Examining Rob Ford's political career

05306450.jpg Toronto Mayor Rob Ford addresses media at City Hall in Toronto, Tuesday, Nov.5, 2013. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

First aired on The Sunday Edition (10/11/13)

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford made headlines worldwide last week. The media storm first arose with his admission that he had smoked crack, after repeatedly denying the existence of a video that showed him doing that, and continued when he was forced to apologize after an embarrassing video was made public showing an inebriated Ford swearing and threatening to kill someone.

In a recent episode, The Sunday Edition examined Ford's career as a politician and the strong influence that his family, including his brother, City Councillor Doug Ford, has had on him. Host Michael Enright spoke with two Toronto writers who are close observers of the local political scene and have covered the mayor extensively: Marci McDonald, author of "The Incredible Shrinking Mayor," a profile of Rob Ford published in Toronto Life magazine; and Edward Keenan, senior editor of the Toronto weekly magazine the Grid and author of Some Great Idea: Good Neighbourhoods, Crazy Politics, and the Invention of Toronto.

Michael Enright first asked if there was any precedent anywhere for the mayor's behaviour. McDonald said she started out as a reporter with the Toronto Star at a time when the mayor was Allan Lamport. "We thought he was larger than life, but Rob Ford is larger than life in every sense of the word," she said, adding, "Ford is perfectly suited to our times of reality shows. He outdoes the Osbournes, the Kardashians, and it's unfolding on the public stage."

"Elements of this story have precedents elsewhere," Keenan said, citing Marion Barry, who was caught smoking crack when he was mayor of Washington D.C., and George W. Bush, who presented himself as a man of the people even though he came from great wealth. But he also commented that Ford's "obstinate refusal to back down seems to me to be unprecedented."

McDonald pointed out that "this is a family business, a family mayoralty." In researching the Toronto Life profile, McDonald found that Rob, who was the youngest in the Ford family, never really fit in at the family company, Deco Labels & Tags, and never did well at school. He looked up to his father, Doug Ford Senior, who "was both adored and feared in the family. He ruled with an iron fist." 

Doug Senior served one term in the Mike Harris government, and didn't distinguish himself. He was defeated in a nomination battle when he attempted to run for re-election, but remained loyal to the party. He became friends with federal finance minister Jim Flaherty, who was a Conservative MPP at the time. Flaherty went on to become "almost a surrogate father" to Ford, according to McDonald.

In a column in The Grid, Keenan wrote that Rob Ford was trying to run the city like a family business. "As a city councillor, he considered his primary job to be returning phone calls and visiting people with city staff for all their constituency-related concerns," he said. Even once he became mayor, Ford took the approach that "he will personally trouble-shoot your problem," and "any problem can be solved by a stern word from the boss."

McDonald said that Ford regarded doing constituency work as similar to his role at Deco, which was to talk to clients, and keep them happy. "That's how he saw business, and that's how he sees politics."

Keenan added that Ford's former chief of staff Mark Towhey described trying to get the mayor to focus on an upcoming debate at City Council, and instead "he was obsessing whether people's phone calls had been returned."

McDonald's impression of Ford is that he is "extremely shy, in social situations." But paradoxically, he also "loves attention," she said. "That is part of what he has loved about being mayor."

When the Star and the Globe broke stories about the Ford's past, they confirmed rumours that had been around the family for years. "There were rumours always about the past, and there was fear, fear from councillors" when he was still a councillor, McDonald said. One councillor confided in her about being threatened by people around Ford, but wouldn't allow the story to be made public. "There was always a sense that there was a dark side, a muscular side to the Fords' power."

When asked if there's a difference between Rob Ford the person and Rob Ford the politician, Keenan suggested that there's no real difference between his image as a politician and that of "the sort of slightly screw-up of a younger brother" whose foibles have to be forgiven. He went on to say that city council's approach is that they try to work with Ford despite the difficulties, and want to avoid antagonizing him or his base.

McDonald acknowledged having some sympathy for Ford. "I think there's that element in all of us as we watch this fumbling guy, this overweight guy, this not-too-smart guy," she said. "There's a pathos to it and we all want to give him the benefit of the doubt."

Keenan agreed that on the human level, "there is something you can empathize with," because "it hasn't been easy to be Rob Ford." But he added that in terms of politics, "I thought that he brought a lot of concerns to the forefront that really needed to be brought to the forefront. He was seen as the solution to a lot of the suburban problems in this city. He didn't have the solutions, but he forced a debate on a lot of those issues."

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