Rob Ford can’t fight city hall - Macleans.ca

Rob Ford can’t fight city hall

His enemies roused, his brother a liability, Canada’s toughest mayor comes undone

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You can't fight city hall
Photograph by Cole Garside

The Saturday after the worst week in Rob Ford’s political life, the mayor of Toronto and his councillor brother Doug attended the inaugural game of Toronto’s new women’s lingerie football team, the Toronto Triumph, in which players wear bras, hot pants, garters and shoulder pads, and for which Doug’s daughter Krista is captain. “How these puppies are going to stay in place beats me,” Krista, in her early 20s, wrote before the game on Twitter, an apparent reference to her breasts. “All I care about is: not missing a single tackle & leaving it all.”

The Triumph lost badly, 48-14, to the Tampa Bay Breeze. For the Fords, the losses did not end there. Bad news has dogged them for weeks, a situation so intriguing to many Torontonians that it often pushes Ontario’s provincial elections off the city’s front pages. Much of that fascination has to do with the intense culture war under way between the Fords and Toronto’s downtown elite. If Krista’s LFL—the Lingerie Football League—is the most powerful symbol of the conflict, it is by no means the only one. No politician in recent Canadian history has had as polarizing an effect as Mayor Ford and his brother Doug, generating an industry of Tweedledum and Tweedledee caricatures and promoting a level of civic engagement at city hall not seen in years.

Ford, who secured an improbable election win by promising to deliver a stripped-down Toronto—one free of graffiti, a Toronto of roads, perhaps some police, lower taxes and little else—has been stopped in his tracks by the city’s old order. His story is a morality tale that plays more like farce. It would be funny if it were not such a powerful lesson in the staying power of civic vested interests and the Sisyphean challenge of changing a city.

As much of the blame lies with Doug Ford, whose public musings have derailed Mayor Ford’s agenda more than once. Saying he’d shutter library branches in a “heartbeat” gave the unions exactly the sort of combustible materials required to galvanize public opinion and muster new forces for marches on city hall. The vision he articulated for the Port Lands, a decrepit stretch of industrial waterfront in Toronto’s east end, drew out the city’s elites from both the left and right of the political spectrum. The Fords didn’t have a chance.

The result now is a wedge of political necessity driven between Rob and Doug Ford, brothers so close they call each other by the same nickname—Jones—and communicate with a silent, non-verbal ease. Ford has seen his approval numbers drop—only 27 per cent of Torontonians would vote for Ford if an election were held tomorrow*, if you believe a poll paid for by CUPE Local 79, which represents city workers. To smooth the Port Lands kerfuffle, Rob has had to collaborate with the David Miller contingent on council that he built a political career despising and promising to undo. Doug, meanwhile, is rarely seen in the corridors of city hall unsupervised, so fearful are his handlers he might freelance anew.

In the days following the Triumph football game, Rob and Doug, dubbed the “twin Ford mayors” by literary icon Margaret Atwood, suffered twin defeats: the mayor climbed down from a number of budget cuts he’d been contemplating, including on libraries, child-care spots and a suburban perk that plows snowbanks from driveways in a handful of Toronto’s outer regions. Here, for many, was demonstration Ford was not prepared to go through with a good portion of his cost-cutting agenda—that he’d lost his resolve to honour his campaign promise and stanch the flow of “gravy” at city hall. Worse, he delivered the news after an all-night, 20-hour committee meeting that left him sounding hoarse and defeated. “I understand some people are very upset at me,” he told the room: “You can ridicule me, you can call me names—that’s fine.” Just the next day, wobbly support among Ford’s council allies on that Port Lands file forced him to lean on his left-wing opposition and cobble together a compromise.

Ford had no choice but to reach for consensus: elites on the left, like Richard Florida, and on the Red Tory right, like former mayor David Crombie, were agitating against him, and even members of his own executive committee had signalled they’d not vote his way. It was a shambles.

