His drug and alcohol-fuelled antics made world headlines and engulfed a city in unprecedented controversy. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s personal and political troubles have occupied centre stage in North America’s fourth largest city since news broke that men involved in the drug trade were selling a videotape of Ford appearing to smoke crack cocaine.
Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle was one of three journalists to view the video and report on its contents in May 2013. Her dogged pursuit of the story has uncovered disturbing details about the mayor’s past and embroiled the Toronto police, city councilors, and ordinary citizens in a raucous debate about the future of the city.
Even before those explosive events, Ford was a divisive figure. A populist and successful city councillor, he was an underdog to become mayor in 2010. His politics and mercurial nature have split the amalgamated city in two. But there is far more to the story. The Fords have a long, unhappy history of substance abuse and criminal behavior. Despite their troubles, they are also one of the most ambitious families in Canada. Those close to the Fords say they often compare themselves to the Kennedys and believe they were born to lead. Regardless of whether the mayor survives the scandal, the Ford name is on the ballot in the mayoralty election of 2014.
Fast-paced and insightful, Crazy Town is a page-turning portrait of a troubled man, a formidable family and a city caught in an jaw-dropping scandal.
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Read an Excerpt
When the ballot boxes closed at 8 P.M., October 25, the night of Toronto’s 2010 municipal election, reporters braced themselves for a nail-biter. Polls showed the leading two candidates in a statistical tie. It looked as if George Smitherman, the former deputy premier of Ontario, had been able to rally a last-minute push for his candidacy, closing a twenty-five-point gap between himself and Toronto city councillor Rob Ford.
That Ford had gotten that far was a shock to most pundits. He was a populist with a temper, a knack for saying the wrong thing, dogmatic views about low taxes and small government, and social sensibilities that were significantly right of the norm. He was the dark horse in a crowded race, which everyone believed would ultimately be a coronation for Smitherman. But by the end of August, Ford had seemed uncatchable. Now, two months later, it looked like a dead heat.
I was at the Toronto Congress Centre, where Ford was scheduled to make his concession—or victory—speech. Hundreds, perhaps a thousand, of his supporters were jammed into the massive room, wearing campaign buttons and T-shirts, waving Canadian flags and “Ford for Mayor” placards. All eyes were fixed on the two giant screens that flanked the stage, tuned to the local news. Four minutes after the polls closed, Ford votes were at 31,000. Smitherman, 19,000. The crowd cheered and clapped and blew train whistles—a reference to Ford’s campaign pledge to “stop the gravy train” at City Hall. The councillor was off to a good start. But it was still early—or so I thought.
At 8:08 P.M.—eight minutes in—CP24 television network was calling it. Rob Ford would be Toronto’s next mayor. It hadn’t been close at all. The Congress Centre exploded. The screens cut to footage of Ford learning the news. He’d been watching at his mother’s home, surrounded by family, some staff, and select media. Sitting on the couch beside his wife, Renata, Ford nervously rubbed his knees while the numbers rolled in. When the projection was made, he looked shocked. Everyone jumped to their feet in celebration. Ford hugged and kissed Renata. The premier phoned to congratulate him. Then outgoing mayor David Miller. Then Smitherman.
A little more than an hour later, Ford arrived at the Congress Centre. He was mobbed like a rock star as he pushed through the crowd. People chanted his name and jostled each other trying to snap his photo. He climbed up on stage to uproarious applause. People chanted “Ford! Ford! Ford!” A supporter draped a Hawaiian lei around his neck.
Standing at the podium, Ford grinned, taking in the scene.
“Tonight,” he began, “the people of Toronto are not divided. We are united. We are united all around this call for change. If you voted for me, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. You voted for change at City Hall. You trusted me, and I will live up to your expectations—guaranteed. Four years, four years from tonight, you’ll look back and say, Rob Ford did exactly what he said he was going to do.”
