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The Rob Ford Problem

Penny-pincher, name-caller, ward-heeler, right-wing raving lunatic -- if Rob Ford is as crazy as he seems, why do voters in Etobicoke like him so much?

BY EDWARD KEENAN

PHOTOGRAPHY KERI KNAPP

At the end of last month, maverick City Councillor Rob Ford was attacking the $1.5 million in grants the City of Toronto gives to AIDS awareness programs, since "if you are not doing needles and you are not gay, you won't get AIDS probably -- that's the bottom line." That was just the hum-along hook to an epic operetta dissecting Toronto's $50 million in grant programs. Alongside the fat-cat AIDS establishment, Ford lambasted the cultural hogs at the city trough: the opera, the symphony, the ballet -- "This is so embarrassing. I just wanted to bring it to the attention of the poor taxpayer who is getting screwed left, right and centre by these grants." Ford was just getting warmed up when his five minutes of speaking time expired, so he asked for an extension -- a courtesy granted routinely in the hot-air-filled council chamber. Not this time. Council shut him up.

Later, Councillor Kyle Rae told Xtra that he and his colleagues are fed up with Ford. "I think [we're] embarrassed that we have a buffoon on council. I think he is fairly ostracized within council. It's almost like we're stuck with him."

Rae was expressing a sentiment that's widespread among councillors and downtown leftists. It's as if Rob Ford seems to be baiting them -- taunting them with his way-politically-incorrect speechifying -- at every turn. He's called people names: Giorgio Mammoliti is a "scammer," genteel Gloria Lindsay Luby is a "waste of skin." He once mused about declaring Toronto a "refugee-free zone." He drives his minivan to work on Car Free Day and considers laws banning pesticides and protecting trees symptoms of "communism" and "dictatorship." It gets better: he's volunteered to take an incinerator in his ward and only spends between $2 and $8 annually on office expenses, shaming those who approach the $50,000 limit. Then, in April, there was the time he showed up drunk to a Leafs game, shouting obscenities at those around him and handing out his business cards.

This raises a few questions about what might be called the Rob Ford Problem. What does it say about Toronto city council that it can be home to such a blustering embarrassment? How does a raving lunatic like this get elected twice (the second time with 80 per cent of the vote), with no defeat apparent on the election-year horizon? Are the voters in North Etobicoke as nutty as he is?

It's hot and raining in mid-July and Rob Ford is standing, soaking wet, red-faced in a wrinkled suit, in a backyard on View Green Crescent. He bears some resemblance to the late comedian Chris Farley and there's something charmingly pathetic in the sight of him getting his spiky blonde hair rained on in the name of helping those who elected him. He's waiting for a staffer from the transportation department to show up so the two of them can meet with a resident who is upset that buses drive on the grass adjacent to the bus loop down the street, tracking mud up the block and making the place look terrible. The resident smiles and calls him "Mr. Rob" and Ford laughs often as he discusses his 16-month-old daughter, refusing the offer of an umbrella.

This, he says, is his favourite part of his job: "I love my constituents. They are second only to my family in my heart." By that standard, there's been a lot of loving in his day so far: 8:30am at a roach-infested apartment on Kipling to mediate a landlord-tenant dispute; 9am and 9:30am at two places on Bergamot to deal with more tenant complaints; 10:30am on Golfwood Heights to help a guy whose backyard is being flooded by a city-owned drainage ditch; 11am down the street on View Green to meet a woman upset that the crossing guard has moved down the street from the end of her block. Later, he'll chat with a man who wants Urdu language books at the local library and meet staff from three different city departments at the home of a man with multiple complaints about the state of his neighbour's property.

Sometimes Ford can get his constituents' complaints resolved and sometimes not. Either way, he feels this -- not the blustering at city hall -- is his job. "I always tell my constituents, 'Call my office first; I will find the right people,'" he says, "They're hard-working people, so I try to go to bat for everyone."

He returns every call to his office personally, often within hours, and usually he'll make a trip out to see anyone with a complaint, bringing city staffers with him.

Ford says that this is what all those who don't understand him are missing. "I guess when people look at me down at city hall and they read the papers, I can understand how they think I'm a nutcase. But, you know, once people get to know me, they get a whole different perspective."

He coaches the football team at Don Bosco Catholic high school because he loves working with the kids -- he even bought the team's equipment with his own money.

