (Photo by Cole Garside)

Whether Chow or Tory wins, it’s a scenario for which even some former Ford voters now long: Canada’s largest city, restored from mayhem created by its notorious mayor. But it’s not one the Ford brothers are likely to accept without a fight. One idea mooted in the wake of Rob Ford’s retreat to rehab is that his brother will step into the breach should Rob relapse. “If he has another episode, or if they see by August that he’s not going to win, then I think they do a switcheroo,” says a former Ford family associate, who asked not to be named. Doug himself did little to douse the speculation this week when asked if he would run for mayor should Rob drop out: “Our family,” he said cryptically, “is committed to serving the people.”

The following day, Doug was photographed sitting in the mayor’s chair in council chambers, where a colleague had jokingly doctored the nameplate to read “Doug” instead “Rob.” Even political opponents were stoking up the plotline. “Slogan writes itself,” tweeted Gerry Butts, principal adviser to federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. “No gravy. No crack.”

Certainly, the move would be in keeping with the Fords’ sense of family mission, seen in the frequent invocations of their late father Doug Sr., a Progressive Conservative MPP under premier Mike Harris. It would also fit with Doug’s well-known personal ambitions: his plan to run provincially was derailed when Rob admitted to using crack and the Ontario PC Party made it clear he would not be welcome.

Currently, it all remains crystal-ball gazing. What is clear is that the Ford centre cannot hold. Yes, the tabloid spectacle of his dissolution and instant resurrection might draw eyes, but that’s hardly the basis of a winning campaign. The mayor’s stalwart “defender of the little guy” branding has taken a blow. Should there be yet another Rob Ford meltdown, it’s likely the audience would at long last avert its gaze. Punching toys amuse only so long as they keep bobbing back up. When the air drains away, leaving them deflated, we move along to the next diversion.

Correction: May 14, 2014: This article previously misstated the job title of Doug Ford Sr.