Loyal councillors have defied him. His approval ratings have plummeted. And his powerful Conservative backers are nervous. How did it all go so wrong? The strange story of Rob Ford’s city hall
On Newstalk 1010, the sly strains of the Hollies hit “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” offered the first clue. Then morning host Jerry Agar burst on the air with a surprise announcement: Rob Ford and his councillor sibling Doug were taking over the station’s Sunday afternoon talk-fest, The City. For the once-staid CFRB, landing the boisterous brother act that Margaret Atwood had puckishly dubbed the “twin Ford mayors” was clearly a coup, but that didn’t answer the more obvious question: why on earth would the Fords want to spend two more hours a week in front of an open microphone when they were hardly suffering from a lack of media exposure?
Rob Ford, after all, ranks as one of the most compelling and exhaustively chronicled figures in Canadian politics, adored and despised with equal gusto. His every pronouncement seems to turn into front-page fodder, his every grimace and belly scratch catalogued by rapt photographers. And who could forget the YouTube footage of comedian Mary Walsh arriving in his driveway, decked out with a velvet breastplate and a plastic sword?
But by the time Agar announced the show’s February 26 debut, the mayor was none too keen on his press clips, which aptly mirrored his increasingly bleak political fate. Ever since the new year, a small band of independent councillors had been leading an open revolt, dealing him a series of humiliating defeats, first on his budget, then on his cherished subway-building agenda. No matter how he tried to spin it, one conclusion was unavoidable: the mayor was increasingly isolated on his own council.
In Conservative backrooms across the city, there was undisguised consternation. Ford’s predecessors, David Miller and Mel Lastman, would never have allowed themselves to lose such key power struggles, especially so early in their first terms. Ford was becoming an embarrassment—one who could do lasting damage to the party as a whole. “There are only so many votes you can lose,” says a prominent Tory advisor who asked for anonymity, “and then you end up becoming sort of neutered.”
Doug Ford was not going to let that happen. “We’re street fighters,” he had bristled after one council dust-up, and he had decided to take the battle over subways—and the future of his brother’s mayoralty—to the streets. Shortly after the budget vote, he went to Newstalk 1010 with his plans for the Rob and Doug show. Borrowing a page from an American playbook—that of another populist icon named Ronald Reagan—he saw the radio show as a platform to bypass both council and the media, making their case directly to the people. As his brother’s long-time campaign manager, he was also positioning the show as the launching pad for the mayor’s re-election bid three years down the road. No other candidates had yet appeared in their sights, but Rob Ford was firing the first salvos in what amounted to a permanent campaign. He was taking on all comers, including the entire ornery city council and Premier Dalton McGuinty, who, he warned, risked “political suicide” by daring to thwart his subway plans.
As the Fords clamped on their headphones in the Newstalk studios, they were in a combative mood that matched the station’s promos: “Up next,” an announcer trumpeted, “the polarizing Ford brothers!” True to form, Doug was the first to speak. “Here’s the big guy,” he said, turning the mike over to his kid brother. “Fasten your seat belt, because we’re going for a ride.” For the next 15 minutes, however, that ride was disconcertingly pedestrian, even sophomoric, meandering through the brothers’ biographies as if they’d found themselves caught in job interviews. Then they finally got to the point, urging listeners to mount a grassroots campaign that would force their foes to relent. “Call your local councillor, call your MPP,” the mayor exhorted. “Get straight in their face and tell them you don’t want streetcars. You want subways.”
The show was meant to recapture Rob Ford’s heyday on The John Oakley Show, which had transformed him from an oddball Etobicoke councillor into a frustrated everyman with a canny knack for revving up listeners’ outrage, but this return to the electronic bully pulpit felt different. There was an air of improvised desperation about it, part revenge, part whistling in the dark. Indeed the show seemed like a startling act of bravado for a man who had been regarded only months earlier as the Teflon mayor—a leader with such stratospheric approval ratings that prime ministers had come courting and few councillors had dared challenge his legislative course.
Tuning in, I couldn’t help wondering what had happened. How had Ford let such a massive electoral mandate slip away so swiftly, reducing him to this: an outsider on his own council, trying to drum up support over the Sunday afternoon airwaves?