From the air, Toronto's iconic, late-modern City Hall looks like a wide, unblinking eye, symbolism that lately has seemed more appropriate than ever: even the building can't quite believe this circus. Deep underneath its two curved towers, on a cold and bitter January day, His Worship Mayor Rob Ford sits in the passenger seat of a black Cadillac Escalade, driven by a hulking bodybuilder named Jerry Agyemang. In addition to his role as chauffeur, he has also been providing the mayor with physical security and workout tips. Together they ease into a reserved spot in the salt-stained parking garage and take an elevator to City Hall's second floor. It's early, and so far, it's still dimly lit and quiet. It so rarely is around here anymore. The elevator's silver doors have provided the backdrop for several of the mayor's infamous press scrums, impromptu and chaotic and bizarre, including his spectacularly viral twin confessions, made during a frantic nine-day span in November, that he had indulged his appetites for both crack and pussy.
Twenty-one feet opposite that elevator, across a stretch of vaguely purple carpet now permanently laced like a minefield with cameras and microphones, shine the glass doors that lead to his office foyer. This morning, the glass remains festooned with Christmas cards from his truest believers: "The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit", reads one. "You're a positive influence . . . a perfect example of what a little Christmas every day can do", reads another.
On the other side of the glass, the rest of the mayor's office is blocked from view, but the foyer alone offers several glimpses into the man who occupies it: a framed Toronto Argonauts football jersey; a double-platinum record celebrating Canadian rock band Triumph's 1977 album Rock & Roll Machine; and an industrial scale that the mayor very publicly used during his short-lived "Cut the Waist Challenge" two years ago. (On 8 May 2012, he tipped that scale at 314lbs, up four from the previous week, after which time he called off the diet.)
There is also a small waiting area, empty at the moment but usually filled by the mayor's most desperate constituents – a single mother with an autistic son and a new baby who just lost their apartment; an immigrant family trying to find a sponsor for their beloved grandmother. And there is also a reception desk, on which a phone now rings and rings, call after call, one of the mayor's few remaining staffers carefully filling a large lined notebook with names and numbers.
Those notebooks have been filling up especially fast these past several weeks – a brutal ice storm lashed the city in the days before Christmas, leaving hundreds of thousands without power and an enormous clean-up ahead – and the mayor has been having trouble keeping up. He will spend much of his day returning calls, which is his preferred method of governance. The mayor takes pride in also remaining listed in the local phone book, and he gives out his home number freely, even printing it on magnets that he sometimes randomly sticks to parked cars. "Pounding the ball," the mayor calls it — talking to citizen after citizen, voter after voter, asking them how he might help, providing some small direction or a promise, telling them that everything is going to be all right, that he'll take care of it.
On this day, however, he has his own business to which he must attend. At precisely 8:30am, the 44-year-old mayor – escorted by his older brother, Doug Ford, a city councillor built like a wrestler – heads into the city's newly opened Election Services office downstairs. Watched by the small army of cameramen that now monitors his every move, he drops off his nomination papers along with his $200 filing fee, paid in cash, becoming the first official mayoral candidate on this autumn's ballot. By the end of the day, 15 hopefuls will have filed their paperwork, with many more to come, the beginning of what will no doubt prove a bruising and lunatic 10-month campaign.
Upstairs, the calls for and against are already flooding in while Ford endures a brief, contentious exchange with the assembled reporters. The crush of November and early December, caused when he first admitted smoking crack after a series of apparent denials, saw the foreign press rush in like ruin-tourists. The uneventful and relatively calm deep winter days that followed saw the mayhem restricted to mostly angry locals. He calls himself "the best mayor that this city has ever had" before he hustles back upstairs to the relative sanctuary of his office and his phone.
Later, after a long escape into the grind of the piecework he likes best, he takes a seat on his office couch. "I describe myself as the best retail politician in the world," he says. The Ford family empire was built on his father's hugely successful label-making business, Deco Labels & Tags; his father was also a conservative provincial politician, and he taught the young Rob how to win hearts.
"My dad – when somebody called for stickers, you dropped what you were doing and went right to the customer. That's how I was brought up."
