Doug Ford seems to be the only guy the mayor trusts. Too bad for everyone. Why the mayor needs a new most-trusted advisor, fast.
Last Sunday, it seemed like the whole city was listening to AM radio. On the weekly talk show Rob Ford hosts with his brother, Doug, the mayor planned to speak at length for the first time about the swirling crack-video-police-investigation controversy that exploded earlier that week, as well as subsequent reports about evenings of drunken debauchery.
“Friends, I’m the first one to admit, I am not perfect,” Ford said at the beginning of the program. “I have made mistakes. I have made mistakes, and all I can do right now is apologize for the mistakes.” There was no specific account of what exactly he was apologizing for—though later in the week, during a press scrum, he would get more specific about the crack use he had long denied. Nor were there any details about the steps he would take to address his past behaviour—then and in a press conference following his crack-use admission he would insist he would not step down. Instead: “Friends, I really don’t know what more I can say right now. If there was a button I could push to change everything, I would. But, unfortunately, there is no button that exists. That’s….” The mayor trailed off with a deep breath, grasping for words.
That’s when we heard the voice of his brother (and city councillor) Doug. “That’s it,” Doug said. “Pass it over to me now, I guess, Rob. Anyways, the button you can push is moving forward.” And that was it. Doug was off on a tangent. If we put other politicians under a microscope, he mused, “I don’t think there would be too many politicians left in this country.” Then he listed his younger brother’s virtues: he has “the patience of Job,” is as “honest as the day is long,” and he never stole (this latter quality being one that, according to Doug, endears the mayor to Toronto’s “ethnic community”).
It’s a pattern that has become familiar—not just in the past six months, but from the early days of Rob Ford’s administration, through myriad political snafus and personal embarrassments. The mayor gets into trouble, attempts to explain himself (often inadequately or hesitantly), and then, boom, there’s big brother Doug—“pass it over to me now, Rob”—defiant, bombastic, on the attack, and full of wild ideas. Earlier this week, the mayor finally admitted that he had smoked crack cocaine—a confession, Doug later said, that took him by surprise and led to “the worst day of my life.” Prior to Rob’s revelation, Doug had gone so far as to accuse a CP24 reporter of wanting to kill Rob, and then called for Police Chief Bill Blair to take a leave from his job because “he was biased against the mayor.” Doug appears to think he’s helping his brother. But from where I’m sitting, Doug’s involvement always seems to pour oil on the bonfire of Rob’s personal unravelling and political self-destruction. It doesn’t look much like help at all.
Once upon a time, not too long ago, conventional wisdom had it that Doug was an asset. He was considered the “smart one” in the family, and was understood to be the mastermind of Rob’s administration. Doug had been the CEO of the family label-making business and served as the manager of Rob’s mayoral election campaign. He was more polished than his younger brother, slimmer and stronger, with slicked-back hair and a toothy smile. The mayor considers Doug his best friend. The two are famously close—their shared nickname for each other is “Jones”—and for a time they considered getting a door installed between their offices.
Early in the Ford mayoralty, I wrote a story for The Grid in which various members of council theorized that Doug was, at the very least, a moderating influence on the famously tempestuous Rob. Indeed, late in the 2010 campaign, when Doug Holyday, who later became deputy mayor, finally endorsed Rob, Holyday explained how he’d overcome his reservations. “The fact that Doug will be there, side-by-side with him,” Holyday said, “improves Rob’s position as mayor as far as I’m concerned.”
But over time, as the slow-motion Rob Ford train wreck crashed through policy failures, staffing conflicts, and governance scandals—and especially now that it has gone off the rails with what appear to be serious substance-abuse problems intertwined with criminal-world friends—it’s apparent that Doug has become a big liability. Rob is increasingly isolated; most advice and influence comes either from Doug or people close to Doug. Rob allows his brother to shape his strategy, often over the objections of professional political advisors.
We’ve seen how well that’s gone.
Although I have no personal relationship with the Fords—and have barely exchanged words with either of them since the election in 2010—it’s easy to draw a contrast between the two brothers, having observed them, and reported on them, for a number of years. Both are prone to outrageous off-the-cuff exaggerations and bullying conflicts with their opponents. Both subscribe to populist, right-wing, small-government politics. But their self-presentation comes off very differently. In fact, the ways in which the two brothers diverge suggest a dynamic shaped by their familial roles.
Despite the Fords’ background of wealth and privilege—the late Doug Ford Sr. was a Member of Provincial Parliament and a successful businessman—Rob has always managed to portray himself as the little guy. Though he can seem like a bully, Rob has the demeanour of someone who’s been picked on and put down all his life. As a councillor, he complained that other politicians teased him about his weight and wouldn’t listen to him about spending. (Longtime city council watchers recall him losing vote after vote, 44-1.)
Rob is the opposite of a smooth talker; historically, he dressed in plain clothes and drove a beat-up van. His anger seemed to grow out of alienation. He’s the perpetual outcast yearning to score the last laugh. In person, he can seem shy, or eager to impress. When the heat is on (such as when a scandal erupts), he has displayed an impulse to run and hide—or to apologize, even while admitting he wasn’t certain what he’d done wrong in the first place.