He congratulated George Smitherman on a hard-fought campaign, and when some in the crowd began to boo, he admonished them. He said he looked forward to working with Smitherman and the other candidates in the future.
“To the people that didn’t vote for me, I will work hard to earn your trust. And I will deliver change that you can be proud of,” Ford said to more applause.
What kind of change? He would abolish unnecessary taxes. Cut councillor expense accounts. Make customer service a priority. And get tough with the public-sector unions on the city payroll.
“The party with taxpayers’ money is over, ladies and gentlemen. We will respect the taxpayers again. And yes, ladies and gentlemen, we will stop the gravy train, once and for all.”
WHEN I WAS SHUFFLED to the City Hall bureau from the police beat in 2010, I wasn’t sure if I was being punished. My city editor sold it as something of a promotion. I was young and energetic. Exactly what the paper needed down there, he told me enthusiastically, larding the pitch with compliments about the work I’d done the last two years covering crime. As I envisioned long days of boring committee meetings and agendas and debates about sidewalk widths and tree removal, I boxed up the contents of my office at Police Headquarters and began the grieving process. I thought my days chasing criminals were over.
It was January 2010, and the long municipal election campaign was just getting under way. In those early days, everybody thought Ontario’s cranky and openly gay former deputy premier George Smitherman, a.k.a. Furious George, was the easy winner. Up until he quit the provincial Liberal government to run for mayor, Smitherman had been the second most powerful man in Ontario politics. Now he was counting on the fact that Toronto was a liberal city. Not a single Conservative— federal or provincial—had been elected within its borders since 1999. Smitherman had name recognition, a willing electorate, and the keys to a first-class political machine. His only competition was the young hotshot chair of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), Councillor Adam Giambrone.
Giambrone was thirty-two, smart, hard-working, a devoted activist, and the successor-of-choice for retiring mayor David Miller. But hubris got the better of him before he even got started. In a profile interview for the Toronto Star, Giambrone insinuated he was married, which really upset another young woman, the one he had been dating and entertaining on his City Hall office couch. She contacted the Star, claiming Giambrone had promised her that his other relationship was just for appearances, so he’d look more established. (In fact Giambrone wasn’t married, despite what he’d told the Star.) Giambrone’s campaign collapsed, less than two weeks after he announced his candidacy. Once that happened, it looked like the only threat to Smitherman’s victory would be if popular conservative radio host John Tory jumped into the race.
Tory, a former business executive, had run for mayor in 2003 and narrowly lost to David Miller. Afterwards, he switched to provincial politics and became leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in the Ontario Legislature at Queen’s Park. Tory is a fiscal conservative with liberal values, a well-spoken businessman with a strong social conscience. In Toronto, John Tory is beloved—at least until his name hits the ballot. In 2007, Tory led his party to a disastrous showing in the provincial election after he suggested Ontario taxpayers should be subsidizing all faith-based schools—Islamic, Hindu, Jewish, etc.—since the province funded Catholic ones. Voters revolted. Tory never got beyond Opposition leader. In 2009 he moved to talk radio, which only made him more popular. Every day, callers, political strategists, and city councillors were begging him to take another shot at the mayoralty. On January 7, 2010, Tory held a press conference in the Newstalk 1010 radio station lobby. He would not be running for mayor. He cited the polarized political climate, the eagerness for some to go negative. He wanted to continue to make a contribution to the community— but outside of the political arena.
With that announcement, it seemed that the 2010 municipal election was George Smitherman’s to lose.
I’d been on the job two months when Rob Ford, the beefy conservative councillor from Toronto’s suburban west end, announced his candidacy for mayor. Like most people in Toronto, I’d heard—and watched on YouTube several times— Ford’s speech at city council in which he said “Oriental people work like dogs.” I’d read about the Maple Leafs game, when he’d been escorted from the arena by security guards after drunkenly berating a couple in the crowd. And I was the Toronto Star police reporter when Ford had been briefly charged with domestic assault. Other than that, I best knew Ford as the councillor to call if I needed an angry quote about a left-leaning policy.