Today, instead of stickers, his principal currency is the city truck that will cart away someone's broken branches. It's the hot asphalt that will soon fill the pothole that someone else called about two hours ago. "Customer service excellence," the mayor says, and he says it as though each word has a full stop after it. He's wearing a grey pinstripe suit with a gold City of Toronto pin in his lapel, and a black-and-blue-striped tie rather than one of the novelty ties he favours – yellow smiley faces, old football logos. He seems content if not relaxed, his surprisingly small and lithe feet constantly moving across the carpet, antsy. That's until he closes his eyes, as though permitted by the turn of the calendar to flash-forward rather than back, looking ahead to shortly after 8pm on the evening of 27 October 2014, when the election results will begin pouring in. He can see every detail. Suddenly, a different kind of electricity flows through him.
"I'm dying to see those polls come in," he says. "I am. I am. I'm going to be on the edge of my seat. I'm going to be itching as soon as they close."
After the last election, in 2010, it took about eight minutes for Rob Ford, then a three-term city councillor best known for his lean office budgets and verbal gaffes, to learn he had won Toronto's mayoralty in a landslide that few had predicted.He's imagining an even more decisive victory this autumn. "I want to knock these guys out in the first 30 seconds," His Worship says, and he smiles and opens his pale blue eyes, as wide and unblinking as this building's, only flooded with belief.
In person, the mayor is a formidable machine. He is not tall, and he is, in truth, not as fat as he appears on TV or in particularly unflattering photographs, especially since he's lost nearly 30lbs over the last couple of months under Jerry Agyemang's stern-eyed supervision. But he can carry his still-considerable belly because he is as wide as he is deep. When he enters his elevator, he sometimes turns away from the cameras, and his massive back can make it seem as though the silver doors have closed before they have.
During the worst of November, his thinning blond hair, pushed back and spiked, sat like a blast cap on top of his clenched and sweating face, which, along with his girth and stretched, wet shirts, gave him the appearance of imminent detonation. A wire has since been cut. "I haven't touched alcohol in well over 10 weeks," he says, a streak that would come to an end in mid-January. "I have a long ways to go, but I'm working out every day and I'm feeling great."
He has begun standing on that dreaded scale again, and he's down to 308lbs from 336, his weight having peaked with his infamy. Doug Ford, who is also serving as his brother's campaign manager, has told him that every 10lbs he loses is good for a point at the polls, a message that, at least for the moment, appears to have hit psychological bedrock. "I don't want to say it was a blessing in disguise," the mayor says of those terrible weeks when the humiliations – local and global, from within and without – piled on him like pounds, "but it was the best thing that could have happened. I'm never going back."
During those nine days in November especially, he exuded a careening mania, almost animalistic in its frenzy. The pressure had been ratcheting up for several months, the mayor's persistent but relatively benign string of alleged transgressions — giving a fellow motorist the finger, conflict-of-interest charges (since cleared) that he had used city stationery to raise money for his youth football charity – having given way to far more serious allegations that he'd repeatedly driven drunk, smoked crack on video, and was in the pocket of a guns-and-drugs gang called the Dixon City Bloods. The mayor consistently denied all of it.
"I do not use crack cocaine, nor am I an addict of crack cocaine," he said back in May, when word of the crack video, being peddled on the open market by alleged Bloods, had first filtered into the mainstream press via the Toronto Star, Canada's largest daily newspaper. He was, as it turned out, proving himself a liar of considerable prowess, or at least a diviner of cheap semantics, a master parser of words and even syllables. Helpfully for the mayor, the crack video, and any trace of it, disappeared – until six months later, on an unforgettable Halloween. In a dramatic news conference, Toronto police chief Bill Blair announced that detectives had recovered the video from a hard drive seized during a massive surveillance operation dubbed Project Traveller. (The Bloods, unbeknown to both the gang and the mayor, were the subjects of a year-long police probe that included extensive wiretapping.)
At first, the mayor refused to comment: "I wish I could come out and defend myself. Unfortunately, I can't". And then, on his weekly radio show, he apologised for "mistakes" that went unspecified. It wasn't until 5 November, apparently during his walk to work through City Hall's parking garage, that he decided to reveal the whole truth.
He pushed out of his elevator into the waiting media pack, a little smaller than usual; it was just after noon and several of the reporters had gone for lunch. The mayor was wearing a dark suit and his football logo tie. He stopped and turned in front of his glass doors.
"You asked me a question back in May," he said, "and you can repeat that question."
"The question we asked you back in May?" one of the reporters began, sounding uncertain. "Can you explain…?"
