Analysis

What we can learn from Doug Ford's days on Toronto city council

PC leader remembered as a 'ruthless' and 'jovial' city councillor with a focus on cost-cutting and a penchant for picking fights.

PC leader remembered as friendly yet 'ruthless' city councillor who focused on cost-cutting

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford was a Toronto city councillor from 2010 to 2014 during the tumultuous mayoralty of his younger brother. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

As Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford criss-crosses the province on the campaign trail, making promises about the tax cuts and efficiencies he'll bring to Ontario, voters won't be able to look to Queen's Park for proof of his priorities or track record. 

Instead, it's Ford's time at Toronto city hall that offers insight into what makes him tick.

Ford was a councillor from 2010 to 2014 during the tumultuous mayoralty of his younger brother, the late Rob Ford. Now, some his former council colleagues recall him being a "ruthless" local politician with a constant focus on cost-cutting, a penchant for picking fights, and a personality that switched between "jovial" and "mean."

Others compliment his business-oriented emphasis on looking after the city's citizens the way he would serve his customers, saying he's someone who "knows how to deliver."

Either way, how Ford would run Ontario, many critics and supporters say, can be traced back directly to his four years within the province's largest municipal government.

His focus on cost-cutting

Ford's rhetoric during this year's provincial campaign has been marked by talk of slashing taxes and hydro bills, and a focus on government finances that echoes his time on city council.

Coun. Glenn De Baeremaeker, who spent four years a seat away from Ford in Toronto's clamshell-shaped council chambers, believes Ford looks at government like a business, and says his political style is to "contract out everything."

Indeed, as a councillor, Ford was well known for pushing cost-cutting measures like contracting out garbage pickup and building cleaners — efforts hearkening back to his time running his family's company, Deco Labels & Tags, where he aimed to streamline the business.

"During our time at city hall, we made several changes, we made improvements all along the line... but nobody was laid off or thrown to the curb," said Doug Holyday, a former councillor who has known Ford since 1994 and supports his run for premier. 

PC leader Doug Ford, right, was a city councillor from 2010 to 2014, during the mayoralty of his late brother Rob Ford, left. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Ford insisted on finding efficiencies in every single city department, echoes Etobicoke Coun. Vincent Crisanti, also a longtime friend of the Ford family.

Ford was focused on "customer service," be it returning resident phone calls or making visits to people's homes, Crisanti adds, a philosophy he says is rooted in a respect for taxpayers.

"Doug knows how to deliver what he says he's going to deliver," he said.

However, one of the cost-cutting measures supported in 2011 — an external audit of city services — has long been criticized for costing millions. 

Soon after, Ford raised some residents' eyebrows and garnered support from others over his talk of proposed cuts to city libraries as the city grappled with a $774 million deficit in the next year's budget.

His remarks that he would close a library branch in his own ward "in a heartbeat" also led to a very public spat with Margaret Atwood.

Torontonians react to Coun. Doug Ford's dismissal of author Margaret Atwood and her call to save public libraries. Stephanie Matteis reports. 2:31

His love of business deals

Cost-cutting wasn't the only example of Ford's corporate sensibilities on council.

Whether he was championing the notion of a massive Toronto waterfront redevelopment project, funded by the private sector and featuring a ferris wheel and monorail, or pitching the idea of bringing an NFL team to the city through corporate cash, Ford was known for listening to lobbyists and trying to make business deals.

In one case, Ford's business interests clashed with his council role — and landed him in hot water. After Ford left council, the city's integrity commissioner found he broke council rules by trying to help several companies with ties to his family business in their dealings with the city.

Some say Ford's business leanings are coupled with a frustration for typical political processes. 

"I don't think he enjoys the cut and thrust of debate because, as a business person, he wants to get all the facts out on the table and make a decision as quickly as possible," said Coun. Norm Kelly.

"And the circuitous routes that politicians and civil servants take to arrive at policy, I think he finds frustrating."