Did I think Rob Ford could be mayor? It seemed like a pipe dream.
The current chief magistrate was a Harvard-educated, thoughtful environmentalist who delighted in developing and debating policy. The contrast between David Miller and Rob Ford was almost comically stark.
At fifty-one, David Miller was tall and fit, with a full head of thick ashy-blond hair. He loved to pontificate in a deep authoritative voice, talking about “city building” and “civic engagement.” To a lot of people, Miller came across as arrogant. He was a proud progressive who fed tax dollars into cycling infrastructure, social programs, and the arts. Miller posed in black leather on the front of Toronto’s premier gay magazine, fab, before the city’s annual gay pride festival.
And then there was Ford.
Ford was big. Three-hundred-and-something pounds big. His bulging two-tiered chin pushed outward and upward, jutting out his bottom lip in a way that always made it seem as if he was sneering. Ford was a fanatical right-winger who vehemently opposed community grants, green initiatives, and funding anything cultural. He devoted most of his energy to four issues: slashing office budgets for councillors; battling against community grants; doing away with perks like free food at council meetings; and firing the people in charge of watering the plants in city buildings. “At home, we water our own plants, unless you have a butler or something,” he once told council.
But there was another big difference between David Miller and Rob Ford, and it would cast each in the role of champion for one of Toronto’s two warring factions—the downtowners and the suburbanites.
In 2009, Toronto celebrated its 175th anniversary. We were a city before Canada was a country. But the Toronto we know today was a drastically different place as recently as 1997. Back then, the region was divided into six municipalities, including the much smaller old City of Toronto, the borough of East York, and four mini-cities: Etobicoke to the west, York, North York, and Scarborough in the east. Each had its own local government with its own mayor, but there was also an overarching regional body to manage issues like policing, which was headed by a chairman. This two-tiered system is how Metropolitan Toronto had been governed for four decades. But in 1997— despite intense public backlash—Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris’s provincial government voted to dissolve the five cities and one borough to form a “megacity” of close to 2.4 million residents as of January 1, 1998. The move was supposed to save money by removing duplication. Why have six finance offices when you could have one? Academics have since concluded that amalgamation was a financial failure. What it did do was drastically alter the political landscape.
Compared with people living outside Toronto’s core, downtown dwellers are more likely to rely on public transit and bicycles than cars, more likely to live in a high-rise than a house, and tend to be more liberal. It’s not surprising that these two groups, urban and suburban, have different expectations of their local government. Someone in a condo is naturally less invested in Toronto’s leaf-collection program than someone from Etobicoke who lives in a house with big trees in the yard. And it only makes sense that that Etobicoke resident cares much less about a multi-million-dollar renovation to a public square in downtown Toronto than someone who lives in a high-rise across the street. This matters at election time, because the residents of the old City of Toronto—which at the time of amalgamation had just over 650,000 residents—are greatly outnumbered. The suburbs account for three-quarters of Toronto’s current 2.8 million population.
In Rob Ford’s perfect world, a city should have wellmaintained roads free of cyclists, streetcars, and gridlock; running water; working lights; punctual, privately operated garbage collection; a well-staffed police service; and as few taxes as possible. It’s not hard to understand why this philosophy proved popular in Toronto’s suburban neighbourhoods. Why should they subsidize the Toronto International Film Festival, or the National Ballet of Canada, or the Canadian Opera Company when the people actually going to these things, all decked out in their fancy clothes, had money to burn? The downtowners, the original City of Toronto people, could wax poetic about the economic benefits of arts funding—how the return on every dollar could be leveraged to create seventeen additional dollars, how a vibrant cultural sector attracted tourists, packed restaurants, filled hotels, and got people out shopping—but in the suburbs, that all just sounded like elitist malarkey.
