Rob Ford’s insatiable appetite for destruction

Nicholas Köhler on Toronto's mayor, his city--and the scandals

This article first appeared in Maclean’s in May 2013.

Rob Ford’s appetite for destruction

Brett Gundlock/Reuters

Last week, as the world discovered Rob Ford, Toronto, the city of which he is mayor, continued its struggle to understand him. Ford is like a monster delivered in a wooden crate, and Toronto has not yet entirely unpacked him. His victory in October 2010, after what even operatives in rival camps called the most sophisticated political campaign in Toronto history, is too often dismissed as the predictable outcome of massive suburban turnout at the polls. The truth is that voters across the city supported Ford, the homunculus mayor with the impish, snaggle-toothed grin: even in Ward 20, which falls within New Democrat MP Olivia Chow’s federal riding of Trinity-Spadina and is arguably one of the most progressive neighbourhoods in the country, almost a quarter of the ballots cast went to Ford. People who really should have known better—avid newspaper readers, politically astute elites—voted for Rob Ford.

There is something deeply, psychologically gratifying about his mayoralty, but the source of that satisfaction eludes probing, like an aroma that half conjures up an unplaceable memory. Ford, who turns 44 this month, is clearly a man of appetite, the embodiment of Toronto’s ravenous id struggling against the city’s notoriously well-developed, patrician inner father. In person, a near-constant lamina of sweat lends him the appearance of something that’s just crawled up from out of the ooze, half-formed and shapeless. On the second floor of city hall, near his office, a scale with the words “Mayor Ford’s Cut the Waist Challenge” emblazoned in a circus font around the dial—a relic of Ford and his councillor brother Doug’s ill-conceived weight-loss stunt—stands on display like a talisman of failures past, a celebration of excess. Ford barely lost weight, and Torontonians gleefully snapped pictures of him emerging from fast-food joints while still on the diet.

Even before that, his enormous girth could both attract and repel. Invited by his campaign handlers during the election in 2010, Maclean’s attended a Rob Ford For Mayor event at a well-known Chinese buffet, where those handlers permitted a photographer to shoot pictures of their candidate loading up his plate, then stuffing his mouth, so focused on the meal that he barely paid notice to his dining companions, members of Toronto’s Chinese community. On the night Ford won, Maclean’s asked the man who ran his campaign, the Conservative operative Nick Kouvalis, why he’d allowed this unusual photo opportunity. Kouvalis smiled and passed his hand over the crowd at Ford’s headquarters. “Look at his supporters,” he said. “They’re all overweight.”

As much because of his gaffes as because of his no-nonsense, low-cost, customer-friendly take on municipal government—respect the taxpayers, return their calls—Torontonians of all sorts thrill to Rob Ford. Those who hate him see in him everything that is wrong with their city, from the out-of-control car culture to the rabid condo development to the city’s parochial and low-brow sensibility. Those who love him see themselves in his modest comforts and earthly desires. Ford holds a mirror to the conflicted heart of this city and asks Torontonians why they would ever want to be Manhattan when instead they could be the very best of The Simpsons’ Springfield and Shelbyville combined. Yet though he sold himself to Toronto as a simple man, clearly Ford is anything but—complex, even troubled, he seeks to honour the memory of his father, a provincial politician, but just as often falls short. In his latest scandal he has taken us into the dark place at the edge of the city, a forbidden realm, and transformed himself from a harmless Mayor Quimby figure into a character from a film by David Lynch. Mayor Ford’s most recent troubles find him straddling two Torontos—the wholesome place and the den of iniquity.

Even now his fans are unmovable. On his street in Toronto’s western suburb of Etobicoke on Friday, locals complained that the media were persecuting the mayor and, with reference to the latest allegations—that Ford has smoked crack—said it did not matter much if he did.

So deep-seated is the appeal of loving Ford for supporters and reviling him for detractors that the events of the past week have achieved the heady thrill of voyeurism. There is something tribal about the urge to deny the things Ford is accused of doing, or to dance at the prospect that here, finally, is the charge that will bring him down. Allegations that Ford has smoked crack cocaine sometime in the last six months surfaced last Thursday when the U.S. gossip and media news website Gawker posted a story detailing efforts on the part of the site’s editor, John Cook, to secure an iPhone video depicting the mayor inhaling from a glass pipe, which Cook said is in the possession of a group of high-end drug dealers.

Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday gave some indication of the weight of the burden of proof Ford supporters will require when he referred to footage magicked up by some CGI whizzes in Montreal last year: “I saw a video of a bird picking up a baby on television and it turned out that it wasn’t accurate,” he said. “I guess if you stage that video then you can stage other things.” But whether it exists or not—whether it is real or not—the footage is apparently up for sale for $200,000, circumstances that triggered a number of online crowdfunding schemes, most notably one launched by Gawker itself.