Doug, on the other hand, has the air of a man who is the aggressor in every conflict. Talking on the brothers’ radio show last year about a run-in with a bike courier, Doug (a kickboxing black belt) said the reason he hadn’t cleaned the guy’s clock was his status as an elected official. Rob chimed in to underscore the point: that without the civilizing constraints of public office, his big brother would have ensured that there was “one less bike courier” on the streets. Doug’s instinct is not to run or apologize, but to stand and fight.
That contrast was evident earlier this year in the first wave of the drug-video scandal. When the news broke in May about the alleged crack tape, Rob refused to make any public comments for a week. Doug, meanwhile, was out front, defending his brother, chastising the media for attempting to “kill him, politically,” and making boastful speeches about the mayor’s record. When The Globe and Mail then published a story alleging that Doug and the eldest Ford brother, Randy, had been drug dealers in their youth, Doug didn’t stay silent and contemplate his next move. That same day, he visited multiple media outlets, denying the story as a fabrication, and, at one point, appeared to threaten the editor of a newspaper. (“How would you like me to do some investigative reporting on you?” he said, staring into a TV camera, adding that he would make the editor’s children cry.)
In adulthood, Randy went on to manage the Toronto operation of the family business and Doug moved to Chicago to expand the firm internationally. Rob didn’t fit in. “Robbie just did not have the passion for labels,” a longtime employee has said. Away from the shadow of his brothers, however, Rob found a place to shine: at City Hall, as a controversial but locally popular city councillor. That is, until he ran for mayor and Doug came along to help out.
At the moment, in the colossal shadow of “crackgate,” it’s difficult to recall just how effective a political steamroller the Rob Ford administration was in its early days. After their commanding (and surprising) victory in the election, a team led by the architects of that campaign—political pros Nick Kouvalis (chief of staff), Adrienne Batra (press secretary), and Mark Towhey (policy director)—crushed all opposition to begin implementing the new mayor’s agenda, aided by a coalition of like-minded councillors. (The mayor’s supporters on council voted with him on every single issue, some quietly falling in line even when insiders thought they would balk.) They convinced the province to cancel Transit City, they rolled back the vehicle registration tax, they made the TTC an essential service (thus kiboshing the employees’ right to strike), they ripped out the Jarvis bike lanes, and they cancelled the Fort York bridge. After the mayor’s first three months in office, I wrote, “Is Rob Ford winning? He hasn’t lost a single round.”
A number of factors combined to end that winning streak, but it’s interesting to note how many involve interference or bad advice from Doug Ford. It was Doug who, in August 2011, loudly and publicly proposed to overturn a decade of waterfront planning and replace it with a ferris-wheel scheme he cooked up in a backroom. This misstep triggered a controversial fight that led to Rob’s first real defeat as mayor.
That same summer, it was Doug who randomly suggested closing libraries and then picked a needless public fight with Margaret Atwood. That goof-up helped spark interest in saving public services, which ultimately resulted in council rewriting the mayor’s budget. Councillor Peter Milczyn said in March 2012 that it was Doug’s involvement that cost the mayor control of the TTC. And Doug’s meddling was also reported to have played a part in the departures of senior mayoral staff, including Kouvalis and Batra.
Doug’s fingerprints became increasingly visible as more staff abandoned the mayor’s office this year. Batra wrote publicly that the mayor’s defiant first statement on the crack scandal—“I do not use crack cocaine, nor am I an addict of crack cocaine” and “I cannot comment on a video that I have never seen or does not exist”—was not the one prepared for him by his team. “I’m told the Ford family basically wrote the statement,” she noted, “with only a sprinkling of staff input.”
Still more political staff have since left the mayor’s administration. Mark Towhey was fired and the communications team, headed by former police-department executive George Christopoulos, quit amid calls for Rob to go to rehab. They were replaced by people like Amin Massoudi, Doug’s executive assistant, and David Price, a high-school friend of Doug’s who the Globe reported was in business with him in his youthful misadventures—a charge both men have denied. When asked about Price’s qualifications and the scope of his duties for the mayor, Doug was the one who responded, saying, “You can’t teach loyalty like that.”
The question is, who are these new staffers loyal to? As the mayor’s scandals have grown larger and more personal, the circle of advisors surrounding him has shrunken to include fewer professionals and more people whose primary qualification seems to be a close relationship with Doug.
Later in their radio show on Sunday, a caller accused Doug of enabling Rob’s apparently addictive behaviour. Doug said, “I’m not an enabler. No one, no one beats down Rob more than I do.” And, indeed, all along, there’s been a visible sibling dynamic between the Fords that straddles the line between playful and mean. Doug, more than anyone else, pokes fun at Rob about his weight, on their radio show and elsewhere. (For example, when Rob said he’d do cartwheels in the street if Harper won the election in 2011, Doug said “maybe if [Rob] knocks off 100 pounds.”)
