TORONTO: He’s the Mayor, He’s the Boss — Meet Doug Ford, the guy who makes Rob look good

MAY 26, 2011

Written by Edward Keenan

Mr. Personality

Doug Ford may be a rookie councillor, but as the mayor’s most trusted adviser, he could be the key to keeping this administration afloat

Late in the morning on Wednesday, May 18, Councillor Shelley Carroll was working the floor of the council chamber, trying to drum up votes to save the Fort York bridge, which had been scheduled to begin construction this summer. As public projects go, the bridge was significant in that it represents everything former Mayor David Miller was passionate about: a $23-million proposed oasis strictly for pedestrians and cyclists that would connect downtown to the waterfront and serve as a “vision thing” for a confident, growing city.

It’s the antithesis, then, of everything the current mayor thinks is appropriate. Still, it came as a surprise to virtually everyone when, at the end of an epic Public Works Committee meeting a few days earlier, a sudden motion to delay construction passed by a slim majority. It was a move that, for several technical reasons, would effectively kill the project. “This is a plain and simple ‘fuck you’ to those of us who think we can build a better city,” one lefty councillor said to me. “That’s all it is.”

So, last Wednesday, armed with reams of letters in support of building the Fort York bridge from residents, architects and prominent developers, council’s left was trying to muster up the two-thirds majority needed to bring the matter to debate in time to save the project. As the vote to keep the bridge project alive drew near, Carroll approached Councillor Doug Ford, the mayor’s brother, who represents Ward 2 in Etobicoke. “I don’t find the mayor’s staff particularly receptive to having any kind of conversation with me at all,” Carroll told me later. “When I need to make an appeal to that leadership office, I go to Doug. He’s approachable.”

But it’s more than simply his approachability that makes him the go-to guy on the mayor’s team. Already, the press generally cites Doug’s opinions as though they are official pronouncements from the mayor’s office, and refers to the administration casually as “The Fords.” “He’s the shadow mayor, there’s no doubt about it,” says Councillor Janet Davis, who has been among the Fords’ most vocal critics. “It’s quite striking, really, that Doug has assumed the role of mayor so easily, and people have now come to accept that he has some greater authority around here.” Political gadfly (and former mayoral candidate) Himy Syed recently joked on Twitter that Doug Ford needs more security protection than Rob since, if anything were to happen to Doug, Rob would become mayor.

He’s the approachable one. The smart one. The better-looking one. The charming one. Everyone—even the Fords’ allies—measures Doug Ford in relation to his younger brother, usually favourably. During the mayoral campaign, Councillor Doug Holyday, who now serves as Rob’s deputy mayor, told the Toronto Star that Doug was the reason he felt comfortable endorsing Ford for mayor. “The fact that Doug will be there, side-by-side with him, that improves Rob’s position as mayor as far as I’m concerned,” Holyday said at the time.

That Doug Ford has been a big contributor to his brother’s early success is indisputable. He was, after all, Rob’s campaign manager last year, and, though he has only a minor administrative role at City Hall—he doesn’t even sit on the executive committee—the brothers reportedly explored the option of placing a door between their two offices late last year.

What is up for debate, however, is just how big a contributor he is. “I think Doug Ford has more influence over this mayor than any councillor has had over any mayor in all the years I’ve been watching City Hall,” says Councillor Gord Perks, who tends to act as field general for the mayor’s opponents on the floor of council. This is, of course, a matter of opinion. But it does raise the question: What do we know about this man, who may or may not have extraordinary influence over the mayor?

Politically, we know that he is an aggressively penny-pinching, small-government conservative who, like his brother, has vowed to “outsource everything that is not nailed down.” He is vocal in opposing any form of tax increase and he decried a proposed ban on pop sales in city facilities as vehemently as he supported giving raises and paid-duty perks to the police.

On social issues, there’s slightly more confusion over where exactly he stands. Josh Matlow, who is firmly centrist and writes a column about his life as a city councillor for the Toronto Star, recently surprised some by reporting that Doug is a vegetarian who describes himself as a “bigtime social liberal” and who made a $5,000 donation to Pride last year. However, Pride has since told members of the gay press that they have no record of his alleged donation, and I’ve been told that he is not actually a vegetarian (apparently, he eats chicken and fish but not red meat, a decision he made after working in a meat-packing plant as a teenager). Even his ally Holyday expressed doubt about his claim to liberalism: “I don’t know about that. I think he describes himself as a fiscal conservative.”