"You asked me a couple of questions, and what were those questions?"
Out of eyeshot of the mayor, wedged behind a pair of cameras, a Global TV reporter named Jackson Proskow was going through some rapid mental arithmetic. "I knew what he was getting at," Proskow remembers, "but I let it hang there. In the past, when you asked that question, that was his excuse to walk away."
Not expecting an answer, Proskow finally decided to ask that question after all.
Do you smoke crack cocaine?" Proskow shouted from the back of the crush.
"Exactly," the Mayor said. "Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine. But no… do I? Am I an addict? No. Have I tried it? Probably in one of my drunken stupors, probably approximately about a year ago."
In only seconds, Toronto's embattled chief executive had become the most famous mayor in the world.
"I don't look at it like that," Ford says today. "I'm just an average guy. I love going home to my wife, playing with my kids, returning my phone calls, doing the simple things in life. I'm not one of these people to flaunt it. They've been calling me from every late-night show to come down… That's not my style. I'm not a show-off. I'm very humble. Some people call it shy. I am who I am. I love politics, I love my football, and I love my family, and that's pretty well it."
"Any other politician," Proskow says, "would have called a press conference, they'd have the rippled blue curtain behind them, they'd have their spouse crying at their side. Rob Ford just steps off an elevator and confesses to smoking crack."
In that moment, six months of chasing having taken its toll on everybody in that sweaty, intimate socket, those 21ft of purple carpet suddenly shifted, as though the floor were lifting like the deck of a sinking ship. After the mayor had finished his unwinding and retreated into his office, Proskow had to sit down, unable to catch his breath.
"For lack of a better word, I was hyperventilating," he says. "I never would have predicted that just another day of him stepping off the elevator would turn out like that."
No one, in fact, had known that the mayor's confession was coming. He had reportedly called his chief of staff, Earl Provost, 10 minutes earlier, saying that he would be making a big announcement without saying what that announcement was. Even his immediate family had been caught out. "I almost drove into a telephone pole," Doug Ford remembers. He had been driving across town when a third Ford brother had phoned him with the ominous conversation starter: "Did you hear what Rob just said?"
Nine calamitous days later, most of the findings of Project Traveller and a subsequent spin-off investigation had been released in a sprawling document, yielding several troubling anecdotes about the mayor: that the Bloods had held his mobile phone hostage in April, exchanging it for marijuana delivered by Rob Ford's friend and then-driver Alexander Lisi; that Lisi had been charged with extortion following his own overly aggressive efforts to retrieve the crack video; that he and the mayor met in city parks to pound vodka and Tropicana grape juice like teenagers; that the mayor had taken "hezza" (street slang for heroin); that he had told a former female staffer that he was going to dine on her vagina.
Of all the accusations that had been levelled at him, none of which has yet led to any criminal charges against the mayor, he seemed most angered by the last one. On 14 November, he again stepped out of his elevator, this time wearing a Toronto Argonauts football jersey. He waded into the centre of a media battalion that had grown exponentially, turning that stretch of purple carpet into a grim kind of sleepless camp, just in case His Worship had something world-tipping to say. And once again, he did.
"It says that I wanted to eat her pussy," the Mayor of North America's fourth-largest city began, referring to the police document, on live TV. "I've never said that in my life to her. I would never do that. I'm happily married. I've got more than enough to eat at home."
And there went the floor, out from under everybody again.
The following day, 15 November, the mayor remembers as his lowest. "It was that day at council," he says, sitting on his couch, "when everybody – I mean, everybody – said you gotta go away. Every single person in there was telling me to go away."
The Argonauts, the city's venerable Canadian Football League franchise, had already established a distance from the mayor. Hours after the pussy debacle, they released a statement on Twitter that read: "The Toronto Argonauts organisation is not in a position to comment on the manner of dress of public officials. The situation with respect to the mayor and his leadership is unseemly at best. These latest remarks, while wearing our team's jersey, are particularly disappointing given our organisation's work in the community to help youth deal with issues of bullying prevention."
Later, the Argonauts let it be known more bluntly that they would rather the mayor stop talking about cunnilingus while wearing their shirt, and that he would not be welcome at that weekend's game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats — the hyphen is a mystery even to Canadians — unless he bought a ticket.
