Obituary: Rob Ford
Populist right-wing former Mayor of Toronto, whose drunken antics scandalised his fellow citizens
Published 27/03/2016 | 02:30
Rob Ford, the former Mayor of Toronto who died of cancer on Tuesday aged 46, hit the international headlines for all the wrong reasons in November 2013 when he was forced to admit to a string of offences including drink-driving and smoking crack cocaine, "probably in one of my drunken stupors".
Although Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, its cultural elite still retains much of the starchy paternalism of its colonial past, albeit modified by modern political correctness.
Therefore Ford's admission, made after it was revealed that he had been caught on video smoking the drug (after six months of denials), embarrassed a city where it is still only possible to buy spirits from the Liquor Control Board, leading the council to strip him of most of his powers and to suggest he take a break from his duties. But their embarrassment did not stop there as other evidence emerged of Ford's erratic behaviour.
A police file that surfaced around the same time as his admission featured police surveillance images showing Ford urinating in public and heading into some woods with Sandro Lisi, an accused drug dealer and extortionist, then on bail, leaving the pathway strewn with bags of empty vodka bottles.
Several video recordings went viral, variously showing Ford in a meeting miming a drunk driver, almost knocking down a fellow councillor, smoking some sort of long-stemmed pipe in his sister's basement, making foul-mouthed murder threats in a drunken rant and making explicit references to oral sex in a public speech.
Naturally, Ford's antics and the squirming embarrassment he caused to his more sensitive fellow citizens delighted America's late-night television comedians.
David Letterman was moved to wonder whether there was such a thing as a videotape of Ford not smoking crack, while Stephen Colbert, referring to Ford's marmalade-dropping remarks about oral sex, joked: "Kinda makes you nostalgic for the crack now, doesn't it, Toronto?" That Canadians did not see the joke, of course, made it even funnier.
Yet none of this seemed to affect Ford's popularity. Indeed, after the mayor offered a somewhat feeble apology for his behaviour on radio, one caller rang in comparing him to John F Kennedy while another noted that Winston Churchill had been a "bottle-a-day man".
Ford, one Canadian commentator noted, seemed to have captured "better than anyone, the deep currents of outsider rage against the city's institutions".
Ford's flamboyant right-wing populism won him diehard support among mainly low and middle-income suburban voters
He refused to resign. In fact he used his radio confession to announce his campaign for re-election in 2014. And, although the full scale of his problems had become clear only in 2013, Toronto voters knew when they first elected Ford in 2010 that he was a flawed man.
The youngest of four children, Robert Bruce Ford was born on May 28, 1969, in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. His father, Doug, had risen from poverty in the Depression to become the owner of a successful business making adhesive labels and tags, and in the 1990s went into Progressive Conservative politics as a member of the Ontario provincial legislature.
But Doug's upbringing had left scars. According to Robyn Doolittle, author of Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story (2014), even as a multi-millionaire he kept a "thick roll of bills" in a tin can behind a brick in the basement wall of the family home. According to her account, in 1988, the money vanished, as a result of which Ford senior demanded his brood (then in their twenties and thirties) take a lie-detector test. When his eldest daughter Kathy, a former heroin addict, and her husband Ennio Stirpe failed the test, "predictably, the unremittingly strict Doug Ford Sr lost it."
Kathy was not the only one with a criminal record. Doug's second-born, Randy, was reported to have had dozens of convictions, including breaking and entering, drink-driving and drug offences. Yet it seems that the Fords came to regard themselves as "the Canadian Kennedys".
John Tory, a Toronto politician running for mayor in 2003, recalled being told that he needed to meet with the Fords, the "gatekeepers to Etobicoke".
Compared with his older siblings young Rob seemed to have led a relatively blameless life.
A keen footballer, he was dispatched by his father to a Washington Redskins summer camp but failed to make the grade and had to resign himself to a role as coach for his high school's team and (after dropping out of university) working at his father's firm, while helping to care for his sister Kathy as she attempted to recover from her addictions.
It was through Kathy that Ford first experienced tragedy. In 1998, after Kathy split up with Ennio and went back to an earlier boyfriend, Ennio turned up at her new home and shot the boyfriend in the head with a sawn-off shotgun. He was convicted of manslaughter.
In 2005, another of Kathy's boyfriends accidentally "shot the top of her head off" during a party at her parents' house, as a result of which she needed extensive plastic surgery.
In 2000 Ford married his long-term girlfriend, Renata Brejniak, and that year was elected to represent Etobicoke on Toronto city council. Although he was initially considered an outsider, Ford's flamboyant right-wing populism, based on a robust defence of the city's taxpayers against the city hall "gravy train", won him diehard support among mainly low and middle-income suburban voters who became known as the "Ford Nation".
In outbursts that delighted his supporters as much as they outraged Toronto's liberal establishment, Ford raged against the city donating money to Aids prevention on the grounds that "if you are not doing needles and you are not gay, you wouldn't get Aids probably, that's bottom line."
He compared using bicycle lanes to "swimming with the sharks. Sooner or later you're going to get bitten… My heart bleeds for them when I hear someone gets killed, but it's their own fault at the end of the day."
When, in 2010, Ford defeated the green energy-loving (and openly gay) George Smitherman for mayor of Toronto by a wide margin, there were cries of horror and disbelief.
Ford successfully cast himself as a traditional family man, contrasting his wife with Smitherman's husband - even though it was well known that Ford had been charged with domestic violence and threatening to kill his wife in 2008 (the charges had been dropped due to inconsistencies in her statements).
Nor were his supporters put off by revelations that he had pleaded guilty to drink driving and marijuana possession after being stopped by police in Florida in 1999.
In office Ford kept his promise to privatise refuse collection and eliminate the bicycle lanes that his suburban supporters claimed interfered with traffic. He eliminated the city's unpopular vehicle registration tax and drastically cut city councillors' budgets.
He liked to claim that he had saved the city a billion Canadian dollars - a figure that was, however, disputed.
Controversies during his tenure as mayor began with his swearing-in by Don Cherry, a Canadian ice hockey star who launched into a rant about "all the pinkos out there that ride bicycles". There were repeated lapses of judgment: public drunkenness at a street festival; talking on a mobile phone while driving and giving 'the finger' to the woman motorist who reported him.
The most serious, however - until the allegations of crack cocaine use emerged - involved an allegation that Ford had breached conflict of interest laws by using the official Toronto city letterhead in raising funds for a football foundation that he ran.
Ford refused to pay the money back and was eventually judged to have violated municipal rules - only for a higher court to throw the case out.
Friends said his private world had started to unravel in 2006 after the death of his father, when he began drinking to excess and sometimes using hard drugs.
According to Robyn Doolittle, shortly after he was elected mayor, Rob Ford's wife confided in a friend (who secretly recorded the conversation) that her husband was "not giving up the blow [cocaine]… He still thinks he's going to party."
In April 2014, however, Ford released a statement announcing that he was taking leave of absence to seek "professional help" for his addictions.
That September, abdominal cancer was diagnosed.
Ford is survived by his wife Renata and their son and daughter.