Doug was reportedly behind the famously humiliating “Cut the Waist Challenge.” He put a massive carnival midway–sized scale in front of the mayor’s office on which he humiliated Rob before the media every week. The strategy was to distract attention from the budget fight the mayor had just lost and the transit fight he was about to lose. The publicity stunt backfired, however. The mayor’s weight loss stalled, and every appearance on the scale was covered by the entire press gallery, who could otherwise get no comments from him on his unravelling transit plan. The mayor’s defeats were at once personal and professional, and Doug made Rob stand in front of everyone, allowing them see the scales tipping in the wrong direction. Finally, when Doug teased Rob on the radio about his inability to stick to his diet, Rob snapped, sounding angry, and said the challenge was over. (He did relent and made a final appearance on the scale, perhaps at his big brother’s urging.)
The teasing seldom goes both ways. As recently as this week, Rob said in an interview that Doug is “10 times smarter than anyone else I’ve ever met” and again repeated that his brother is a great help to him, saying, “don’t put him in the same boat with me.” Clearly the mayor considers his older brother untouchable and will defend him, even at his own expense. He values Doug’s advice above all, which, as this story has moved into the realm of personal tragedy and addiction, raises even more disturbing questions about the advice Doug is giving Rob. Or not giving him.
It’s been repeatedly reported in multiple media outlets that Doug has been the biggest obstacle to getting Rob to accept treatment for what many who know the mayor say is a serious substance-abuse problem. Doug has been the first to downplay incidents in which the mayor appears to be intoxicated. For instance, when reports of Rob being drunk in public first surfaced after the Garrison Ball, Doug claimed he had “never seen him take a drink.” Later, when Rob showed up drunk at the Taste of the Danforth, Doug dismissed it as a matter of Rob having “a couple pops” and a good time. This week, as Rob promised to curb his drinking (but not quit), Doug suggested that Rob keep his drinking “in the basement.”
Behind closed doors, Doug’s resistance to the idea that Rob seek professional help appears to have been even greater. In early 2012, it has been reported, the mayor’s staff had planned to stage an intervention. Doug allegedly called it off. This week, as many of the mayor’s senior staff and allies—and reportedly senior members of the Conservative party—privately asked the mayor to take a leave of absence and seek help, the Toronto Star reported that Doug encouraged his brother to ignore their pleas.
Last weekend, Nick Kouvalis—who, it is said, has told the Ford brothers he will not campaign for them again unless Rob goes into rehab—seemed to chime in to criticize Doug’s role in the mayor’s struggles. When self-described pundit Alyson Court tweeted, “Dear Doug Ford, your brother is in a death spiral. If you love him, stop forcing him down this path & get him help,” Kouvalis retweeted the message, adding, “+1000 FFS.”
As much as the current “crisis”—as Mark Towhey has called it—affects the whole city and its politics, it’s when you look at it from a personal angle that Doug’s counsel to his little brother seems most confusing and distressing. Quite aside from the political calculations, those who were once close to the mayor have expressed real concern for his health and safety. “He resigns as mayor or he winds up dead in a ditch—I don’t know what comes first,” a former senior staffer told Maclean’s back in May. I have been assured by former members of Ford’s staff speaking privately that this was not an exaggeration of the scale of their fears.
By all appearances, Doug is the only person who could convince the mayor to get the help that many believe he needs. But by all appearances, Doug is the one person who keeps telling Rob to dig in his heels. Doug has long denied any problem and has vilified those who said otherwise.
On Tuesday, the story exploded again when the mayor admitted he had smoked crack “in one of my drunken stupors,” within the last year—an announcement that reportedly took his staff by surprise. This admission and the mayor’s subsequent insistence that he wouldn’t take a leave of absence were clearly the story of the day. But it’s equally interesting to note how that announcement came to pass.
Doug had spent the morning on an unhinged radio tour, launching a war against Bill Blair, alleging a conflict of interest on the police chief’s behalf and suggesting it was Blair who should step aside for a temporary leave.
Early in the afternoon, the mayor showed up at City Hall, exiting the elevator to the now familiar barrage of questions from the press awaiting his arrival. He appeared to be planning to blow past them as he always does. But then Jackson Proskow of Global News shouted, “Mr. Mayor, why are you sending your brother out to speak for you?”
Ford said, “I’m not sending him out. He speaks for himself.” He then headed towards his office.
“Then why’s he doing all the talking?” Proskow asked. At that moment, Doug was at Ryerson University. The mayor was alone. He paused.
Another reporter asked for his views on Doug’s call for Blair to step aside. For the first time in a long time, Rob spoke directly to the press for himself, quickly coming clean. “I have smoked crack cocaine,” he said. It seems in that moment, all alone, the mayor decided to fess up after months of evasion and outright lies. (Doug told student reporters at Ryerson he had no idea what his brother had said.)
Soon after, Doug joined Rob in his office, where they huddled for over an hour. Rob held a formal press conference later that afternoon. He solemnly apologized—making sure to emphasize he had lied to Doug about his crack use—and said, “I have no one but myself to blame.” And then, as his brother stood grim-faced behind him, Rob vowed to stay on and keep fighting, “for the sake of the taxpayers.”