Toronto Mayor Rob Ford enjoys the pedigree of conservative political family
Ford wins followers by cutting government spending and keeping taxes down
He and his brother, also a city council member, use media to shape their message
Their rags-to-riches father began a business, served in Ontario's parliament
Though he champions the overtaxed little guy, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford grew up with wealth and political advantage under a family fortune made in the industrial tagging and labeling business, founded by his rags-to-riches father who was also a provincial parliament member.
Recent allegations aside about drugs and sex, Ford’s politics are built on a conservative populism to end what he calls gravy-train spending at City Hall – an agenda advanced by his recently discontinued AM-radio talk show and expected to be resurrected under a new TV show he’ll begin next week with his brother, who’s also a Toronto City Council member.
With such a family pedigree and use of mass media, the mayor of Canada’s largest city enjoys a following in Canadian politics that has its own special name: the Ford Nation.
Add in Ford’s admission of smoking crack cocaine and excessive alcohol use, his apology about being lewd on live television when denying he sought to give a female staffer oral sex, his street-fighter bombast in confronting endless controversies – and Canada is home to a mayor the likes of which few in the world have ever seen.
“The weirdest mayoralty ever” is how Toronto Life magazine described his tenure in a profile in 2012.
“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,” the magazine wrote.
Kory Teneycke, vice president of the Sun News Network that will broadcast the mayor’s and his brother’s new show next week, was also direct about the mayoral saga: “It’s one of the most interesting stories in the world right now.” The TV show will be called, not surprisingly, “Ford Nation.”
The life of this sensational mayor originated with an upper-middle-class upbringing in a six-bedroom house with a full-sized swimming pool and gardens for family soirees attended by hundreds of guests. His father, Doug Ford Sr., built Deco Labels & Tags into a $100-million family business in Toronto with U.S. locations in Chicago and New Jersey. With their wealth, the clan gained clout with the Ontario province’s Progressive Conservative Party.
If Ford’s politics tilt toward the rough-and-tumble, maybe football had something to do with it.
With the fireplug physique of a center, Ford played that position on his high school football team and then played as an offensive lineman at Carleton University at Ottawa. He dreamed of going pro, but those plans fizzled and he ended up dropping out of college.
In one sign of privilege, his late father sent Rob – the youngest of his four children – to summer U.S. football camps run by the Washington Redskins and the University of Notre Dame.
Working on a dynasty
For the Fords, politics became a family affair – with dynastic ambitions.
Part of that building has been a heavy emphasis on being accessible to constituents: Mayor Ford even gives out his cell phone number to voters, to call him any time about problems with city services or taxes.
He eschews a chauffeur and other city perks, all in the name of keeping spending down for the average taxpayer. He’s even been photographed reading work documents while driving on an expressway.
“I don’t believe in wasting taxpayer’s money,” he later said about the controversial photo.
It’s been no secret in Canadian politics that Mayor Ford, 44, has fancied becoming Canada’s prime minister one day. And his lookalike big brother on the Toronto City Council has expressed dreams of becoming premier of the province of Ontario.
“The one thing the Ford brothers do well is on-the-ground politicking,” Canadian political analyst Supriya Dwivedi said. “They are excellent politicians, and have such a strong following because they really are the ‘if you have a problem, call me’ type of politician. And every year, Rob hosts a barbeque known as Ford Fest for his supporters. So although their family wealth and political influence surely helped, it was their on-the-ground political muscle that got them elected.”
Before becoming Toronto’s 64th mayor in 2010, Ford served for 10 years on the city council, composed of 44 members each representing a ward.
When it comes to the wheeling-and-dealing of ward politics, the Fords are masters of Etobicoke. That’s the suburban Toronto community where Mayor Ford was born and raised, and he has never strayed from it.
As a councilor, he represented a portion called Etobicoke North, which older brother Doug now represents. It’s a community where 47% of its residents report English as their mother tongue, but Italian, Punjabi, Spanish and Somali each amount to roughly 5% of the ward’s native languages, city figures show. Half of the ward residents live in free-standing houses, much higher than the city average of 38%.
Ford’s father was also a member of Ontario’s provincial parliament from 1995 to 1999, and his district included Etobicoke. Even Ford’s wife, Renata, also is a lifelong resident of the area, and the couple, along with their children Stephanie and Douglas, continue to reside there.
Upon winning his first election, Rob Ford immediately garnered a reputation for keeping taxes and city expenses down.
In 2001, he advocated cutting limousines as a city perk and slashing each councilor’s $200,000 budget, used for travel and club memberships.
“If we wiped out the perks for council members, we’d save $100 million easy,” he said, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail.
By 2002, however, the budget-cutting became nasty.
In one council meeting, Ford angered other councilors when they allegedly overheard him call Italian-Canadian Councilor George Mammoliti a “Gino-boy.”