Whatever the recent troubles, however, many long-time observers speak of the Ford administration with grudging respect—if for no other reason than because it continues to leave them unsure of whether Ford is incompetent, or merely cultivates the appearance. The same question hovered over the election, which the mayor went on to win handily. “Lucky don’t make you smart,” quips long-time councillor Joe Mihevc, a progressive, of the victory. In an interview with Maclean’s on Monday, Ford insisted he’s maintained much of the popularity that saw him win the election with a 47 per cent share of the vote, and rejected suggestions his recent talk of “efficiencies” rather than “cuts” indicated the populist straight talker had lapsed into the weasel rhetoric of the politician: “I don’t want to toot my own horn here, but if there was an election today I’m very confident I’d get 60 per cent or more of the vote,” said Ford. In a series of votes during a contentious council session on Tuesday, Ford managed to push a few things through, including nixing requirements for police at city construction sites and approval to sell Toronto’s zoo; he even scrapped the Christmas Bureau, which facilitates the distribution of gifts to poor children. All, it must be said, to middling cost-cutting effect. “I was elected to clean up the mess and that’s exactly what we’ve done and I’ve done a lot in a very short period of time,” he says. Maybe. Still, it’s worth asking—what happened to Rob Ford? In his first six months he surprised many by quickly scrapping an unpopular car tax, killing former mayor Miller’s transit plan, and passing a budget that included no new taxes. He moved on outsourcing garbage pickup—a sore point for Torontonians still irked by Miller’s handling of a 2009 garbage strike—and made the TTC an essential service.

All this from a guy many predicted would generate gridlock on council. Emboldened, he went on to threaten Liberal Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty with Ford Nation, saying his followers could topple him if he didn’t cough up more money for the city. Although during his campaign he promised that “services will not be cut—guaranteed,” Ford now approached his cost-cutting mission with unsentimental enthusiasm, such as announcing that he’d only take two giant pandas from China if the private sector paid. His agenda even garnered death threats, somehow adding to his moral authority.

As recently as August, Ford appeared alongside Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a BBQ home movie shot at Ford’s mother’s home. “Rob endorsed us in the election—that helped a lot,” Harper said, praising Ford for “cleaning up the NDP mess” in Toronto and adding he’d like to see the municipal and federal conservative triumphs joined by one in Ontario to complete the “hat trick.” Weeks later, Ontario Tory Leader Tim Hudak cozied up to the mayor at yet another BBQ, the annual Ford Fest family event that saw members of Ford Nation wearing commemorative T-shirts and one of Doug’s daughters performing daring feats of balance. Hudak no longer seeks Ford’s support, such is the recent reversal of the mayor’s fortune.

So much has happened over the nine months of Rob Ford’s mayoralty, it’s easy to forget how quickly he set the tone of his administration—with Don Cherry, in a fuchsia blazer patterned with palm fronds, delivering a blistering speech at his inauguration (Ford appeared to wear his jacket sleeves tucked into his French cuffs and beamed from the lectern like a boy in his first suit). “I’m wearing pinko for all the pinkos out there that ride bicycles,” Cherry bellowed.

Brashness like that would become a hallmark of Ford’s first months as mayor. His team, a small cadre of campaign insiders with little experience in municipal politics, worked city council with steely precision. Nick Kouvalis, the tough conservative operator whose nimble campaign is credited with snagging Ford’s election win, briefly stayed on as chief of staff. Under Kouvalis, the Ford regime hammered together an executive committee that drew in rookies as well as seasoned councillors who’d felt shut out by Miller—13 votes. To push through Ford’s agenda, they’d need to reach the magic number of 23, 10 more votes from the “mushy middle” of political centrists.

Although vote whipping is routine in city politics, the Ford regime has been something of a different order. The mayor’s staff distributes so-called “cheat sheets” to its council allies detailing how to vote. These are drafted by policy director Mark Towhey, a crisis management consultant whose resumé includes a recent stint training border police in Afghanistan. Stories of aggressive pressure abound. Dissenters have seen routine motions quashed by Ford allies. “I felt bullied, to be candid with you,” Josh Matlow, a centrist councillor, told Doug Ford on a radio program Matlow hosts about city politics. “Oh come on Josh—get off it,” replied Doug. “I don’t believe in supporting someone that doesn’t support us,” Doug told him. “All of a sudden it’s like I feel sort of shoved into some weird underworld movie,” Matlow later recalled.

The Ford team’s handling of public deputations on budget cuts has been similarly tightly scripted. By holding the meetings, which attracted hundreds of people, including many activists, in a small committee room rather than council chambers, city officials were able to divide the crowd and house the overflow in spaces around city hall. News photographers complained they could not get the shots their editors wanted: a large, rancorous crowd. Yet pooling the various activists together in separate rooms where they could cheer and chat promoted a level of organizing that likely would not have happened otherwise. Some activist groups went as far as using the overflow areas as training centres for inexperienced deputants. The two meetings, which lasted 20 hours or more and which were broadcast on television and the Internet, became excellent theatre—dubbed the “people’s filibuster” by anti-Fordists—and probably fuelled the granola backlash against the mayor by uniting disparate elements and causes, from moms to union workers to crossing guards. Ford’s team had been too clever by half.