His approach to social liberalism—and how he feels about the constant comparisons to his brother—are among the things I would’ve liked to ask him about, but couldn’t, since he refused my repeated requests for interviews, perhaps because of his policy of refusing interviews with the Toronto Star (The Grid is owned by Torstar, the Star’s parent company). But here’s what we do know.

Doug Ford, who at 46 is five years older than the mayor, was born and raised in Etobicoke. He, Rob and their older brother Randy are the sons of the late Doug Ford Sr., a businessman who served as a Conservative member of provincial parliament under Premier Mike Harris.

Doug Jr. was political from a young age—he was a campaign adviser for Doug Holyday as far back as 1994. But for most of his adult life, he has been content to stay out of the public eye, letting his baby brother take care of the politicking while he worked as CEO of the family business, a sticker-printing company called Deco Labels & Tags, building it from a local concern to a North America-wide $100-million empire. In recent years, the new councillor for North Etobicoke hasn’t even been a full-time resident of Toronto, spending most of the week tending to Deco business from its Chicago office.

By all accounts, Doug Ford is a jovial man. He is a married father of four girls. One of his daughters, Krista, is an athlete who was recently written up in the newspapers as a prospective player in the Lingerie Football League. (Her Twitter profile famously says, “I don’t want to be like Barbie, I want to bench press her.”) According to reports, Doug initially opposed her involvement but decided to support her tryout after his wife and daughters sided against him in a family vote. Unlike Rob, who maintains a disheveled everyman persona, Doug is unafraid of displaying the wealth he’s accumulated—and by most accounts, he is generous about sharing it with charitable causes. He drives a Lincoln SUV and owns homes in Florida and Chicago in addition to his mansion in Etobicoke and cottage up north.

Whether he’s a social liberal or not, Doug’s clearly extremely sociable. His charm and personable nature are among the first things anyone who speaks about him notes, especially in contrast to his brother. “Mayor Ford does not have great people skills,” says Perks. “He’s reticent, hot-tempered and doesn’t play well with others. Doug, on the other hand, most of the time, is the consummate salesman—charming and chatty.” In fact, he takes frequent cigarette breaks during council meetings with Perks, one of his biggest political enemies, and maintains a chummy relationship with almost all the members of council. He even cracks light-hearted jokes at his brother’s expense in public. (On the mayor’s claim that he’d do cartwheels in the streets if Harper won the election: “Maybe if he knocks off 100 pounds!”)

Moreover, his desire to reach out to the other side is often demonstrated with gestures of hospitality. He buys pizza during late-night sessions for council. Davis says she has been invited to visit his “man cave” at the Deco Labels office for a beer. Other councillors report that they have been told they could stay at his places in the States if they are ever travelling. While many councillors note that his benevolence is unusual among elected officials, they seem to think it is well-intended, an invitation of friendship.

That’s the quality in Doug Ford that even his opponents see as offering hope for a less divisive, more collaborative future at city council. “Doug is coming to the understanding that even some of the people he disagrees with ideologically are not all presenting bad ideas at city council,” says Councillor Adam Vaughan. Dave Meslin, an activist who advocates for cyclists, democratic reform and other issues, shares a similar observation. Meslin says that Doug once came out to an event he was holding and stayed late talking with a crowd of hardcore Ford opponents. “He was the last politician there, engaging in a discussion about cycling and things with activists who fundamentally disagreed with him,” says Meslin. “He must have known there were no votes for him in that room. There was no press there. I can’t see any other reason he’d have done that except that he likes exchanging ideas.”

So if Doug is the good cop to his brother’s bad cop, the one that both friends and foes trust to have an honest conversation, to what extent is he responsible for the mayor’s success so far?

Eight months into Rob’s mayoral career, Holyday backs away from attributing too much of Mayor Ford’s success to his brother. He notes that the mayor’s demeanour has changed from his tempestuous and often lonely days as council’s most loudmouthed and confrontational councillor. “Maybe the job called for that. Whether Doug had an influence on that, I don’t know,” he says. What he does note is that Rob and Doug are very close, and that the mayor goes to his older brother often for trusted advice.

Some councillors I spoke to said that those who claim Doug’s a shadow mayor, or “the mayor’s brain,” are overestimating his power and underestimating the mayor. They’re also misconstruing the dynamic between the brothers. Matlow says their relationship is “ironically similar to that of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy,” in that, although Doug is relatively inexperienced, he is someone at City Hall the mayor can fully trust. Vaughan agrees. “They have each others’ back, there’s no question about that,” Vaughan says, “They’re brothers. Does he have more influence over city staff than other councillors? Absolutely. Is that a good thing for democracy? Look, people have the influence they have and the power they have because other councillors give it to them. Doug Ford only has the power he has because other councillors respect the relationship he has to his brother.”

