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The weirdest mayoralty ever—the inside story of Rob Ford’s city hall

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

The Incredible Shrinking Mayor

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?

  • Torontonian

    Part of the problem with our current city council is that 1/2 those on council are determined that no matter what Ford does or says, they have to disagree. If he were to say water is wet, they would immediately take an opposing view. Council is disfunctional as a result, and there is no opportunity to reach a consensus on any item the Mayor champions, whether it is good for the city or not.

  • I.M. Fletcher

    Great article, Marci!

    We’re well aware of what Ford stand against (gravy! taxes! streetcars!), but I don’t get a sense of what he stands for. My idea of a mayor is someone who has a vision for the city they love, and can articulate it at a moment’s notice. Acknowledge the failings, but have ideas (or listen to others’ ideas) on how can we make it better together in a way that benefits as much of the city as possible. Topical example: for less money than it would cost to extend the Sheppard subway line, we could have LRT lines on Eglinton, Sheppard E., and Finch W., benefitting tens of thousands more people.

  • Ella

    Bravo to Toronto life!
    I am enjoying reading this. All 12 pages! I love that there is a place for in depth, well-researched and considered articles. As for the other person that commented, there are people on council that will agree with anything the mayor says or does (Doug Hall, Doug, Hollydale, Georgio).
    The Mayor has ideas that are not considered or research and he wants people to vote. He doesn’t like the 5 cent grocery bag surcharge. He doesn’t care about the environment or waste or good reason, we are expected to agree with him just because it is HIS opinion.

  • Martin

    @Torontonian, seriously. If Rob Fvcking Ford weren’t always so wrong, you’d find a whole lot more people on council agreeing with him. Thank gawd there are people there that will call him on his bullsh*t.

  • Mort D. Fame

    All this was covered by Seinfeld when George decided to do the “opposite”. The “opposite” was the right thing to do…….and this is how we should react to Mayor Ford. Anything he suggests, we should embrace the opposite and we will be right.

  • James

    Rob Ford, Doug Ford, and their shrinking coterie of hangers – on are an embarrassment of international proportions to Toronto. Their brain pans are far too small to provide the kind of leadership that our wonderful city requires. Unfortunately, we had already invited the world to visit us (Pan Am Games, World Pride 2014) to a city we were proud to show off – - proud, that is, before the Ford era started making everything that was wonderful the subject of small and petty ideological, not to mention untruthful, arguement. We are going to be ashamed before the world.

  • Jen

    @Torontonian – in the exact same way you accuse 1/2 the council of blindly opposing the mayors ideas, you failed to mention the litany of others who blindly support every idiotic idea that falls out of his mouth!

    He also has an entire ‘newspaper’ supporting him blindly in the Toronto Sun, and an entire radio show supporting him blindly on 1010. He’s a big boy who can, and should be able to handle his opponents.

    I’m so SICK of hearing Rob Ford and his lackeys complain about the public scrutiny around him, when his entire campaign and all of his platforms were designed to stir up controversy and deal exclusively in right-leaning extremes. It’s as if he expected the city to fall at his feet immediately after the election! He should learn to win people over with logic instead of brash vulgarity

  • Marc

    Great article. I agree with a previous comment – it’s nice to read a well-researched, measured piece – not a scattershot of editorial opinion. Nice work.

  • Torontonian

    Fair point – yes, there are those who blindly follow him as well, and they deserve equal criticism. The fact remains though that with everyone on council apparently picking a side and sticking to it, there is seemingly no room remaining to actually focus on what’s best for the city. There are flaws on both sides of council, and it’s a shame that there are sides at all.

    I certainly don’t agree with everything (ok, most things) that Mayor Ford proposes. But the reality is that if anyone in the media had undertaken this kind of critical analysis (above article) during the election we might have had a different outcome. And while the Sun may firmly cheerlead for Ford, the Star does a bang up job in the opposite direction…

  • iwill

    Here’s to Rob Ford winning another election! Keep up the good work Rob.

  • Kim

    It pains me that so many intelligent people waste their time and energy trying to understand Rob Ford. Let’s just call a spade a spade and devote our energy to more worthwhile causes. It’s unfortunate that he got elected and now we just have to bide our time until he’s gone and hopefully the person who takes over will right the wrongs that Ford has gotten away with. What I’m trying to say is that he isn’t worthy of the attention he is getting. Yes, he’s a moron and yes he has bad ideas and doesn’t know what he’s doing, but talking about him, writing about him and analyzing him ad nauseam won’t change anything. In fact, it probably makes a jackass like Ford feel really important and special; two things he is not.

  • Caligari

    It’s very unmayor-like and low-class for a sitting mayor to have a radio call-in show at all; it’s something you might expect in a hick town, but not in Canada’s largest city. Is Rob Ford in fact Mayor Tommy Shanks of Melonville?

  • Phil Resch

    @Torontonian … What people keep forgetting to take into account – about the divisiveness of Council – is that it is the Mayor’s job to make Council work. They Mayor is the leader. A leader’s job is to find compromise, to find a way to appease Council members who are doing their best to represent their respective Wards. To use a sports analogy, when a team loses it’s cohesion and is losing games because of that, the coach (leader) is fired and replaced with one that came make the team act as, well, a team.

  • scottd

    Toronto needs a full time mayor. If any of the dim wits who voted for him had ever bothered to follow City politics at all for the previous 10 years they would have known that Ford is a huge slacker when it comes to the vision thing.

