Culture

Rob Ford, RIP

Rob Ford in 2013 (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Getty)

Former Toronto mayor Rob Ford passed away on Tuesday at age 46 after a difficult 18-month battle with liposarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer. He was, without question, one of the most extraordinary political figures in Canada and beyond.

Often operating without a political filter, Ford was controversial, colorful, gregarious, and bombastic. He was a small “c” conservative in a notoriously liberal city. His style not only flew in the face of conventional politics, it actually made a mockery of it. He achieved international fame and became a household name, but for all the wrong reasons.

His political career was an adventure, from start to finish.

He used a nickel-and-dime approach in support of fiscal prudence, which impressed many conservatives and right-leaning liberals.

The three-term city councillor (from 2000 to 2010) constantly battled with his fellow councillors to crack down on their obscene spending and protect the taxpayers’ money. He used a nickel-and-dime approach in support of fiscal prudence, which impressed many conservatives and right-leaning liberals. He refused to use most of his allotted $53,100  (CDN) office budget, declaring a paltry $10 in his first year as councillor and shaving it down to $4 in his second year. He gave his personal phone number to constituents and would call them back well into the wee hours of the night.

Naturally, he had his share of controversies. Ford once labeled fellow city councillor Giorgio Mammoliti a “Gino boy.” He mused that more women might be getting the AIDS virus by “sleeping with bisexual men.” He claimed, “Oriental people work like dogs. . . . They’re slowly taking over, because there’s no excuses for them.”

His victory in the 2010 Toronto mayoral election appeared to be a turning point, however. He ran a (mostly) controversy-free campaign promoting small-“c” conservative goals such as lowering taxes, eliminating layers of bureaucratic waste, and ending the “gravy train” in municipal politics. He championed greater transparency at city hall, privatizing garbage collection, getting rid of an unwanted vehicle tax, and building more subways to relieve congestion and travel time.

The first couple of years ran smoothly. He fulfilled many campaign promises, working well with both the business community and labor unions. The city seemed to be cutting the fat at a rate that few could have ever imagined.

Alas, it all came crashing down when his personal issues became public concerns.

Ford initially denied an allegation that he had smoked crack cocaine but eventually admitted his mistake (which occurred during a “drunken stupor”) after a video surfaced. Other videos came to light that showed a pattern of bad behavior and poor personal decisions. He was seen clearly intoxicated in the company of an alleged drug dealer, doing professional wrestling moves in a maniacal manner, and making negative comments — in a Jamaican patois, no less — about the Toronto police. 

#share#His coup de grâce was still to come. Ford had been accused of engaging in sexual relations in his office, which he denied. Before entering an elevator, he shocked reporters with this off-the-cuff remark that was anything but vanilla: “It said I want to eat her p***y. I’ve never said that in my life to her. I would never do that. I’m happily married. I’ve got more than enough to eat at home.”

The Ford circus soon became a major international story and the perfect cannon fodder for most late-night talk-show hosts. The Toronto city council voted to strip him of most of his mayoral powers, and he fought back for a spell. In the summer of 2014, Ford finally took a leave of absence from the mayor’s office, entered rehab, and emerged having lost weight and gained a better grip on his personal behavior.

Incredibly, he had a real, honest-to-goodness chance of winning re-election. Polls consistently showed he was running neck and neck with his main rival, John Tory (whose political orientation is “red Toryism,” or left-leaning conservatism). It looked as if the circus wasn’t going to leave Toronto any time soon.

His health scare, originally diagnosed as a tumor near his abdomen, changed everything.

The Ford family decided to make a quick switch. Doug, his older brother who was then city councillor of Ward 2, ran in his place for mayor. (He ultimately lost to Tory.) Rob, on the other hand, moved back to his old hunting grounds, Ward 2, and was promptly re-elected as a city councillor.

Ford spent his remaining time getting chemotherapy and radiation treatments. In May, he had surgery, which proved unsuccessful. Occasionally, he made appearances at the city council. He had his good days and his bad days, but he seemed to be in control of his life once more. His smiling face and good-natured attitude were back on display, and the media left him alone. Reportedly, he made peace — or at least amends — with some of his old political rivals, including Tory. Just a few weeks ago, in late February, he returned to Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital and in March was moved to palliative care. He died shortly thereafter.

Adrienne Batra, his former press secretary and the Toronto Sun’s editor, nicely summed up Ford’s career in a March 22 column:

He’s been called a lot of things – a populist, a conservative, a radical — and he was all of them in part. But ultimately, Ford was a political pragmatist who simply didn’t give a damn what anyone thought about him other than his constituents. It was that gumption that endeared him to hundreds of thousands of Torontonians. There will always be those who refuse to see Ford as anything more than an addict, a liar, a racist, a homophobe, and a bully. But none of that accurately describes Rob Ford.

Indeed, one could argue that in some respects, Ford was the first Donald Trump–like politician in modern history. The two men were very different, and it’s not a perfect comparison by any means. Yet Ford’s trailblazing style of right-leaning populism, folksiness, devil-may-care attitude, and anti-PC behavior may have paved the way for or foreshadowed Trump’s dramatic rise in politics.

One could argue that in some respects, Ford was the first Donald Trump–like politician in modern history.

There was another side to Ford, however. For all the demons he faced (including the ones that he conquered), and despite the carnival environment he created during his crack-smoking escapades, he genuinely cared about his family, his constituents, and the city. In his own way, he wanted to achieve greatness – and he wanted others to aspire to achieve it, too.

Rest in peace, Rob Ford. Your life and career, albeit too short, won’t soon be forgotten.

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