He was also accused of using the money he made through his family business to further his political career, after being filmed by CBC Toronto handing out $20 bills to some of the city's public housing residents in 2013.

The same week, he waded into a similar controversy with a plan to donate $50,000 of his own money to revitalize multiple city parks.

Coun. Doug Ford says he's sorry if he offended anyone by handing out cash. 1:29

His 'jovial' yet 'ruthless' personality

Councillors also remember Ford for his big personality, one his former colleagues describe as warm and friendly at times, and mean and cutting at others.

On one hand, Ford was typically "jovial," the type of councillor who liked to kid around, De Baeremaeker recalls. The pair bonded over being vegetarians during their time on council together, he adds, with Ford explaining at the time that he'd stopped eating meat after working in a slaughterhouse when he was younger.

"Things that he saw impacted him, and he had compassion," De Baeremaeker said.

On the flip side, Ford was known for personal attacks. Many members of council debate and disagree, notes councillor Josh Matlow. "But rarely does it get to the level that Doug Ford would get to, where it would just get sort of personal and mean," he said.

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam, who worked alongside Ford, says he was a friendly guy with fellow councillors, but could be 'intolerant' and 'ruthless.' (CBC)

Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam feels similarly, saying Ford was a generally a friendly guy who could also be "intolerant" and "ruthless," particularly when trying to get his way.

In one instance, Ford was reprimanded by the city's integrity commissioner and told to apologize for using "intimidating language" with an activist, as CBC Toronto reported in 2012.

He also sparked controversy with comments about an Etobicoke home for teens with autism, saying it was ruining the community.

Even Ford's own brother wasn't spared his sharp tongue.

In his book Mayor Rob Ford: Uncontrollable, Mark Towhey — former chief of staff to the late former mayor — said Doug Ford publicly mocked his younger sibling during the pair's weight-loss challenge at city hall, in which the elder Ford wound up losing more pounds.

Doug Ford came under fire as a councillor for handing out $20 bills to public housing residents. CBC Toronto filmed the incident in 2013. (CBC Toronto)

His penchant for picking fights

Ford was also known for his combative nature during his time on city council, and he "didn't mind having enemies," wrote Towhey.

"[Doug Ford] liked fighting, maybe even more than he liked winning," Towhey continued.

"Given the choice between fighting an impossible battle at City Hall or sidestepping the fray and achieving victory in a less confrontational way, he usually chose the fight."

The chaotic 2013 meeting to limit his younger brother's powers as mayor amid his crack cocaine scandal was no exception.

During the chaotic 2013 meeting to limit his younger brother's powers as mayor, then-councillor Doug Ford traded barbs with onlookers in the packed council chambers and snapped at a fellow councillor. (CBC Toronto)

Ford traded barbs with onlookers in the packed council chambers — an "ugly scene," CBC Toronto city hall reporter Jamie Strashin said at the time — and at one point snapped at a fellow councillor who'd been caught drinking and driving, saying, "You've got your own issues."

Ford's public feud with former police chief Bill Blair the following year also made headlines.

The elder Ford had accused Blair of leaking information about his younger brother to the media and painted Blair's subsequent threat of a defamation suit as an act of revenge.

Ford later apologized.

Bill Blair, right, who was chief of police at the time, demanded a retraction and apology from Doug Ford, who suggested Blair leaked to the media information about a subpoena involving Mayor Rob Ford. (CBC, Chris Young/Canadian Press)

But through all his feuds, victories, and scandals, one thing remained clear: Ford's populist appeal resonated with many Toronto residents across the city during his four years on council.

That support led him to win a third of the vote — 330,600 ballots — during his unsuccessful 2014 run for mayor.

About the Author

Lauren Pelley

City Hall reporter

Lauren Pelley is a CBC reporter in Toronto covering city hall and municipal affairs. Contact her at: lauren.pelley@cbc.ca