Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story

By Robyn Doolittle
Penguin Canada, November 30, 2013, $29.95

Imagine the following scenario:  

I am the principal of a school. I use illegal hard drugs that I get from the drug dealers I spend a lot of time with (and even hire sometimes to do work for me and who get paid for this out of the school budget). I also have ties to dangerous street gangs that smuggle guns and drugs into my city, contributing to the city’s crime problems. 

I have been drunk on the job. I have not shown up for important events and meetings and I have also shown up intoxicated to other important events. I am under investigation by the police, but I refuse to cooperate with them and think the police are at fault for investigating me in the first place. 

I have missed many days of work. But when questioned about this, I adamantly say I have the best attendance record of any principal in the entire history of my city. I show up late and leave early, yet still get paid for a full day’s work. I get junior staff members to go and buy me alcohol when they are supposed to be doing their job. 

I have driven drunk and high…I’ve even done this with my young children in the vehicle. I have been abusive to staff members. I do not believe rules of conduct should apply to me. I don’t believe laws should apply to me and think it is an unfair politically motivated witch hunt for police to keep looking into my activities. Videos of me have been secretly shot when I was high. In one, I was threatening to murder someone in the first degree. I tell everyone I don’t remember who I was talking about.

The police have been called to my home many times for domestic abuse incidents. But I have never been convicted, so that means it’s all a lie. My personal life is my own private matter.

I have sought to cut all programs that benefit the most vulnerable kids at my school. I do not believe they should have hot lunch programs, or after school programs. I believe if they want to go swimming in the summer they should pay increased fees, despite the level of poverty they live in. I don’t believe their parents should get to have city run daycares even though they can’t afford any other types of daycare and have to work low paying jobs.

But I do like football, so I think they should have that. I’ve even asked some of my wealthy friends to contribute, and for that I believe I should be looked upon as a hero.

I make sure everyone believes that I keep the school’s budget in line and cut out the waste. Even though my actions have resulted in higher costs all around, I still keep repeating how good I am about budgets.

My personal life is my own affair. I wasn’t hired to be perfect.

Would this be the type of person you would want directing a school?

Well then, how about the chief magistrate of the largest city in Canada with an annual operating budget of over 9 billion dollars?

That is the position we in the City of Toronto find ourselves. All of the above and more are the ‘attributes’ of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. 

Thus it was only a matter of time before a book was written about Ford. Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle, who has had a front row seat to the Ford adventures since the start of his mayoralty — including being one of the very few to have actually viewed the infamous ‘crack video’ — has given us just that. 

The stunning reality of Rob Ford

Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story summarizes the Ford saga to date. Doolittle covers a lot of ground in the book and yet one imagines she could easily begin work on Crazy Town 2.

When Doolittle was originally transferred from crime reporting to covering City Hall, she initially wondered if she had been demoted. “When I was shuffled to the City Hall bureau from the police beat in 2010, I wasn’t sure if I was being punished … I boxed up the contents of my office at Police Headquarters and began the grieving process.”  

Then she adds “I thought my days of chasing criminals were over.”

Little did she know that the once relatively staid world of Toronto city politics was about to be turned on its head and that many lives, including her own, were about change. 

Even if, like me, you are a Ford watcher, and have been following the Ford story closely since the start, there is something about seeing it all laid out at once in book form. 

It’s sort of like when nutrition advocates are giving a lecture and want to show just how much sugar the average North America consumes in a year. They haul out an obscene pile and pour it all over the stage to bring home the nauseating reality of what we may have become accustomed to in the day to day. 

Even if we may already know many of the stories that are covered in the book, the impact of the less reported details combined with the sheer volume when taken as a whole, is quite dramatic. 

Doolittle begins Crazy Town by going into the Ford family history. Doug Ford Senior’s climb to prominence was interesting, yet the picture Doolittle presented of him seemed curiously uncritical. Perhaps this was an attempt to balance out the weight of what was to come about his son. 

She touched on the Mike Harris government that Ford Sr. was a part of and very much ideologically aligned with, for example, but gave no context for how socially, and even economically, destructive the Harris government was. Indeed Ontario is still paying a very heavy price for what the Harris government wrought, as is Toronto itself — including the Harris government’s forced amalgamation of surrounding suburbs into the ‘megacity’ that made it possible for Ford to come to power in the first place.

