Rob Ford’s wild ride

Maclean’s archives: Inside the greatest political train wreck of our time — a story first published in November 2013.
Mark Blinch/Reuters
Mark Blinch/Reuters

A lot has happened since Charlie Gillis wrote this piece last November. You can catch up here. Today, an ailing Ford announced that he is quitting Toronto’s mayoral race to focus on his health. 

The term “Purple Jesus” never appears, but police surveillance reports offer compelling evidence as to Rob Ford’s go-to beverage in times of emergency. Officers had watched one evening last August as Toronto’s large, imperfect mayor stole down the footpath of a leafy park just a stone’s throw from his mom’s home in the western Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. There, away from prying eyes and apparently unburdened by mayoral duties, Rob Ford whiled away the better part of an hour, and officers who whisked to the scene afterward didn’t have to look hard for clues as to what he’d been up to: one spent bottle of Iceberg Vodka lay on the ground. With it was an empty container of Tropicana grape juice.

It was the sort of furtive scene familiar to more typical fans of the easy-to-swallow “P.J.”—teens getting loaded for high school dances. And it came complete with a shadowy actor in the role of bootlegger: Ford had been met on the footpath by Alexander “Sandro” Lisi, officers reported, his companion and occasional driver whom members of Ford’s staff suspected of supplying the mayor with drugs and alcohol. Aware that he might be followed, the surveillance team reported, Lisi had left the Range Rover he drove on the far side of the park and approached from the path’s opposite end.

But the scene is also a telling snapshot of the shrunken, secretive life Ford has been leading in the wake of the drug video scandal, which culminated this week with the mayor’s bombshell admission that he’d used crack cocaine. By mid-summer, Ford had retreated to the landscape he had inhabited in his youth, behaving in ways that would be easier to understand if he were still too young to order a beer. The park where he hid that day would have been familiar—it’s named after his dad, Douglas Ford Sr. Two weeks earlier, on a Sunday, he had bought some McDonald’s food from a drive-through and met Lisi at a high school parking lot less than a kilometre from his mother’s house. Officers watched as the two munched hamburgers in Ford’s Cadillac Escalade and, apparently, drank. After the pair drove off, police recovered two empty vodka bottles from the McDonald’s bags Ford threw in a nearby trash bin.

A vodka bottle left in Douglas Ford Park by Rob Ford and Alexander Lisi, according to police surveillance. (Toronto Police Services)

Then, on Wednesday, Aug. 21, Ford, Lisi and another man ate dinner at a down-market eatery called Steak Queen a few kilometres to the north. “All three appeared to be under the influence of alcohol and/or drug[s] but not to the state of impairment,” reported a plainclothes officer who watched them from inside the restaurant. “Mayor Ford appeared dishevelled with a large sweat stain circling his stomach, sweating profusely from his forehead, his eyes were squinting as he walked, his suit jacket was wrinkled and he wore it without a tie. He was observed leaving with what appeared to be three Styrofoam food containers in bags.” By this point in the 465-page report, which was released by a judge last week, Ford’s circle of acquaintances reads more like a court docket than the contact list of a big-city mayor: There’s a dry cleaner charged last month with pot trafficking; a man with numerous convictions for theft and fraud; another whose rap sheet includes theft, assault and weapons offences. And, of course, there’s Lisi, who has convictions for assault, harassment and uttering death threats, and who was charged last week with extortion in relation to the infamous video in which Ford was seen smoking what appears to be crack.


The timing of all this bears repeating: it took place after news of the video broke last May, which is to suggest that nothing about the crisis caused him to reconsider the life he was leading. And if you thought the Oct. 31 announcement by Chief Bill Blair that police had recovered the offending footage would bring the whole surreal show to a halt, you were wrong. On Sunday, Ford stuck with on his strategy of bulldozing through the wreckage, admitting to radio listeners that he’d “made mistakes” yet refusing to resign. Then, on Tuesday, he blew everyone’s doors off: “Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine,” he blurted to reporters in an impromptu scrum outside his office. “Am I addicted? No. Have I tried it? Probably in one of my drunken stupors, approximately a year ago.”

Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair at a MADD press conference on the day when Councillor Doug Ford asked for the Chief’s resignation. (Getty Images)

The admission all but rattled City Hall to the ground. Councillors scolded the mayor for lying in May when he said the video “does not exist.” Some urged him to seek help for substance abuse, noting Ford’s acknowledgement over the weekend that he needed to “make changes” to shore up the tire fire he calls his life. But whatever steps he imagined clearly did not involve setting down the Chain of Office. At a tearful news conference late Tuesday, he promised residents he would “never, ever, ever again” embarrass them thus, adding: “I love my job. I love this city. For the sake of the taxpayers of this great city, we must get back to work immediately.”

How, you might wonder, could he believe that’s possible? More to the point, how could Torontonians allow him to believe it—because that’s precisely what they’ve been doing. Even as Ford and his family hunkered down on Friday, Nov. 1 at the house of his mother, Diane, a newly published poll suggested the mayor’s approval rating had actually ticked up in the 24 hours after Chief Blair’s announcement. It now stood at 44 per cent, fully five points higher than the previous week. If a mayoral election had been held that day, Rob Ford would probably have won.