Mammoliti said the remark slurred him and the city’s large Italian population.
Ford denied ever saying it and portrayed himself as a victim of a left-wing conspiracy. The name-calling allegedly included Mammoliti calling Ford a goon, and Ford calling Mammoliti a scammer.
“I’m a conservative, and the majority of people are left-wing and cannot stand my politics,” Ford said, according to the Globe and Mail.
It was the beginning of Ford’s many headline-grabbing controversies in City Hall.
In 2006, then-Councilor Ford offended the gay community when he questioned $1.5 million for an anti-AIDS program: “It is very preventable,” Ford said about the disease, according to City News Toronto. “If you are not doing needles and you are not gay, you wouldn’t get AIDS probably, that’s bottom line.”
When then-Mayor David Miller pointed out that women were the biggest growing group for AIDS, Ford responded: “How are women getting it? Maybe they are sleeping with bisexual men.”
In 2008, he offended the Asian community when he said during a city council meeting: “Those Oriental people work like dogs. They work their hearts out. They are workers nonstop. They sleep beside their machines. That’s why they’re successful in life…. I’m telling you, the Oriental people, they’re slowly taking over,” according to City News Toronto.
Several Asian-Canadian residents protested by holding a sit-in at City Hall. Ford promised to make individual apologies, but wouldn’t make any apologies in City Hall.
Ford finds support with fiscal promises
None of those controversies deterred Ford from running for mayor in 2010. He drew crowds of young conservatives and middle-aged residents fed up with taxes. They all liked his fiscal promises, including cutting the 44-member city council in half.
His “bottom line and customer service” focus promised to keep buses, trains, and garbage collection on schedule.
It worked. Ford won easily.
But this year, the pugnacious Ford has encountered a controversy that has proved to be more than just political back-and-forth.
Last May, allegations emerged that Ford appeared to be smoking crack cocaine on a pipe, with the incident reportedly captured in a cell phone video taken months earlier in the winter.
The Toronto Star reported the video shows Ford trading jibes with an off-camera subject, talking about politics and a high school football team that Ford coaches.
“I’m f—ing right wing,” Ford seems to say on the video, the newspaper reported. “Everyone expects me to be right wing.”
The newspaper also said that the mayor appeared to refer to the players on the football team as “just f—ing minorities.”
In the subsequent months, Ford denied he smoked crack. And he refused to step down from office.
Then, this month, after relentless media coverage, Ford finally admitted he smoked crack cocaine.
That admission could have ended the controversy, but it only grew.
More than 500 pages of court documents were released recently, and they showed how Canadian police were investigating Alexander Lisi, Ford’s friend, for alleged marijuana possession and trafficking. Lisi also served as Ford’s occasional driver.
The documents also revealed an allegedly unsavory side to the mayor’s office: staffers said Ford directed them to buy him alcohol. In one incident, Ford was behind the wheel, stopped, guzzled some vodka, and drove on, one former staffer alleged.
Another staffer described how Ford allegedly asked him to do odd jobs at the mayor’s house: change light bulbs on the front lawn, change batteries in kids’ toys, buy diet Coke for the mayor’s wife.
One staffer alleged the mayor brought an escort or prostitute to the mayor’s office.
Even the mayor’s former press secretary, George Christopoulos, alleged women often came to the mayor’s office, “and told staffers that they have smoked a joint with the mayor on the street outside of the bar. These women were told by the mayor that they could have a job.” Christopoulos would then have to interview these women and try to talk them out of a job.
Ford has denied all the allegations, saying they’re lies. None of the allegations against Ford has been substantiated by authorities, and he faces no criminal charges.
On the same day that the documents were released, the Toronto City Council asked for Ford to take a leave of absence. He said no. His brother blamed the storm on how opponents wanted to win the mayor’s race next year.
“I have made a mistake. I am human,” Mayor Ford said. “I apologize. I want to move on.”
But events took a lewd turn the next day when the mayor was interviewed by a mob of reporters on live television.
Denying the staffers’ allegations, he said he was taking legal action against them.
He then singled out one accusation that he sought to perform oral sex on a female staffer. In his self-defense, Ford used graphic language on camera and then abruptly ended the impromptu press conference. The vulgarity made headlines.
Moments later, he held another press conference and apologized for his language, adding he has been under tremendous stress.
By Friday, however, the Toronto City Council had enough of Ford: they voted 39-3 to take away the mayor’s ability to appoint and dismiss committee chairs and then voted 41-2 to strip him of power to govern in an emergency– unprecedented maneuvers designed to bring the mayor under control.
The council actions have now propelled Ford to do something he pledged never to do.
He says he will now launch a legal fight that will cost taxpayers “an arm and a leg.”