Rob Ford, the embattled former mayor and city councilor from Toronto, died on Tuesday morning at the age 46 after a protracted battle with a rare form of cancer.
His election personified the divide between the Toronto most Americans know of — a dense, progressive urban core — with suburban Toronto, the kind of diverse, blue-collar place where you’d find a mosque right next to a drive-thru Tim Hortons (the Dunkin’ Doughnuts of Canada).
Ford — a conservative and bombastic populist — somehow led the largest, most diverse city in Canada for four wild years. Ford seemed similar to Donald Trump; in many ways, he was.
So how did Toronto, a city known for its left-leaning politics, elect a mayor like Rob Ford?
The creation of a megacity
The story starts in 1998.
The suburban area Ford lived in wasn’t always part of the city of Toronto.
The five major suburban districts surrounding the city’s core, including Ford’s Etobicoke, were governed by their own individual city councils.
In 1998, Ontario’s government amalgamated, or combined, the five suburban districts with the city’s core, creating the “megacity” of today. The suburban city governments were dissolved and folded into one large city, in a process not unlike the amalgamation of New York’s five boroughs in 1898.
Anti-amalgamation groups feared their taxes would rise, and that they’d be less connected to their municipal government as it moved downtown, reports the Toronto Star‘s Royson James.
Michael Prue, the last mayor of East York (one of the suburbs), called amalgamation “a disaster,” per the Star. And not everyone in the old core of Toronto liked it either.
“It’s been a real body blow to the city,” John Sewell, a former mayor of Toronto told the Toronto Star. “I fear for the city’s future.”
And in some ways, Sewell’s fear was prescient: Just two years later, Ford was elected mayor.
People in the suburbs resented that their tax dollars went to things like bike lanes and public transportation for the downtown core post-amalgamation. Ford harnessed that anger expertly.
It was the lingering resentment over amalgamation that led to Ford’s rise.
The Canadian Kennedys
Ford was born in Etobicoke, Ontario in 1969. His late father, Doug Ford Sr., established a label-making business, Deco.
Ford liked to tout how he was just an “average guy,” but a Globe and Mail investigation into his background revealed otherwise.
When Doug Sr., died, he left his children a sizeable inheritance. The Globe found the Ford family’s real estate holdings to be worth upwards of $10 million.
Doug Sr. represented Etobicoke (pronounced EE-tow-buh-coe) as a member of Ontario’s parliament during the late 1990s, and he had huge ambitions for his family.
The Fords began referring to themselves as the “Canadian Kennedys,” (albeit much to the Kennedy’s right on the political spectrum), according to Robyn Doolittle, a journalist who wrote “Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story,” chronicling the rise and fall of the Fords.
When John Tory, the current mayor of Toronto, was exploring a bid for the office in 2003, his advisers told him the Ford family were the “gatekeepers of Etobicoke,” and that he would have to win their favour in order to gain the much-needed suburban vote, according to Doolittle.
After Doug Sr. died in 2006, his sons — Rob, Doug Jr., and Randy — took over control of Deco, and launched their own political careers.
The former mayor of Toronto before Ford, David Miller, was decidedly representative of the city’s core, or the “downtown elites,” as Ford liked to call them.
Miller was educated at Harvard, supported bold public transit expansion plans (some of which Ford later killed), and was as latte-sipping, bike-riding, and supportive of the environment as progressives come. His agenda brewed resentment in areas far from Toronto’s core that felt left behind.
It’s important to note that Toronto’s suburbs are extremely diverse. Many immigrants, from places like Somalia, Bangladesh, and the West Indies, call the suburbs home. Couple them with the mostly white voters who live in detached, post-war homes more commonly associated with suburbia, and you get a good sense of “Ford Nation,” Ford’s voting base.
Residents of Ford Nation — whatever their ethnicities — saw their hard-earned tax dollars funneled into projects, like bike infrastructure and light rail lines, that they saw as not for them. Unlike Donald Trump, Ford’s politics of resentment wasn’t just for whites.
Though Ford never finished college, he was a master campaigner. And he was an expert at connecting with average voters.
He was the guy people felt they “could have a beer with,” as Josh Barro (who’s now at Business Insider) wrote for Bloomberg View in 2013.
After he was elected to city council in 2000, representing Etobicoke’s Ward 2 (a ward that contains both Ford’s own old-money neighbourhood and the infamous Dixon Towers housing project) he fought against what he saw as a profligate city government. He answered his phones personally, and he showed up at constituents’ doors to help out with small neighbourhood issues, writes the Toronto Star‘s Royson James.
After three terms on city council, Ford set his sights on the city’s highest office — the office formerly occupied by the Harvard-educated Miller.
During a contentious election battle, Ford defeated George Smitherman, a former Federal MP for Toronto Centre (you can see the pattern). Ford vowed to stop what he called “the gravy train” at City Hall on the campaign trail.
After he won, Ford immediately got to work slashing taxes. His base was thrilled.
Quickly, Ford’s personal problems came to light. He partied in his office, allegedly had ties to dangerous gangs, and his behaviour in front of the media was bizarre to say the least. And while some Torontonians were horrified, his base stuck by him.
Ford’s erratic behaviour culminated in the infamous crack-cocaine video.
In May 2013, Gawker’s John Cook reported on a video of Ford smoking crack-cocaine in his basement with alleged drug dealers. The resulting media hysteria made Ford a household name beyond Toronto.
Ford was diagnosed with cancer two months shy of the election date during a contentious re-election battle. He bowed out of the race, and his elder brother, Doug stepped in to replace him.
The elder Ford eventually lost re-election to John Tory, Toronto’s incumbent mayor. It was a somewhat close election, though: Ford only lost by seven points.
Rob is survived by his wife, Renata, brother Doug, and two children.
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