This startling response has lent weight to the theory that Toronto faces a political dynamic similar to the one that propelled Sarah Palin to stardom in the United States—a civic microclimate where crassness is rewarded and perverse logic rules. Far from being scared off by the mayor’s apparent excesses, countless Ford supporters have voiced hope over the last few days that he will stay in office. Many speak darkly of a media conspiracy against him, while others say reporters and police should stay out of the man’s personal life. “Given all that he’s accomplished and everything he’s done,” one man shrugged to CBC Radio in an astonishing, yet typical, response, “maybe all politicians should smoke crack.”

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford yells at reporters and photographers to get off of his property in front of his house in Toronto on October 31, 2013. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Their sympathy has held despite a steady flow of council colleagues, business leaders and newspaper editorialists who have called on Ford to step aside. Among them: the mayor’s former council allies Peter Milczyn, Denzil Minnan-Wong and Michael Thompson, as well as Carol Wilding, the head of Toronto’s Board of Trade, who urged Ford to “put Toronto first” and take a therapeutic leave. Yet these mild appeals served only to harden pro-Ford sentiment on Twitter, and on the streets of a city where no other news seemed to matter. The more fire the mayor drew, the harder his supporters fired back.

Evidently the mayor heard them. On the morning of Friday, Nov. 1, with TV helicopters thumping overhead, he and family members hatched the idea of the partial apology, accompanied by Rob’s promise to change, figuring that would be enough to reassure his faithful base of voters. The statement would not have passed muster in the press office of any conventional politician. It did not, for starters, explain how Ford planned to transform his life while fulfilling his mayoral duties. It did not even specify what he was sorry for. (Later, during a surprise appearance on a competing talk radio station, Ford told a caller he “shouldn’t have got hammered” last August during Taste of the Danforth, an annual celebration of the city’s Greek district where an inebriated Ford was photographed reeling among the crowds; in light of his admission Tuesday, it seems the least of his misdemeanours.)

But none of that mattered. The apology won raves from Ford’s backers. Cowed by the outpouring of support, Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly announced he was satisfied with the apology and prepared to “move forward.”

There will be dissertations on how Ford pulled off this miraculous escape. But for now, it is enough to know that shrewd political minds believe he could very well win Toronto’s next municipal election, which is less than a year away. One of them is Mark Towhey, the chief of staff Ford fired when news of the video first broke. Speaking to Maclean’s on Friday, Nov. 1, before Ford offered his mea culpa, Towhey predicted that the mayor’s bedrock support—about 30 per cent of voters—would hold, barring some egregious revelation down the line. “Maybe half of that, 15 per cent, will never leave Rob Ford,” he says. “He needs to decide what’s good for him and his family, but there is a path for him to get elected. I don’t know if he can, but I know that he has defied political expectation up to this point. I wouldn’t put it past him.”

There’s a story Towhey likes to tell about Rob Ford’s relationship with voters. He’d been working as the mayor’s chief for several months, and was frustrated by his inability to divert Ford’s attention from the dozens of phone messages that pour into the mayor’s office each day. “All he wants to know is whether a phone call got returned,” recalls Towhey, “and I’m saying, ‘Rob, we’ve got more important things.’ ” But Towhey had hardly finished his sentence when Ford blew his stack. “This is a woman who has no water in her house!” he shouted. “There’s nothing more important! Nothing!”

Towhey has pondered that response in light of Ford’s political survival over the past few months, and he’s decided his former boss was right. “That’s the voters’ view of the city. They don’t care if there’s a casino downtown. They care if there’s water coming out of the tap, and that’s stuff Rob talks about. The questions he asks are the ones most people out there would ask if they didn’t feel it was too stupid to ask them.”

Trite as it might sound, that personal touch lies at the heart of what spin doctors call Ford’s “brand.” But it’s a brand that doesn’t work in every place, every time. And it certainly doesn’t work for every politician. Toronto, say experts who have examined Ford’s vote closely, has undergone a socio-economic transformation over the last four decades that was never fully expressed in its politics. Only in the last three years did it find voice in an inarticulate behemoth with a gravy stain on his tie, and a sizable chip on his shoulder.

It begins with Toronto the Good, a city comprised of an affluent downtown core surrounded by comfortable suburbs. In 1970, two-thirds of census tracts in what is now the amalgamated city could be described as middle-income, meaning the average household income in them was no more than 20 per cent above or below that of the city; only 19 per cent were low income. By 2005, however, the numbers had nearly reversed: the middle-income percentage had slipped to 29 per cent while 53 per cent of neighbourhoods fit the low-income definition. Almost all of the latter lay in the so-called “inner suburbs”—Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough—that would carry Rob Ford to office in the 2010 municipal election.