Remember, by the summer and fall of 2010, while much of Canada had dug itself out of economic recession, Toronto had not. Many were still out of work and scared. Unemployment was at 10.36 percent, well above the national average of 8 percent. Bankruptcies in and around Toronto were nearly triple the rate elsewhere in Canada. So when Rob Ford vowed to cut taxes without reducing services, by ending the “gravy train,” people wanted to believe him. And why not? He had been beating that drum his entire career. “Toronto has a spending problem, not a revenue problem,” he used to say.
Ford’s colleagues might have regarded him as an inarticulate bumbler who was always losing his temper, but the people who lived in his ward adored him. They loved his crusade against spending. Sure, weighed against a nine-billion-dollar operating budget, a free dinner seemed like small potatoes, but if councillors were wasting money where people could see it, what were they doing behind closed doors? Most significantly, Ford’s constituents loved how accessible he was. Ford had a reputation for personally returning residents’ phone calls, listening to their complaints, and then showing up at their door with an entourage of bureaucrats to fix a problem that would otherwise have been strangled in red tape. Councillor Ford was so good at his constituent work that people living outside of his ward started calling. So he began helping them too. It was a practice that vexed other councillors. Eventually some complained to the integrity commissioner about it, which merely strengthened the perception in some parts of Toronto that hard-working Ford was the only sane person in office. Over his ten years on council, one phone call at a time, Ford built his base of support, a group that has come to be known as Ford Nation. They’re fiercely loyal, standing by their man through every storm.
And there have been many storms to weather. There was the time in 2002 when councillors heard him call an Italian colleague a “Gino boy.” In 2005, in a disagreement about potholes, he told a councillor she was “a waste of skin.” When Ford opposed spending $1.5 million on AIDS prevention, he rationalized, “If you’re not doing needles and you’re not gay, you won’t get AIDS, probably.” Then in 2006 Ford was dragged out of that Toronto Maple Leafs game by security guards after unleashing a drunken diatribe on a couple sitting nearby. It started when the man asked Ford to quiet down. Ford turned to him: “Who the fuck do you think you are? … Are you a fucking teacher?” Then he looked to the man’s wife. “Do you want your little wife to go over to Iran and get raped and shot?” When reporters followed up, Ford initially claimed he wasn’t even at the game, apparently forgetting he’d been handing out his City Hall business cards. (This would become Ford’s play of choice in a crisis: lie and deny until someone can provide physical proof.) Most seriously, in 2008, Ford was arrested for domestic assault and uttering a death threat against his wife. The charge was dropped due to inconsistencies in Renata Ford’s testimony. When the press came knocking, Ford answered the door carrying his three-year-old daughter. He coached her to say “No comment.” That wouldn’t be the last time Ford enlisted the help of his children in times of trouble.
And yet with every scandal, Ford emerged stronger. More human. More relatable.
On March 25, 2010, the longshot Rob Ford declared his candidacy for mayor. Within three weeks, he was in second place. “Rob Ford has reshuffled the deck,” Jodi Shanoff, senior vice-president of polling firm Angus Reid, told the Star. “Depending on what he has to say and, frankly, how he deals with the attacks that undoubtedly are coming from Smitherman … those can either expose him for the not-so-serious candidate that the Toronto Life crowd takes him to be, or he can rise to the challenge and really galvanize his spot as a serious contender.”
Even as a candidate for mayor, Ford radiated controversy. During his campaign, news surfaced that in 1999 he’d been charged with drunk driving and marijuana possession while on vacation in Florida. When confronted, Ford denied it. But once it was obvious that the reporter had access to at least some of the arrest paperwork, Ford apologized and claimed he’d forgotten about it. He held a press conference the next day and announced he had indeed been charged—with failing to provide a breath sample. That statement was also untrue—he was convicted of drunk driving—and the newspapers pointed it out. The public’s reaction? Ford got a 10-point bump in the polls. “The phone would not stop ringing that day,” recalls Stefano Pileggi, fundraising manager for the Ford campaign. “People calling in: ‘We don’t care, Rob. We love you!’ It was incredible.”
