Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press
If there was something Rob Ford was known for — something other than smoking crack as mayor of Toronto — it was survival.Laughed at and dismissed by his critics when he railed against the establishment, he navigated an election trail littered with scandals to assume the helm of Canada's largest city, where the barrage of controversies only intensified over the course of his four-year term.Hauled in front of various courts, the central character in not one but two crack videos, rehab — none of it seemed to shake his bullish resolve or the Ford Nation brand that grew around it, until his health faltered and forced him to the sidelines.
On Tuesday, Ford's family announced he had died, more than a year after he was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. He was 46, and left behind his wife, Renata, and two young children, Stephanie and Dougie."A dedicated man of the people, Councillor Ford spent his life serving the people of Toronto," his family said in a statement that asked for privacy.
Thinking of Councillor Ford's family and particularly his children. Terrible disease, cancer.
— David Miller T.O. (@iamdavidmiller)March 22, 2016
Torontonians observing the American election will see something familiar in the surge of the Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump. A man cast as the patron saint of the disaffected — average-seeming despite his own personal wealth, someone who spoke plainly, was openly hostile with the press, and whose every gasp-inducing quote seemed to move the needle more in his favor. That was Rob Ford, before he became the Rob Ford that everyone knew.The youngest of four children to Doug Ford Sr. and his wife Diane, Rob Ford grew up in Etobicoke, a suburb of Toronto replete with leafy enclaves and strip plazas.His father, a staunch conservative who served one term in the provincial legislature, co-founded a label making business called Deco Labels & Tags that would later expand into Chicago and New Jersey.
Rob Ford himself made his first failed run at municipal politics in 1997, but then clinched a councillor seat in 2000, after Toronto absorbed the ring of surrounding cities that espoused a more suburban, car-friendly sensibility to the progressive, urban core. He quickly made a name for himself by saying the things you just don't say. Within a few years in office, he was accused of calling an Italian city councillor "Gino boy," a female politician a "waste of skin," pronouncing that "Oriental people work like dogs" and are "slowly taking over," berating a couple at a hockey game, and being charged with domestic assault (those charges were later dropped due to inconsistencies in his wife's testimony).Throughout all this, his political base only grew.Ford brilliantly established his brand as a penny-pinching, frank-talking city councillor who bemoaned the government's neglect of taxpayers — and taxpayers ate it up. People loved the stunts he pulled, like a video in which, sitting at his wooden desk, he cycled through all the "perks" city councillors had when it came to free attractions or public transit use.He earned a reputation for wandering into his neighboring city wards, with bureaucrats in tow, to solve a resident's long-standing problem — a habit that didn't earn him many fans on city council. And so, when he launched a bid to be mayor in 2010, many scoffed. But controversies around a decade-old DUI in Florida and an apparent offer to score OxyContin for someone who volunteered on his campaign were no match for a well-honed message of "respect for taxpayers" and "stop the gravy train." Ford crushed the competition in the 2010 municipal election, winning the mayoralty with 47 percent of the vote, to the runner up's 35 percent.
Fatigued by years of left-wing rule, voters seemed to relish the idea of sending a bull into the china shop.And Ford had an innate ability to make people believe he understood "whatever it was that was just getting in their way" in the government, recalled his former chief of staff Mark Towhey."There were hundreds of thousands of people who felt that the city didn't work for them, and there was no hope of it getting better," said Towhey. "Rob Ford was this robust, stubborn asshole who wasn't going to give in on anything."He didn't fail to deliver, immediately trashing transit plans, scrapping taxes, and wrestling concessions out of city unions. He championed subways in the city, and presided over a government that sought to spend less.His tenure, which coincided with a cresting of social media organizing, galvanized a vocal opposition that considered him to be evil incarnate.A conflict of interest case very nearly succeeded in stripping him of his chain of office. A weight loss challenge organized by his older brother and city councillor Doug Ford backfired badly; he was caught reading while driving, and made headlines when he flipped a fellow motorist the bird."From the very beginning of my knowing him, he was a guy under siege," recalls Towhey, who was fired by Ford at the height of the crack scandal and who went on to write a book Mayor Rob Ford: Uncontrollable. "And whether that was real or imagined varied depending on the day. His self identity was shaped by the fact that he was always the guy who was being picked on, the fat kid, or the youngest brother," he said.