You’d think Ford’s tax-cutting, anti-spending, pro-car agenda would play best in wealthier precincts. Or that his image as an angry white man would scare off the working-class minorities who comprise more than half of the city’s environs. But analysis of Ford’s support base performed by Zack Taylor, a University of Toronto human geography professor, suggests the opposite. Fully 53 per cent of the 346,200 people who voted for him were first-generation immigrants; one in two had never gotten past high school, and their average household income, $75,000, was fully 25 per cent less than those who voted for his main opponent, George Smitherman. Taylor doesn’t know what drove these voters to Ford. But he has some ideas. “There’s a broad swath of people who feel left out by the economic success of the city, who feel the benefits are mainly flowing to the downtown, latte-drinking, bicycle-riding sophisticates,” he says. “They watch as property values [downtown] go up, and as a result, their tax bill goes up even if tax rates don’t. All they hear is a story of restraint and cutbacks to the services they value while they watch condos go up downtown.”

Ford, of course, is not the first politician to tailor his message to exploit these sentiments. But he is the first to make voters believe he’ll back up his words with action. The result, says Towhey, is a bond with voters that no candidate—not even a fiscal conservative—can hope to forge. “Nobody believes that, when push comes to shove, the other candidates are not going to build consensus in a big kumbaya moment by jacking up their taxes three or four per cent in order to get the votes they need to pass something so they’ll look like a winner,” he says. “Everyone knows that Rob Ford will stand there and bang his head against the wall until he falls down dead. Even if he fails, he’ll get credit for trying, because for many he’s the only one who got back to them about their problems.”

A photograph of Rob Ford from the Brazen 2 police report. (Toronto Police Services)

As that perception took root in the public mind, what Towhey describes as Ford’s “pigheadedness” became an unexpected asset. The deeper he dug in against established powers like the Toronto Star, or long-sitting small-l liberals on council, the more his supporters cheered. That dynamic served him well through a summer of incremental revelations that would have lacerated other politicians. His trouble now is that he’s running out of establishment forces to battle: The Star was right about the video, while liberal colleagues who called on him to take a leave have been vindicated.

That might explain Doug Ford’s jaw-dropping, hyperbole-laden broadside on Tuesday, Nov. 5, against Bill Blair. The police chief had done nothing more offensive than voice personal “disappointment” upon finally seeing the infamous video. But that was enough for the elder Ford to launch a meandering rant that ended with a demand for Blair’s resignation. “We have the most political police chief I’ve ever seen,” he told incredulous reporters. “The police chief doesn’t intimidate me. We don’t live in a police state.”

The attack was quickly eclipsed by Rob’s admission he smoked crack. But it hinted that the mayor and his brother still have their eyes on the long game—that they think they can ride out the crisis so long as they can paint the mayor as a victim. Ford confirmed as much at his Tuesday news conference, saying he “had nothing left to hide” and that he felt like he’d “had 1,000 pounds lifted off” his shoulders. “We live in a democracy,” he added emphatically, “and on Oct. 27, 2014, I want the people of this great city to decide whether they want Rob Ford to be their mayor.”

Surviving long enough to be on that ballot won’t be easy. At last week’s news conference, Chief Blair revealed that investigators had recovered a second video whose content is “relevant” to the first, and rumours have swirled ever since as to what it shows (police have not confirmed that Ford appears in it). Then, on Thursday, the Star posted a video on its website that gives form to the worst imaginings of what the mayor might be like when he’s high: a one-minute, 17-second clip showing him on a frenzied, profanity-filled rant, bobbing around the dining room of an unidentified home, screaming about killing a man and “ripping his f—ing out.” Ford declined to provide context, saying only: “I was very inebriated.” But the surreptitiously filmed clip does not appear to be related to the crack tape, or the people implicating in it. It has, however, led some to wonder just how many compromising clips of Rob Ford might be out there.

Finally, there’s the extortion case against Lisi, which police say centres on efforts to prevent the offending video from reaching the public domain. What role, if any, Ford played in trying to get the footage is not clear. But the mayor has been noticeably reluctant to fill in that blank, repeatedly refusing police requests for an interview. When asked why, his lawyer, Dennis Morris, has cited the universal “right to remain silent, and not make a case against [oneself].”

Not the legal posture you’d expect from a man with nothing more to hide. Yet for all that, it seems as foolhardy as ever to write off the mayor. Back in June, when the crack video crisis first consumed the media, a former key adviser to Ford told Maclean’s he thought the big man had reached the end of the line. “He’s done. It’s over,” the aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “More staffers are going to quit. More people from the past that [the Fords] have bullied over the years are going to come forward. It’s going to be unbearable.” Yet Ford has borne that and more, and as the curtain went down this week on a gobsmacking few days, there was no indication that the show was going to end. If the next act is as punishing as the last, Toronto would do well to fortify itself with a giant collective drink—something it can down fast, like a Purple Jesus.

This map shows places frequented by, or connected to, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. The locations are noted in a Toronto police document outlining surveillance of Ford and his friend, Alexander Lisi, from March to September 2013. Lisi was arrested and charged with extortion on Oct. 31. None of the allegations against the mayor or Lisi have been proven in court.

Click on each location for more information about the event, or events, that took place there.

View Mayor Rob Ford’s Toronto in a larger map