Walking around Etobicoke, he's approached every minute or so by people thanking him for the help he's provided or telling him to stay the course on his penny-pinching. If constituents don't approach him, he goes to them, telling them to call him if they need anything.

Rob Ford may be a raving lunatic, but he's a raving lunatic who will come to your home and stand in the rain to ensure you get 15 minutes with the city staffer who can help you. And that, as anyone who's tried to navigate the city hall bureaucracy will know, is no small thing.

Rob Ford is planning to run for mayor some day: "I'll have a basic, common sense, easy-to-understand platform," he begins. "The grass is gonna be cut, the litter is gonna be picked up. When you phone city hall you're going to get an answer; you're not going to get bounced around to 10 different departments. There's gonna be people that are gonna be accountable down there. We're gonna run it just like a business." As he goes on, it starts to sound like a breathless child's Christmas list. "We're not going to have any fat, the roads are going to be paved, the transit system's gonna be a well-oiled machine, and it's going to be clean, and it's going to be safe, and we're going to have police and there's going to be a police helicopter. And I'm going to bring in the Guardian Angels... And garbage is a huge issue, I think we have to incinerate our garbage."

In person, he manages to make his loner-on-council status work for him, saying, "I don't want to eat lunch with them anyway," and complaining that they call him a "fat fuck" and otherwise mock his weight.

Get him on his favourite subject and he almost starts to sound reasonable. "It just annoys me to see how politicians can get away with what they do. It hurts me." He objects to council perks such as free TTC passes, free admission to the zoo and the CNE, access to a box at the Rogers Centre and catered meetings. "I try to get rid of this stuff and they just ridicule me and they laugh. It drives me crazy! We spend $150,000 on free council food ... and I say, 'Guys, you just ate lunch and now an hour later you're back here at the trough, literally.' Why do we have to spend $150,000 on it? I try to get rid of it and they laugh and snicker and say, 'You haven't missed many meals' -- they think it's funny. I don't think it's funny. I think they're selfish and greedy individuals, and I'll tell them that to their face."

But scratch the logic behind his "common sense" and the childlike charm starts to appear childish: he says pesticides can't be as bad as everyone claims because our parents used them and they're living longer than ever -- and, besides, weeds are ugly; that we don't need a tree-protection bylaw to grow the urban forest because "we've got thousands of trees"; that incineration can't possibly be dangerous since "they use it in close to 90 per cent of the rest of the world."

He is avowedly anti-big picture, saying that David Miller's Clean and Beautiful City initiative is "a farce," that "people don't care about the waterfront," that unions run the city and we should contract out jobs at far lower wages.

A deep thinker he is not, and that could be a problem for his opponents. Rob Ford only has two priorities: saving money and serving constituents. Crazy as he appears, those happen to be popular priorities. Besides, he doesn't need to think; he's out impressing the voters every day with his actions.

The people who want to beat him might want to start thinking about that.

Rob Ford's Council Lowlights

March 2002: During an argument in council, Ford calls Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti "scammer" and "gino-boy."

March 2003: Ford suggests Toronto be declared a "refugee-free zone."

May 2003: Ford says that council's decision to ban pesticides is "the worst thing that could happen.... We're losing our rights in this city. You can't do anything and it's your property. That's dictatorship."

April 2004: Ford has Swiss Chalet delivered into council chambers, which he pays for with his own money.

October 2004: Ford objects to the city's tree protection bylaw: "It's communism, if you ask me."

July 2005: Ford calls Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby a "low-life" and a "waste of skin."

May 2006: A complaint is filed with the city's integrity commissioner that Rob Ford, drunk at a Toronto Maple Leafs game, was abusive to neighbouring spectators, shouting "You right-wing communist bastards," "Green Party fucking rules," before being ejected from the game. Ford initially tells reporters, "I wasn't even at the game, so someone's trying to do a real hatchet job on me." The next day, he admits he's lied (while denying some specifics): "I'm going through a few personal problems, but it doesn't justify, you know, getting drunk in public and acting like an idiot, if you ask me."

June 2006: Ford says it's outrageous that the city spends $1.5 million on AIDS prevention: "It is very preventable. If you are not doing needles and you are not gay, you won't get AIDS probably -- that's the bottom line." Told that women were the largest-growing group of AIDS patients, Ford replied, "How are women getting it? Maybe they're sleeping with bisexual men."

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