But it was these outsider qualities that endeared him to his supporters, who wore the badge of Ford Nation with pride. As the political opposition against him swelled within the corridors of city hall, their devotion grew only deeper. Every week, people would show up at city hall asking for Rob Ford to be the guarantor on their passports.They came to see their imperfect champion, someone who would return their phone calls, took selfies with everyone, and loved coaching high school football, as a man hunted by the press."He was able to make hundreds of thousands of people believe that he cared for them. And in many respects, I think he did. In others, I think not so much, but they all believe it," said Towhey.Behind the scenes, though, the chief magistrate was unravelling in epic fashion.It was US outlet Gawker that would launch Toronto into a tailspin, at 8:28 pm on the night of May 16, 2013, when it published a jaw-dropping story under the headline: For Sale: A Video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford Smoking Crack Cocaine. The Toronto Star would follow up later that night, with its own account of having watched Ford smoking what appeared to be crack cocaine in a dimly lit house.Ford would vigorously deny the allegations and dismiss it as a media witch hunt, eight days later declaring: "I do not use crack cocaine, nor am I an addict of crack cocaine."
But the damage was done: City hall became a circus, as media outlets from around the world stationed outside his office and a pack of reporters chased him around the public square.
It would take him months to make that infamous admission, months of denials, countless combative press conferences, a staff exodus, police raids targeting gang members, including those who recorded and tried to peddle the crack video, and, eventually, confirmation from the chief of police that he had the digital recording in hand. Ford's former driver was even charged with extortion for allegedly trying to get the crack video back.Then, on just another Tuesday in November 2013, Rob Ford would emerge from the elevator outside of his office to a small throng of reporters, and urge them to ask "that question" one more time. "Yes I have smoked crack cocaine… probably in one of my drunken stupors," he said.It wasn't the end, though, and Ford refused calls to resign. Within days, another video would emerge of him appearing impaired, rambling incoherently, and gesticulating wildly. Another apology, followed in quick succession by the release of hundreds of pages of court documents that revealed the extent to which the mayor had been under surveillance by police, a furious disavowal of allegations that he hung out with a prostitute, or made a lewd advance at a female member of his staff — "I have more than enough to eat at home," he would say, on live television, wearing a football jersey — and finally, a decision by city council to step in."Well folks, if you think American-style politics is nasty, you guys have just attacked Kuwait," Ford told his colleagues when they stripped him of some of mayoral powers.
"Mark my words, friends, this is going to be outright war in the next election and I'm going to do everything in my power to beat you guys. And I have no sympathy."And he did try to make good on his word, launching a re-election bid on the 2nd day of 2014. But more notoriety was in store, with another video showing him rambling in Jamaican patois at a greasy spoon called Steak Queen. In March, he would ascend to a kind of fame unknown to a Canadian municipal politician, with an appearance in Los Angeles on Jimmy Kimmel's late night show. "Why are you here? What good can come of this," Kimmel joked.
It wasn't until an audio of him making lewd comments about a fellow councillor at a bar across the street from his mother's house emerged, alongside a second alleged crack video, that he admitted he needed professional help and entered rehab.He returned on July 1, 2014, hit the campaign trail with a sobriety coach in tow, and appeared to be turning the narrative around, talking about how he had finally confronted his own worst enemy: the man in the mirror. That attempt at redemption was thwarted by a rare form of soft tissue cancer that had lodged itself in his abdomen. He dropped out of the mayoral race, and his brother Doug jumped in to make his own bid on the strength of the Ford brand. Despite only campaigning for six weeks, Doug Ford came in second, just six percentage points behind the victor. Rob Ford returned to city hall, elected a ward councillor for his beloved Etobicoke. But, he was never the same, and by October 2015, after having aggressively targeted the tumors with chemotherapy, he announced that his cancer was back and he was going to undergo a new round of treatment.He was optimistic, but realistic."It's emotional. I was getting in better shape, feeling great, better than I ever have in my life," he told reporters in October. "It's not good, it's not good at all, but all I can do is fight. I'll fight and I won't stop fighting until the day I die."
Follow Natalie Alcoba on Twitter: @nataliealcoba