When the Toronto Star revealed that in 2001 Ford had been banned from coaching football at a Toronto high school following a heated altercation with a player, he supposedly raised close to twenty-five thousand dollars overnight in campaign donations. When Ford suggested that Toronto close its doors to immigrants until it could fix its current citizens’ problems, his office was inundated with calls of support, including from immigrants already here. Meanwhile, former frontrunner George Smitherman was blowing it. His campaign stood for nothing. To voters, he came across as angry and entitled. The Smitherman platform seemed to be built on one thing: he wasn’t Rob Ford.
By mid-June, Ford was tied for first. And the momentum continued. He took the lead in August and stayed there until election night. The polls were barely closed before the TV networks announced that Rob Ford would be Toronto’s sixtyfourth mayor. A little over half of the city’s eligible voters had cast a ballot, and 47 percent of them ticked off Ford’s name. The penny-pincher from Etobicoke hadn’t just won, he had crushed the competition. Ford finished with 383,501 votes, nearly 100,000 more than sure-thing Smitherman. Deputy mayor Joe Pantalone—who had parachuted in as the progressive candidate after Giambrone’s implosion—came in a distant third. Ford won thirty-one of forty-four wards, including every one of the pre-amalgamation suburbs. And while the old City of Toronto electorate stuck with Smitherman, they did it while holding their noses. In fact, Ford had significant support in the land of lattes. The true geographic downtowners went 60 percent Smitherman. But in plenty of old Toronto neighbourhoods, such as Parkdale–High Park, Toronto-Danforth, and Davenport, Ford scooped up more than a third of the vote.
His victory left residents of Toronto’s core stunned. In those first days after the election, the confusion was everywhere. On the streetcar heading to work, in line at Starbucks, at the bank, the flower shop, the grocery store, the pub. The most discombobulated were staggering around the corridors of City Hall. One prominent Toronto politics professor sent me a note of apology, having dismissively brushed off my suggestion a month earlier that Ford would win. It was as if a giant protective bubble containing everyone who lived within fifteen kilometres of the CN Tower had been popped.
What it meant to be a “Torontonian” was no longer clear. Three years later—with Ford known the world over as the mayor whose approval rating stayed unchanged after he admitted to smoking crack cocaine—it was even less apparent.
What follows is the story of Rob Ford’s improbable rise to one of the most powerful jobs in Canada. It’s the story of how the mayor of Toronto found himself ensnared in a scandal so surreal, half of the city couldn’t believe it—a scandal with drugs, lies, an attempted cover-up, and extortion, which captivated the globe for weeks. It’s the story of a complicated family, wealthy and secretive, with boundless ambition and a sincere belief that its members are destined to lead this country. It’s the story of sibling rivalry, an obsession with loyalty, and the never-ending struggle for a demanding father’s approval.
A public figure’s family life should ideally be private, but in this book it will be impossible to avoid talking about Ford’s family. He is who he is because of them. His political philosophy, his strategy in a crisis, his feelings about money, his compulsion to keep dirty laundry hidden—all can be explored through the lens of a fascinating family dynamic. These seeds were all planted on a quiet leafy street in Etobicoke.
Table of Contents
1 Respect the Taxpayer 7
2 Dougie Loved Politics 20
3 The Canadian Kennedys 42
4 Councillor Ford to Speak 59
5 The Gravy Train 84
6 He Won t Give Up the Blow 111
7 The Bier Mark 142
8 The Dirty Dozen 160
9 The Garrison Ball 184
10 Pathological Liars 194
11 For Sale 204
12 Anything Else? 224
13 Video, Schmideo 238
14 Project Traveller 252
15 Outright War 274
16 Ford More Years 304