When they gathered at city hall on Friday morning to await Ford’s first appearance at his office since the breaking of this, only the most recent Ford scandal, Toronto’s news reporters looked almost bored. Ford’s lack of caution has generated ever more difficult and embarrassing obstacles to his stop-the-gravy-train agenda, yet he is immune to shame. Last year, in perhaps his most serious brush with losing power, Ford found himself the focus of a conflict-of-interest case involving a vote he cast on donations he solicited from lobbyists for his football charity—a legal battle wherein he appeared as a witness and faced off against Clayton Ruby, the high-profile lawyer. That encounter suggested what the Scopes trial would have looked like had the monkey actually taken the stand: Ford adamantly held fast to a definition of conflict of interest even he cannot possibly believe, a show of convenient ignorance. A judge ordered that Ford be removed from office, a decision reversed on appeal. For this and other fiascos others might have resigned long ago; he has not.

Ford has no shame, therefore everything is permitted him, and so the reporters get bored, finding nothing that will stick. Past the phalanx of television and still cameras, in the fishbowl of the mayor’s office reception, Ford’s staff looked bored too. Soon, Holyday, the deputy mayor, captured within a bubble of camera lights and microphones, answered questions in a blasé, matter-of-fact manner: “I wouldn’t want to, I guess, have my career or my credibility resting on the words of drug dealers,” he said, an eminently sensible position. Councillor Adam Vaughan, Ford’s chief opponent, was so bored he barely addressed the issue. “He is a bad mayor because he makes bad decisions,” he said. “This has nothing to do with the latest allegations, the most recent allegations or the allegations of six months ago.”

The cameramen and photographers stationed themselves outside the elevator that opens opposite the mayor’s office, and grew alert each time it began to climb toward the second floor, readying themselves for Ford’s impending arrival. Usually it was just more media, which prompted the camera operators to boo. Then Ford’s press secretary, George Christopoulos, a former Toronto Sun reporter, appeared and, almost idly, the photographers began to shoot him instead.

When Ford did appear, the elevator doors parting inexorably to reveal that monster in the box, his handlers extracted him from the capsule and ushered him through the crush of cameras, a demonstration of surgical teamwork that Coach Ford, the football player, must have admired, but which only served to underscore the seriousness of these latest accusations. Later Ford emerged to deliver his second and, up until press time Tuesday evening, last statement on crack thus far: “Anyways, like I said this morning, these allegations are ridiculous,” he said in his brisk, distracted fashion, blaming this latest flap on his nemesis, the Toronto Star. “It’s another story with respect to the Toronto Star going after me. That’s all I’ve got to say for now.” On Tuesday, after a weekend on the lam from the press, Ford again appeared in the elevator, his back turned with contempt to the cameras and questions. Then the doors drew closed. Upstairs, he delivered an impassioned speech denouncing Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s policy on a casino he has championed for the city’s downtown. Crack cocaine, that speech seemed designed to say, wouldn’t be a topic of any Ford address today.

For observers of Toronto city hall, the Gawker story merely made public a notion that’s been making the rounds for the last year or so: that Ford has a substance-abuse problem, one that may not be limited to alcohol. (Ford’s issues with drink are well-documented, including a 1999 Florida DUI conviction that threatened to derail his mayoralty bid; in March the Star reported that he was asked to leave a gala in February over concerns he was impaired.) Former Toronto mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson’s oddly public speculation that he was on cocaine when he allegedly “grabbed my ass” in March traded on this dog-whistle backroom rumour. That background caused the Gawker story to hit the social networking website Twitter with a fury that was intense even by the red-hot standards of Toronto city hall aficionados, unleashing a pent-up desire to speak publicly of Ford’s alleged pastime for the first time. It would, you see, explain so much about his increasingly erratic behaviour, from the photo of a glistening Ford beside Thomson, half-lidded and ruddy, to the way he left a community council meeting this month to attach campaign fridge magnets to cars parked outside.

But something else was driving the conversation too: Ford’s image was now bouncing off the warped, carnivalesque mirror of U.S. big media—first Gawker, then CNN, Fox, the New York Times—reflecting the city’s misbehaving mayor back toward Toronto the Good. More than one Toronto daily had for months been sitting on the results of energetic investigative reporting into Ford’s private life, which for the most part—the Star excepted—they did not run. With Gawker’s exposé suddenly up online, the Star, which has dogged Ford’s mayoralty in a manner that recalls the evangelist zeal of the great newspapers of old, rushed its own story based on claims that two of its reporters, Kevin Donovan and Robyn Doolittle, viewed the alleged video weeks before.

