Toronto is still recovering from the clown prince of populism's four years of chaotic mendacity
In an ideal world, Rob Ford would never have been the mayor of Toronto. He’d have remained a reactionary conservative city councillor who voted against programs and policies he didn’t like, and who coached football on the side. He was a nuisance, but we could have managed.
But Rob ran for mayor in 2010, and he won. And Toronto is still recovering from four years of chaotic mendacity. Worse, his particular brand of red-faced populism served as a test run for the rise of other blundering incompetents.
There’s no point in printing the legend: Rob Ford was a disastrous mayor and a pretty awful person besides. His catchy campaign slogans were empty promises: there was no gravy train to stop, no fat to trim. Enabled at every turn by his brother Doug, who assumed Rob’s former position on city council, Rob immediately steered Toronto into stagnation, cancelling the ambitious Transit City project on his first day in office and wasting months (and millions) looking for “efficiencies” that didn’t exist.
As a councillor, he was one whiny, occasionally racist voice among dozens, and his behaviour could be overlooked as mayor, he was thrust into a spotlight he just couldn’t handle. Clearly miserable once council started pushing back against his bullying tactics, Rob started to act out: showing up drunk in public, getting caught on video doing crack, ranting in patois at restaurants, groping women at events (or making obscene propositions), attacking reporters (sometimes literally) and so on.
His bad behaviour made the city a global laughingstock, not that it stopped him. With Ford there was no ceiling or feeling shame. And, as he was quick to demonstrate, there was no bottom, either.
Whenever bad news broke, he’d just deny everything, hide behind friendly media, eventually declare the controversy old news and insist we all move on. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Donald Trump did the same thing on the U.S. campaign trail in 2016, and Doug Ford did it all over again when he ran for premier in 2018.
And Rob was prepared to do it all again, but he was forced to abandon his re-election campaign in September 2014 when he was diagnosed with a rare form of terminal cancer. Doug took his place on the ballot, losing to John Tory’s promise of bland stability. Rob and Doug’s nephew Michael Ford ditched his own campaign for council so Rob could run in his place and reclaim his old seat. He won.
Ford spent most of his final term in and out of hospital. He died on March 22, 2016. But his long shadow still looms over Toronto.