The legacy and lunacy of Toronto’s notorious mayor

From 2016: He worked hard, and voters understood he’d been bruised by life — just like them
Former Toronto Mayor and current city Councillor Rob Ford arrives to show support for Canada’s Prime Minister and Conservative leader Stephen Harper at a campaign rally at William F. White International Inc, a stage lighting equipment supplier in Etobicoke, a suburb of Toronto, October 13, 2015. Ford, was a larger-than-life figure who made international headlines with his admission that he smoked crack cocaine while he was Toronto Mayor, arrived wearing a sweatsuit to remain comfortable while he recovers from surgery to remove a cancerous tumour in his abdomen earlier this year. Canadians will go to the polls for a federal election on October 19. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)
(Mark Blinch/Reuters)
(Mark Blinch/Reuters)

No political label quite captures the break from convention Rob Ford represented. “Men of the people” we’ve seen before, from Ralph Klein to Danny Williams. “Demagogue” implies too much malice, and “buffoon”—though accurate—ignores both Ford’s diligence as a retail politician and his savant-like understanding of his base.

So even as his former opponents brush over Ford’s imprint on Toronto—watering down his subway plans; opening doors to higher taxes—the riddle of his success must haunt them. Why was he impervious to the laws of conventional politics? Why were reason, poise and factual accuracy expected of them, but not him?

How could a leader admit to smoking crack —crack!—and still pull 25 per cent in the polls?

Related reading from 2013: Rob Ford’s public soap opera

The riddle of the former mayor’s success seems as relevant now as it did before his death from cancer, which triggered a deluge of affection on Tuesday from those who voted him into the city’s top job in 2010. “You will be with us forever,” someone wrote in chalk on the flagstones before City Hall, summing up the theme of dozens of similar messages. In their obligatory tributes, even fellow politicians bowed to the protean forces he unleashed. “I know there are many who were affected by his gregarious nature and approach to public service,” said John Tory, who replaced Ford as mayor in the fall of 2014. “He was above all else a profoundly human guy, whose presence in our city will be missed.”

It’s as if Tory was hedging against a reoccurrence of the Ford phenomenon, trying to mollify those who six years ago threw in their lot with a lumbering, uncouth populist, blindsiding Toronto’s political elite and upending the political game board.

John Filion, a city councillor who last year published a book about Ford, vividly recalls the sense of disorientation. “On council, we all thought Rob Ford didn’t have a chance of being elected mayor and we were flabbergasted when he started to rise in the polls,” he says of the 2010 election. “His election showed how angry and alienated half the people in the city felt about their municipal government. He got half the vote in my ward, and I never would have imagined that possible.”

Related reading: Mark Towhey on the best and worst mayor of Toronto

It’s now commonplace to ascribe that animus to socio-economic disparity. The wealth gap in Toronto, as in much of the Western world, widened to a chasm in the 2000s, pushing the working poor to the inner suburbs of Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough, where homes are cheaper and services more sparse. Many were fighting to contain household costs and shorten their time commuting by car. Yet City Hall remained fixated on the preoccupations of well-heeled downtowners. To read the city sections of morning papers, you’d think the most pressing issues facing Toronto were bike lanes, green roofs and how to regulate gourmet food trucks.

In Ford, who’d served a decade on council representing a ward in Etobicoke, those voters found a champion. Unlike colleagues who dealt only with constituent issues staffers brought to their attention, he spent his days personally returning phone calls about cracked sidewalks and uncollected garbage. When he ran for mayor, he railed against traffic-blocking streetcars, and called for an end to the “war on cars.” Most importantly, he made a divine mission of fighting taxes, which many voters believed funded the pre-occupations of downtown special interests.

That some of this worked against the interests of the working poor (those dastardly taxes might have funded better suburban transit) didn’t much matter. He appealed to the emotion of hundreds of thousands of Torontonians struggling to get ahead. And emotion, says Ron Vogel, a politics professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, is an underappreciated force in politics. “We like to think everyone’s rational, that voters sit down and look at the candidates’ platforms and issues and values,” he says. “The truth is most of us are very emotional in our voting. We choose candidates based on a good feeling we get from them.”

Ford generated that feeling by taunting the urban sophisticates, and waging open warfare with their media flag-bearer, the Toronto Star. His untucked shirt-tails and overflowing girth were visible insults to good taste, and slowly but surely, his flaws and indiscretions became political virtues: they enraged his cosmopolitan critics. Fraser Macdonald, who worked on Ford’s 2010 campaign, recalls the steady drip of revelations that summer, including news that Ford had been convicted in Florida of drunk-driving, and that he’d agreed in a phone conversation to buy OxyContin for an HIV-positive man. “Each time, our opponents would cry bloody murder,” he marvels, “but Rob’s supporters would call, email, donate and volunteer in larger and larger numbers.”

To be sure, a big part of Ford’s political legacy must be credited to others. Campaign aides Nick Kouvalis and Mark Towhey, who later became Ford’s chief of staff, distilled his scattershot rhetoric into a handful of easy-to-remember lines. Ford stuck to them, and in doing so projected even greater resolve. They also compiled a database of the tens of thousands of constituents Ford had personally called and tried to help. This ingenious stroke provided a bottomless pool of potential voters and volunteers. Without professional help, he might never have gained traction.

But it’s hard to imagine any other politician laying the groundwork, and harder still to fathom why Ford’s base of support held after the crack scandal broke. Even after his stint in rehab—after revelations of the police investigation; after the publication of video showing Ford on a drunken, sexist rant—he remained a contender for the mayoralty, hovering around 25 per cent in the polls. Cancer, not character, knocked him out.

Explaining this might take a lifetime of poli-sci seminars. But Filion wonders whether deeper, psychological forces were at play. More than enjoying Ford’s defiance, he notes, his supporters sensed a man who himself had been bruised by life—nudged out of his family’s thriving label company and mocked by colleagues during his time on council. “He was somebody who had not been treated well, who was angry and felt alienated and alone,” says Filion. “He exuded that, and people who felt the same thing saw it in him.”

Photo gallery: A life in photographs 

Towhey, who wrote his own book about his harrowing time as Ford’s chief of staff, agrees. It’s one reason he doubts anyone will replicate Ford’s success in the near future. Just as rare, he adds, is Ford’s oft-forgotten work ethic, which made the whole fantastical odyssey possible to begin with. “He would tell anyone who asked [about] how to get elected,” says Towhey, “and the advice was simple: return people’s phone calls, and go to their doors. But very few politicians like doing that. They want to be the general, not the private in the trenches.”

Which is to say, the likes of John Tory are safe for now. The disaffection Rob Ford rode to office might still be there. But we won’t see a politician like him any time soon.