For Toronto readers there was something undeniably compelling about Cook’s Gawker account, written with the keen fresh eye of a non-resident. The Gawker story reads like vivid travel literature, a glimpse into the exotic soul of a Toronto many here don’t know or give much thought to, and which exists on the inner suburban fringes outside the downtown core. A vertigo similar to that which accompanied the gender-bending tale of NFL linebacker Manti Te’o, whose fake online girlfriend turned out to be a man, attends the Ford crack-cocaine allegations. But in Ford’s story it is the unusual collision of class, high and low, and race, white and black, that injects a taboo frisson into the mix, a Dickens novel of street drugs and F-bombs.

“Toronto is lovely,” Cook writes before detailing his time spent in the company of youths who “speak in a language other than English.” Cook doesn’t say it, but the Star story is more specific, and suggests that these men are active in the hardscrabble Dixon Road and Kipling Avenue area of west Toronto, a 10-minute drive northwest of Ford’s lushly situated Etobicoke home, and that the language Cook heard was likely Somali. Cook and the Star also published a photograph they said was supplied by these men of Ford posing with three apparent youths, one of whom appears to be Anthony Smith, a 21-year-old Seneca College student who died in March with two bullets in the back of his head. Ford, who is seen in the picture grinning like a rambunctious child—apparently more comfortable than Ford, who is unaccountably shy, ever looks at city hall or in the midst of a crowd of his supporters—reinforcing the impression he is travelling in an underworld. “Smith was, according to our tipster, a kid from the same neighbourhood as the dealers who service Ford, and the photo was taken while Ford was going to the neighbourhood to purchase and smoke crack cocaine,” Cook writes.

Here, then, is a portrait of a wealthy and powerful white man, the mayor of North America’s fourth-largest city and heir to Deco Labels and Tags, a successful business begun by his father, Doug, with his arm around a black youth who died in a gang-related shooting and who can be seen extending his middle finger to the camera. The photograph shocks in part because it depicts Ford, mayor of the surface Toronto of tall glass buildings and urban elites, travelling in a gangland netherworld, lost somewhere in the sprawl of Dixon and Kipling or of such inner Toronto suburbs as Rexdale, where much of the city’s drug crime is located. Not far away is Don Bosco Catholic Secondary School, where Ford coached the Eagles football team until this week, when the Toronto Catholic District School Board dismissed him from the position for saying during a recent television interview that his players would be dead or on drugs were it not for him.

The Gawker and Star accounts, which describe cellphone footage that three reporters say shows Ford inhaling from a glass pipe and uttering obscenities—Justin Trudeau is a “fag,” the football players he coached “just f–king minorities,” according to the Star story—link the mayor to crack cocaine, a drug with a low-rent mystique, the soma of the ghetto. That class marker goes back to the 1980s, when inexpensive crack cocaine fuelled an inner-city epidemic of crime across the U.S. that culminated in the arrest of Washington mayor Marion Barry. Since then it has morphed somewhat in the popular imagination into the vice of tabloid celebrities, of Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston. So improbable is crack’s use among white professionals, in this popular view of the drug—however misguided it may be—that the phenomenon has spawned an addiction-memoir sub-genre all its own, detailing the exploits of high-functioning or well-heeled users slumming it on the stuff (Bill Clegg, a New York literary agent, with Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, and New York Times columnist David Carr’s Night of the Gun, to name two).

If crack is an outsider drug, then the men involved in selling it, or in brokering the video footage the drug’s use allegedly occasioned, are outsiders also. The Star is oddly emphatic about the origins of the men it says control the purported footage, mentioning that they are Somali a total of five times in its first piece detailing the allegations. To use a once fashionable academic term, it is the “otherness” of the northwest Toronto men who Cook and the Star reporters describe that becomes the subtext of the news accounts. These men are portrayed as inventive operators with a flare for ensnaring powerful men. (“A lot of prominent people in Toronto purchase and enjoy crack and powder cocaine, and they all buy it from the same folks,” Cook writes in a style that may or may not be tongue-in-cheek. “Ford’s long-time friend, people on his staff, his brother, a prominent hockey analyst.”)

Outlining the contents of the footage he claims to have seen, Cook makes mention of an off-camera voice “ranting about Canadian politics in what sounds like an attempt to goad Ford”—a suggestion that the men are directing Ford in a movie he’s not aware they’re shooting, a mise-en-scène designed for maximum payoff. “Asked why they were selling the video, the man said the two who claimed ownership of the video wanted to make a change in their lives and use the money to move out west to Calgary,” write the Star’s Doolittle and Donovan, describing aspirations that make their contacts the cultural heirs to filmmaker Don Shebib’s Cape Bretoners seeking new lives in Toronto in Goin’ Down the Road.