But Vaughan, again echoed by Carroll and a chorus of others, including Holyday, say that both Doug and Rob are aware and mindful of the fact that the mayor is the one who knows the City Hall ropes, and it’s the younger Ford who has been elected to the top job. “Rob is not an easy guy to control. He still is the mayor,” Vaughan says. “You still see him coming by and throwing down a piece of paper and saying, ‘Here! Call your constituent!’ I’m not sure how many younger brothers get to do that to their older brothers.”

Both supporters and detractors of the Fords say that as Doug learns the ropes at City Hall, he may represent the best hope for a functional government. No one expects that he will suddenly turn his back on his right-wing ideology (“That’s his religion,” says Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker of Scarborough). But, as Carroll says, “If it turns out that he is a little more of an empath, he may go back to the mayor’s boardroom saying, ‘We need to listen to this person, whether our politics are aligned or not.’”

Beyond that, Vaughan has seen something else he considers promising in Doug’s approach. “Doug is more likely to see the merits of a good idea than his brother. His brother looks at the source of the idea instead of the merits of the argument. Rob is made into a better mayor with Doug’s presence here. The family made a wise decision to send a second son.”

Back at the council meeting on May 18, as the vote on the Fort York bridge approached, Doug Ford whispered into Perks’ ear and the two foes stepped outside for a cigarette. Was an eleventh-hour deal under discussion between the power players from council’s left and right? No. “We talk about our kids,” Perks told me later. “I don’t talk politics with Doug Ford. I don’t find that he has a very thoughtful or deep understanding of the complexities of a very diverse city…but he is playful and charming and that kind of stuff.”

Back in chambers, the Fords whipped the vote—leaning hard on anyone who has decent relations with the mayor’s office to get in line and vote against reviving the bridge debate. The motion was defeated 23–22. The Fort York bridge is dead. When Doug Ford rose and said, “I just want to say to everyone, we’re going to build this bridge eventually…” he was cut off by angry shouts from Perks, Carroll and other leftist councillors. “All right, forget it. I’m trying to reach out….”

Later that day, another issue divided council: a new incinerator for human waste had been proposed for a ward in Scarborough. The mayor supported the incinerator’s construction. Leftist councillors opposed it. A vote was held and, for once, the opposition beat the mayor. In a surprise to some, Doug Ford voted with council’s left to kill the proposition. For the first time, the Ford brothers were on opposite sides of a significant vote.

In a giddy moment, Perks strode over to Ford and the two men embraced. Doug lifted his steadfast opponent and frequent smoking buddy off the floor. There were cheers and laughter from around the room that two of council’s most prominent ideological foes were hugging it out.

Perks cautioned me not to read too much into the gesture. “That was just an example of how every once and a while, you just have to laugh at the absurdity of this current administration.” •

Doug Ford begs to differ

When it comes to the issues, there’s not a lot of daylight between the positions of Rob Ford and his brother Doug. There are exceptions, though. Here are a few flashes of Doug’s independent streak.

On funding for AIDS programs
In early 2011, a $100,000 provincial grant for a program to fight HIV and syphilis needed rubber-stamping by city council. Mayor Rob Ford, however, stood on principal against spending taxpayer dollars on preventing sexually transmitted disease prevention. Doug Ford broke with the mayor, and voted for the funding. The mayor lost the vote 44–1.

On powers for the mayor
In February, Doug Ford told The Globe and Mail that Toronto should give his brother more power, saying, “I believe in a strong mayor system, like they have in the States. The mayor should have veto power…so he has enough power to stop council.” The next day, Rob clarified that he did not want any more power than he already had.

On symbollic gestures
Just this month, leftist councillor Pam McConnell asked if a city council vote could be reopened for a moment so she could record her vote correctly—she had pushed the wrong voting button. The mayor shook his head and grumbled while his right-hand man, Giorgio Mammoliti, wildly gestured a thumbs-down motion and repeatedly shouted “No!” In a vote on whether to grant McConnell’s request, Doug Ford voted with McConnell. Her request was granted.

On setting poop on fire
A proposed incinerator that would burn human waste recently divided council. The mayor was in favour of it. Council’s left and a handful of Ford loyalists, including Doug, were opposed. The crap furnace was defeated.

Written by Edward Keenan

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