  • Harold

    Seems enough people of Toronto decided that no one should be making a decent wage or any benefits if they work for Toronto.
    And elected a clown who should have been booted from council years ago , let alone become Mayor to do what Conservatives do best, and that is slash and burn jobs and services and continue raising taxes.

    Interestingly though this new Ford appointment for T.T.C. chair Stintz is a clown as well expecting Torontonians to absorb a 30 billion tax cost for her proposal, all the while the former Webster was fired and handed a 500,000 platinum handshake to leave when he had less than a year left in his contract and would have retired ( saving ) the Toronto taxpayers half a mill.
    The Circus continues…..

  • not living in TO

    Very good article – really knew nothing about him. The family problems aside – I don’t think he has the makings of a leader. A leader cannot bully to get his way – it does not work. I hope all residents read the article and realize the error in electing him as mayor. Maybe his mom should run LOL!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Daniel-Dreibelbis/551526113 Daniel Dreibelbis

    lately it seems he’s been less Mayor Tommy Shanks and more The Kids In The Hall’s Mayor Larry Buckman.

  • loveliving

    Rob Ford is a privileged white man who should not have even been allowed to run for Mayor in the first place. What person in this age, can be allowed to hold such a high position in a city of this size and economic stature without having college or university degree in business or law or a profession that is relevant to the position. The amount of mistakes he has made is what is “ridiculous.” I am afraid that as a city we have failed and I am wondering why things have to get so bad in Toronto before the media has spoken out. Where’s the exposé about the Ford cronyism and gang of backers who want to control the waterfront, potential subway contracts and now the casino. Why didn’t we hear about his constant disappearance from official city business. Why is the media only now talking about his obviously substance abuse problem? Why was he being propped up so long? It looks like a situation of white privilege. Even the dealers know that Rob Ford should not be Mayor. I only hope that Toronto votes properly next time, we need someone who has some credentials. We need some diversity. Time to give others a shot.

  • http://twitter.com/NadineLumley Nadine Lumley Real

    “Ford, Hudak and Harper: A trifecta cabal of
    republican-style, right wingers.”

    Our Prime Minister Stealin’ HarperCon was behind Ford’s
    appointment.

    And Mike Harris as well was behind Ford’s campaign (Rob
    Ford’s dad used to work for Mike Harris).
    With help from Guy Giorno, who happens to be Harper’s ex-Chief of Staff
    - and Guy Giorno used to be chief of
    staff to former Ontario premier Mike Harris.
    Guy Giorno was also the campaign manager in May 2011 during Harper’s
    infamous Robocall scanadal. Makes you go
    hmmmm.

    Are you starting to notice a neocon circle jerk going on
    here?

    http://www.thestar.com/News/Canada/article/428557

  • user xyyyz

    Every politician in Canada, federal, provincial, municipal should be required to have a drug test annually. If they fail they are gone. My 2¢

  • Vote Ndp

    I hope the TPS will be ready to arrest ex mayor Ford and admit him into rehab. once admitted, dont let him out until he’s clean and doesn’t have anymore psychiatric issues.

  • Well now

    Wow.
    Some sanity and light on this subject at last. Excellent journalism! Excellent
    writing! I would differ on a couple of points.

    The total lack of leadership did not result in a vacuum, per say. RF filled it with
    illegal activities, to what extent we do not know. Instead of a nice clean
    vacuum we have a horrid gory soul-destroying nation-wide mess.

    And for some reason the hands of the police and the justice system are tied. That
    is, just as council let itself be bullied, and after that then tried to keep up
    the pretense that all was ‘really OK’, so too the police could not arrest /
    stop RF when they had the chance. (Another topic which needs your analytic skills???
    :)

    As well, I do not think RF is capable of developing strategy. (Like a toddler he
    goes from one instance of instant gratification to another.) Instead, he
    stumbles on a set of phrases which a group of people like and he keeps
    repeating them. So now we have ‘the great divide’.

    There has been an ubiquitous pervasive, council wide, city wide and nation wide blindness happening. Because, really, how could we have ever imagined or believed such a deranged person could rise so high in politics, in this country?

    But it happened with the help of unlimited financial resources and various ego maniacs ganging up together to use one another. If council does not pull together on Wednesday to remove RF, then we will have gotten what we deserve.

  • Well now

    Wow.
    Some sanity and light on this subject at last. Excellent journalism! Excellent
    writing! I would differ on a couple of minor points, with the benefit of hindsight of course.

    The total lack of leadership did not result in a vacuum, per say. RF filled it with
    illegal activities, to what extent we do not know. Instead of a nice clean
    vacuum we have a horrid gory soul-destroying country-wide mess.

    And for some reason the hands of the police and the justice system are tied. That
    is, just as council let itself be bullied, and after that then tried to keep up
    the pretense that all was ‘really OK’, so too the police cannot seem to arrest /
    stop RF. Maybe he’s too close to Harper?

    As well, I do not think RF is capable of developing strategy. (Like a toddler he
    goes from one instance of instant gratification to another.) Instead, he
    stumbles on a set of phrases which a group of people like and he keeps
    repeating them. So now we have ‘the great divide’.

    There has been an ubiquitous, pervasive, council wide, city wide and nation wide blindness happening re RF. Because, really, how could we have ever imagined or believed such a deranged person could rise so high in politics, in this country?

    But it happened with the help of unlimited financial resources and various ego maniacs ganging up together to use one another. If council does not pull together on Wednesday to remove RF, then we will have gotten what we deserve.

  • Mark Spark

    Do you even know what a neocon is? Do you think Rob Ford checks with Washington and Tel Aviv before he decides to privatize garbage collection?

 

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