But what of Ford? He too has always been weirdly other—a political outsider and a misfit ill at ease in polite society, traits that endear him to his base. A loner and a maverick, he is a puzzle for Toronto, both with respect to what makes him tick and to what his mayoralty means for the city. On one level, a community can’t help but be reflected in the leaders it chooses for itself. As the former Parti Québécois cabinet minister Claude Charron, whose own career exploded as the result of a shoplifting scandal, once said of the two Quebec-born titans of the 1980 referendum—the ethereal Pierre Trudeau and the earthy René Lévesque—“Trudeau is, you know, one pole of our soul, Lévesque is the other pole. Lévesque is what we are, Trudeau is what we would like to be, and we are torn between these two attractions.”

That existential interpretation of Canadian politics—political science à la Søren Kierkegaard—raises the question of in what way Mayor Rob Ford is a political embodiment of the city that put him into power. He is a base element, an expression of its remnant Anglo-Saxon past in the face of flourishing diversity, the working-class hero to a base of followers priced out of Toronto’s increasingly expensive and elite downtown core. He is the champion of a city with a yen for mediocrity—the metropolis of the Toronto Maple Leafs, interminable garbage strikes, disposable condominiums, traffic gridlock and second-class rapid transit. In many ways his mayoralty reflects Toronto’s ambivalence about becoming a world-class city, and Ford is just one generation removed from the low-rent world where he now appears to venture as a tourist and one-time football coach. His father, Doug Sr., grew up off the Danforth in east Toronto when that area was still a tough place to live. As the youngest of nine kids reared in an impoverished and fatherless home, Doug Sr. knew a childhood very similar to the kind his son Rob likes to say is common among the players on the Eagles (though Don Bosco teachers, parents and the players themselves challenge this).

In the weeks leading up to the mayoral election that Ford won so convincingly in the autumn of 2010, Kouvalis, the Conservative strategist, coached him through countless mock debates, again and again knocking Doug Sr., who died in 2006 and who Ford worships, to help his candidate curb his notoriously quick temper. It worked: Doug Sr. was the halter Kouvalis used to break Rob Ford, who went on to cool, controlled performances during the debates. In an interview with Maclean’s during the race, Ford described his father as his hero: “By far. Because he had absolutely nothing. He made himself a very successful man from absolutely nothing—he didn’t have a father, lived in government housing his whole life, and did really well for himself.”

If there’s something tribal about how rabidly Ford’s supporters stick by him, then there is something equally tribal about Ford and his interactions with people outside his family and immediate inner circle. The Fords are enveloped in a code that commands clan members to remain aloof and distant from others. Rob and his brother Doug communicate with each other in grunts and meaningful looks. “No one’s ever stood up to these guys before,” Kouvalis, explaining his approach to Rob and Doug, told Maclean’s. “I did.” Ford is, perhaps as a result, uncomfortable in a crowd, and his well-known habit of greeting strangers by presenting them with business cards feels like a distancing tactic. Journalists who sit down to interview him encounter an implacable exterior, the attitude of a man intent on betraying nothing. It has never been clear just why Ford wanted to be mayor in the first place, but the impulse must stem from that Ford family tribalism—the urge to follow through with a tightly held ethos. It must also be bound up in the way he adores the memory of his dad. “Before he passed away, he knew I was going to be mayor,” Ford told Maclean’s while still a candidate. “He said, ‘You’re what people want.’ He said that when I first got into politics. He said, ‘You’re going to be very successful.’ He had this intuition about it. I would do well at this profession.”

The inner life of a family is always a mystery, and the fallout within the Ford clan in the wake of last week’s accusations will play a crucial role in how the matter is ultimately resolved. Rob and Doug Ford have called each other by the same nicknames, Jones, since they were kids—“I don’t even know I say it, and he doesn’t even know he says it, but people overhear it sometimes,” Ford said in 2011—but Doug did not immediately come to his brother’s rescue after the Gawker and Star stories appeared. Finally, on Saturday, he made a brief comment: “I have never seen my brother involved with anything like coke,” he told Newstalk 1010 radio. Last month Doug announced he’d run as a Tory in the coming provincial election, which may account for his reticence.

The mayor’s wife, meanwhile—Renata, a slight woman with a toothy grin, with whom Ford has two children—remains an invisible presence, rarely seen in public. The Star has reported that police have attended the mayor’s house responding to domestic 911 calls, and in 2008, when he was still a councillor, a crown prosecutor withdrew charges laid against Ford of assault and uttering a threat to Renata.

“She supports me 100 per cent,” Ford told Maclean’s in 2010 during a rare discussion of his family life. “She says, ‘Ignore all that stuff.’ I feel bad because sometimes, you know, it’s embarrassing for the kids and for her. People read stuff about us. But it doesn’t bother her. She knows deep down we’re good people. I’ve never yet met a family that doesn’t have their problems. I never yet met a perfect family. Everyone’s got a problem with their brother, their sister, their mother, their father, their aunt, their uncle. You can ask anybody in this world and they could tell you a problem in their family. It’s just mine are more exposed than others, right? I live in the fishbowl.”