By: Emerald Bensadoun
Former Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle’s intriguing book on Toronto’s favourite (and as far as we know, Toronto’s only) crack smoking mayor, Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story draws interesting parallels between former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, and current U.S. President Donald Trump’s rise to power. Both boastful mavericks, the similarities are striking to say the least: ranging from misogynistic comments about women to the outrageous remarks made by each candidate. Amidst this new era of alternative facts and public forum, one distinction effectively illustrates what Doolittle considered Ford’s leading campaign strategy to absolve him of political damnation: condemnation of the media.
According to Doolittle, Ford’s political play of choice in a crisis was to lie and deny until proven guilty. By the time he was elected, Ford faced accusations of assaulting his staff members, using racial and homophobic slurs, being drunk at work, partying with prostitutes, sexually harassing female city employees, and driving while intoxicated. The people’s decision to elect Ford, despite his well-known temper and extensive catalogue of offensive speeches plays a significant role in Doolittle’s book. Despite his involvement in a high-profile domestic assault case and links to the Dixon Blood gang, ‘Ford Nation’ – Rob Ford’s rock solid base made up roughly 20 per cent of Toronto’s electorate at the time, and seemed to support him no matter what.
Ford’s endgame was to cut the size of city council in half, which would save millions of dollars and make the Toronto Transit Commission an essential service with as little taxes as possible. In Ford’s world, Toronto would have well-maintained roads free of cyclists, streetcars and gridlock.
In Doolittle’s book, she refers to Torontonians as unhappy with the way their city was being run. In response to this, Ford ran on the basis of being what Doolittle called the “anti-establishment” candidate, vowing to put an end to the city’s frivolous spending, or as Ford liked to call it, “the gravy train.” Referring to himself as “300 pounds of fun,” Ford painted himself as a regular Robin Hood.
Recognizing that a larger percentage of voters came from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) than downtown Toronto, Ford’s campaign shifted towards privatization, lower taxes and questioning the validity of unionization, stoking the urban-suburban rift that eventually got him elected. He was reckless, and Doolittle rightfully notes, “There was fear, resentment, and ultimately racism.” As a candidate, Ford pledged to run a transparent government, but as mayor he was astoundingly secretive. In her book, Doolittle recounts how Ford refused to speak to the press, often bringing his children to work with him as shields against the media, calling journalists “pathological liars” on live television. Doolittle’s book reveals former committee members and councilors later admitting to having been bullied into submission by Ford, eventually voting to strip him of his mayoral powers until the next election.
For Doolittle, however, what was most astonishing about Ford was the public’s unwavering loyalty to their mayor. When the entire world was reporting on Toronto’s “crack mayor,” an Ipsos poll showed that “49 per cent of people in Scarborough, 45 per cent of people in Etobicoke, and 43 per cent of people in North York approved of the job [Ford] was doing,” and would still elect him as mayor with 44 per cent of the vote. According to Doolittle, the public’s trust in journalism was decreasing rapidly and even confirmed crack usage didn’t move Ford’s political needle.
Notably, in the lead-ups to the elections of President Trump and former Mayor Ford, nobody expected either of them to win. In her book, she recalls knowing Ford best as the “councilor to call if [she] ever needed an angry quote about a left-leaning policy.” She describes Ford as a “fanatical right-winger who vehemently opposed community grants, green initiatives, and funding anything cultural.” She could just as easily be describing Trump.
“After a term in power they have yet to produce a vision of what Toronto ought to be. Only what it shouldn’t be,” noted Doolittle. “What the last mayoral election revealed is that, in Toronto’s fractured political landscape, that’s enough to get elected.” The people wanted change, even if change came in the form of a crack-smoking mayor with a bad temper and racist, homophobic tendencies, all of which are chronologically listed in Doolittle’s book. As we all know, that change came with a price.
Doolittle’s book serves as a reminder of the dangers of populism, and if I were an American citizen, I’d be taking notes. Most of Ford’s campaigning included framing the Toronto Star as a “political opponent” rather than a newspaper, vowing to go “toe to toe” with them for “picking on him” during his time as mayor. As Doolittle notes, “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.”