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Beyond The Caricature: 5 Things To Know About Mayor Rob Ford

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford leaves his office after councilors passed motions Monday to limit his powers.
Chris Young
The Canadian Press
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford leaves his office after councilors passed motions Monday to limit his powers.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was thrust into the international spotlight after he admitted to smoking crack. Since then, a caricature of the politician has emerged: a bumbling, error-prone addict, whose everyman persona has helped him maintain his popularity in Canada's most populous city.

But we wondered: Who is Rob Ford really? Here are five things that paint a more complex picture than his press conferences may have you believe.

1. Ford Was Born Rich

According to an exhaustive profile written by Marci McDonald in Toronto Life, it was Ford's father, Doug Ford Sr., who crafted the perfect Horatio Alger story.

Ford Sr. grew up "desperately" poor but worked hard and eventually became Avery Labels' top salesman. In 1962, he left that company to start his own label-making company called DECO Labels and Tags.

"Due to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, the company generates an estimated $100 million in annual sales, churning out customized pressure-sensitive labels for the grocery producers that put down roots near the Ontario Food Terminal in Etobicoke," McDonald wrote.

By the time Ford was born in 1969, his father was well on his way to great wealth. Just how good did Ford have it? McDonald explains:

"When Rob dreamed of becoming a pro football player, his father sent him to a summer football camp — but not just any football camp. He was dispatched to the youth camp of the Washington Redskins, who had just won the 1983 Super Bowl with two of his heroes, star running back John Riggins and former Toronto Argonaut Joe Theismann. From there, it was on to South Bend, Indiana, and workouts at the legendary University of Notre Dame campus — an extravagant tour of gridiron nirvana beyond the wildest fantasies of your average North American teen."

2. He Won His Campaign Running Against The Gravy Train

By the time he ran for mayor in 2010, Ford was already known for his council-floor antics, domestic disturbance calls and a 2006 incident in which he shouted drunken obscenities at a couple during a hockey game.

But, as The Globe and Mail reports, when strategist Nick Kouvalis took over his mayoral campaign, he discovered a fortuitous coincidence. Voters, he found, wanted more fiscal discipline from Toronto politicians.

Ford had over the past 10 years cultivated an image of a "waste-avenger."

During the campaign, there were no outbursts, no antics. Kouvalis made Ford run a poll-tested platform. Ford ran as the guy who would end the "gravy train." According to the Globe and Mail, that's what Ford repeated over and over, not straying from his talking points.

3. Subways Are His Political Passion

Since this scandal started, there's been much talk about amalgamation. That is, when the city of Toronto limits were expanded to include the suburbs and the inner city elites lost their hold on the mayorship.

One way Ford has exploited this divide is through a discussion about subways. The Sun reports, for example, that Ford supports building subways to the suburbs before the network servicing downtown is expanded.

"To be fair, the downtown people have enough subways already," Ford said. "I think it is only time to treat everyone equally and Scarborough and North York, Etobicoke — everyone deserves subways here."

During the campaign, Ford didn't dwell on that distinction. But things changed almost immediately after he was elected. Mayor Ford asked Don Cherry, a hockey commentator, to speak at his swearing-in ceremony.

Cherry delivered a rambling speech about the "pinkos out there that ride bicycles" and how the "left-wing pinkos" "scrape the bottom of the barrel."

4. His Political Agenda Crumbled Before This String Of Controversies

One of the main themes of the Toronto Life profile is that Ford's political agenda had already crumbled before all the drug allegations came to light.

For a year, he ruled the city council with an iron fist, threatening to help defeat anyone who opposed him. His policy director Mark Towhey, who then became his chief of staff, has been described as a libertarian who pushed radical ideas like privatizing the subway system and eliminating underused bus lines, even if poor people need them.

"Well, life's tough," Towhey wrote on his blog. "Instead of being the only three people on a 60 passenger bus, perhaps these people will have to introduce themselves, get to know their neighbours and share a taxi."

Needless to say, Ford pushed through severe cuts in the budget, but eventually the council tired of it and rebelled.

McDonald writes that the council rejected his 2012 budget and systematically undercut his transportation priorities.

"The mayor had lost control of his own budget, a setback that — had it happened in Parliament — might have provoked a motion of non-confidence," McDonald writes.

5. His Ground Game Has Kept Him In The Running

So how has Ford survived? One theory is that he has an amazing ground game.

As the CBC recounts, when he was the councilor for Ward 2, a suburb in Toronto's west side, Ford developed a reputation for getting constituent problems solved.

"Potholes, parking, policing — whatever your issue as a constituent, Ford endeavoured to return every phone call personally, even going so far as to give out his home number," the CBC recounts.

That ethos still reigns now that he is mayor. Ford, McDonald recounts in her piece, can often be seen driving throughout the city making sure potholes and sidewalks are fixed. Conservative advisers have told him he needs to concentrate on the bigger picture, but Ford hasn't listened.

"In the meantime, it would be a mistake to write off Ford as some hapless pothole fixer," McDonald writes. "He might not be able to spout the sort of lofty urban rhetoric that editorial writers crave, but as he well knows, when taxpayers arrive in the voting booth, they are less likely to remember high-falutin' theories than who fixed their pothole."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.