And while Doolittle obviously can’t cover everything, there were other areas of the book where Doolittle did present a short critical counterpoint to merely reporting what a political figure or party wished to convey. Harris is relevant in that Rob Ford very much carries the torch of Mike Harris type ideology and Harris advised Ford behind the scenes leading up to his 2010 election. 

However Doug Ford Sr. does emerge as a formidable character — passing his lack of trust onto his children. The patriarch even went so far as to make them take a polygraph test when looking to find out which of the Ford children had stolen the substantial amount of cash millionaire Ford Sr. always liked to have on hand — hidden in a tin can behind a loose brick in the basement of the family home. 

‘Entitlement’: the family motto?

Doolittle is very much a reporter and the book feels like a cohesive knitting together of news stories that combine to create an engaging flow. She lays out the major events in a way that is accessible and highly readable. Even those tired of the Ford saga, I suspect, would still find it difficult to not keep turning to the next page.

The pattern of Ford’s behaviour becomes more crystalline as the book progresses. A troubling portrait of the family that helped shape who Ford is also emerges. All of the Ford children, Randy, Kathy, Doug Jr and the baby, Rob, are awash in connections to the drug world. Whether as a user, the people they associate with, or even dealing, as Doug Ford Jr is alleged to have done. 

Yet this is also a family that has wielded enormous political clout in their Etobicoke area of dominance. Etobicoke is a strategically significant area to win in the quest to become mayor in the amalgamated GTA. The Fords see themselves as a political dynasty and believe they are naturally in line to lead the province and even the country. In the heat of Rob Ford’s scandals he famously announced he wants to be Prime Minister one day. Brother Doug Ford has his eyes on becoming the Progressive Conservative Premiere of Ontario.

A sobering possibility for Toronto

Where I take some issue with Crazy Town is in the sections where Doolittle plays into the Ford camp’s hands by repeating fiscal accomplishments without presenting the larger and more critical picture. She quotes city manager Joe Pennachetti, for example, as saying that Ford legitimately saved tax payers $400 million (nowhere near the billion dollar lie that Ford repeats ad nauseam). 

But Doolittle doesn’t delve into the costs. Ford also cost the city considerably more than $400 million by, amongst other things, implementing tax cuts; incurring massive penalties by cancelling Transit City — just as the transit plan was about to put shovels in the ground — and pushed for an unfunded subway plan that, if it finally goes ahead, will sink Toronto into significant debt, not deal with Toronto’s congestion problems and raise taxes in the process. (It also comes at the sacrifice of Transit City, which was fully funded, required no tax increase and would have serviced twice as many transit users at half the cost). 

And while the social costs of Ford’s service cuts — primarily affecting the city’s most vulnerable citizens — and lost transit progress, may be difficult to quantify in terms of hard numbers (although cuts to the city’s tree pruning that resulted in massive damage in Toronto’s recent ice storm, certainly points to some high hard numbers), I still would have liked to have seen a little more critical context from Doolittle rather than what seemed to me an overly sympathetic view on Ford’s financial legacy.

In the final chapter of the book Doolittle presents the reader with a sobering possibility for Toronto in the upcoming 2014 election: even after all the scandals, dysfunction at City Hall and all the sweeping lies, there’s a very real chance that Rob Ford could be reelected.  However if rumours of an impending arrest turn out to be true, it will be interesting to see if Ford still keeps a campaign going in hand cuffs. 

The upcoming Toronto mayoral race now has some other star contenders vying for the job. Front runners Olivia Chow and John Tory appeal to a broad range of voters across the political spectrum. But unlike Tory, who appeals to many traditional conservative and right of centre voters, the progressive Chow may ironically hold some populist appeal to disgruntled former members of Ford Nation.

The past four years of Toronto’s municipal politics that motivated the writing of Crazy Town, and going forward into the next election, brings to mind that famous Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.

Heather Morgan is a writer and musician living in Toronto. She tweets @HeatherMoandCo