Ford’s media strategy has been both intermittently smart and remarkably odd. His itinerary, a yawn-worthy press release under previous mayors, is a closely guarded secret (“It’s pretty hard to hide 300 lb. of fun,” Ford has said to charges he hides from media). The mayor and his staff have almost never spoken on the record to the Toronto Star since that paper printed an article quoting two unnamed sources who described a confrontation between Ford, a long-time high school football coach, and a player. Ford disputes the story and wants a front-page apology. Star reporters covering city hall are forced to crib from press releases sent to competing news outlets, and citing Ford staffers’ refusals to speak. “We do not talk to the Toronto Star,” the paper quoted Ford spokeswoman Adrienne Batra not long ago. The antagonisms between the Ford camp and the press extend beyond the local paper. When, during an interview with the mayor, CTV reporter Naomi Parness brought up a story detailing allegations by a Toronto mother that Ford had given her the finger while driving and using a cellphone, Ford began to laugh uproariously on camera. Batra cut the interview short. “NO! NO! No, you’re done,” she told Parness from off camera, her hand suddenly in the frame, even as Ford continued laughing. “See, you won’t be able to use it, because I’m just going to keep talking,” said Batra. CTV quickly ran the clip. During a press conference soon after, when Parness attempted to ask a question, Batra aggressively ignored her. The tactic misfired when reporters refused to ask questions until Ford handled the CTV query.

Batra tends to limit these scrums to three minutes and generally grants long-form interviews to friendly talk-radio hosts or to Sue-Ann Levy, a Toronto Sun columnist who occasionally guest-hosts on Sun TV. Indeed, an early sign that Ford’s support might be faltering came when the mayor appeared on NewsTalk 1010 with host Jerry Agar, a talk-radio venue with a populist bent and ostensibly a safe place for Ford. Agar surprised many by torpedoing Ford, asking: “Very directly, the No. 1 question I think being asked . . . where’s the gravy?”

One consequence of Ford’s public reticence has been the emergence of a popular Toronto parlour game: surmising who speaks for the mayor and who really does his thinking. The extent to which Kouvalis, who left as chief of staff early this year, continues to speak for the Fords is an open question (his firm, Campaign Research, has taken as a client the firefighters’ union, which is facing cuts in the current budget process). Policy director Mark Towhey is widely referred to as Ford’s “Rasputin.” Yet the Port Lands upset has essentially removed Doug Ford from this parlour game; he no longer speaks for Rob.

What a reversal. Long seen by outsiders as the wide shoulders of Mayor Ford’s team, Doug is now acknowledged by those close to the mayor as his greatest liability—a view some members of Ford’s team found it convenient to shop around to media outlets last week once it became clear Doug’s vision for the Port Lands wouldn’t pass. An emissary of the mayor’s even delivered that spin to the Star, Ford’s nemesis: “I think it’s not a secret to say that Doug has been a big problem for everyone.” The Ford team’s media tactic ruthlessly de-couples the waterfront fiasco from the mayor, jettisoning the discredited plan along with Doug, who sat motionless and silent throughout the unanimous bipartisan vote that scrapped his vision—“I would liken him to a puppy that’s been kicked,” says one councillor on the mayor’s executive committee. The controversy proved a useful way to disentangle the two brothers in the public imagination—their identities had blurred too much together, clouding Rob Ford’s message.

Left-leaning councillor Shelley Carroll, a budget chief under Miller, describes Doug marching through city hall for his smoke breaks accompanied by members of the mayor’s staff or his own executive assistant. “He does not walk around this building unescorted—ever—anymore,” she says. “It feels a lot like they’re concerned with what he might say while unsupervised.” In fact, Doug has told fellow councillors he’s come to see his city hall term as a prison sentence and has no intention of running again. “Another three years and I’m outta here,” he remarked to one colleague last week. (Doug did not respond to requests for an interview. “No, this is crazy stuff,” Mayor Ford told Maclean’s when queried on the topic.)

One media report went so far as to suggest the Port Lands vote had exposed a rift between the brothers. “It’s laughable,” says the mayor. “Doug’s my best friend. We’re very, very tight. Some brothers don’t get along. We love each other past the point of love. So when I heard that, like, we called each other up and just literally started howling on the phone.”

Still, for whatever reason, Rob and Doug were not together later on the night of the Toronto Triumph game, after Krista Ford’s team lost—one Ford defeat among many. Something had separated the two, those twin Ford mayors. A TTC passenger travelling into Toronto’s western hinterlands not far from Rob Ford’s suburban home spotted the mayor and snapped his photograph. Rob Ford looked into the lens and shrugged.

*The original version of this story included incorrect results from the CUPE Local 79-sponsored poll.