The mayor's love for football has long been one of his central philosophical tenets, and now even his loves were turning against him. "The only person that stood by me was my wife," he says today. Doug Ford also remained resolute. "You want him on your side," the mayor says. "He's been my best friend my whole life."
By that afternoon, the Fords – the mayor eventually having removed his jersey – together faced the turned backs of the vast majority of Toronto's City Council, which happened to be in the middle of its monthly meeting. Most of the 44 councillors faced the other way whenever he rose to speak.
Earlier in the week, after a long and heated interrogation of the mayor, the council had passed a non-binding motion asking him to take a leave of absence; he declined. Now, on 15 November, its members were pressing further: because they lacked any impeachment authority, they would seek instead to strip him of most of his powers, leaving him effectively the mayor in name only.
It was a rare show of unity for what has long been, not least because of the Fords, a dysfunctional clusterfuck of preening, insufferable, small-time careerists. To watch one of the council's interminable three-day meetings is to learn to hate democracy. But now it acted with renewed and merciless purpose. "The trigger point for me was when he dropped the P-bomb," says Councilor Denzil Minnan-Wong, a former Ford ally turned leader of the rebellion. (The mayor later likened it to the invasion of Kuwait.) "You think to yourself, 'Was this guy medicated?' He did it at City Hall, right outside the mayor's office. It wasn't some video being filmed without him knowing. This was deliberate. And that was it. You're a complete embarrassment and you've got to go."
The council meeting carried over the weekend to the following Monday, 18 November, standing room only. In the end, the mayor was relieved of his executive and budgetary powers, and his staff was cut from 20 to nine. They were reassigned, along with most of the mayor's responsibilities, to the deputy mayor of Toronto, Norm Kelly, a 72-year-old former history teacher and confessed ambassador of the dull. A large section of the mayor's office space was likewise planted with a different flag. Even the locks were changed. That's when the mayor reached peak crimson.
"Strip me down to my underwear," he says today. "I still was going to show up for work."
During one infamous instant, he bolted to the defence of his brother, who was in the middle of a shouting match with hostile spectators in the council chamber, and ran over a gnomish councillor named Pam McConnell. ("I've spent a lot of time with chiropractors and massage therapists," McConnell said later. "I'm lucky to be alive.")
That November session, the mayor concedes today, was as complete an exile as the council could have legally delivered unto him. "They took everything away from me," he says. "They basically paralysed me. What they did was wrong, but the people can see that, the people can see through it. They didn't elect Norm Kelly mayor. They elected me to be mayor. That's a dictatorship if you ask me – taking people's votes away, and that's what they did."
It wasn't always this way in Toronto. After centuries of electing sideburned old men watched over by Jane Jacobs (the urban planner whose theories influenced Toronto's development) the city has lately switched between suburban hucksters — Mel Lastman, a diminutive furniture retailer from a post-pedestrian hellscape named North York – and downtown intellectuals, such as David Miller, the most recent of Toronto's mayors who did not acknowledge smoking crack.
The last election offered just such a choice: in one corner, George Smitherman, a gay, left-leaning career politician who had represented Toronto Centre in the provincial legislature (which passes local laws); in the other, dishevelled, plainspoken Rob Ford from the bungalow wilds of Etobicoke, western Toronto. Trying to clean up before the big campaign, the mayor-to-be had sprung for some high-end tailored menswear, but a senior Canadian conservative politician, as yet unnamed, called Doug Ford and told him to get his brother out of those fucking suits and back into his novelty ties. It was important that he look like the outside, not the in.
The divide between the city and its suburbs is a lingering aftershock of an amalgamation that took place in 1998, when six municipalities, including the old city of Toronto, were combined by the Ontario government into one megacity. In hindsight, that made Mayor Rob Ford possible. There was, and remains, a feeling among suburban residents that their taxes go to pay for downtown's glasstower living, and the mayor did a very good job of campaigning on a platform built almost entirely on reducing the budget and cutting taxes.
"My brother's the biggest social liberal out there," Doug Ford says. "And he's two steps to the right of Attila the Hun when it comes to being a fiscal conservative." His pledge to watch the pennies played especially well among Toronto's massive immigrant community, largely priced out of the city's centre. He won every suburban electoral district and not a single one downtown, taking a thumping 47 per cent of the popular vote. Smitherman finished on just 36 per cent.
Now comes another epic campaign, potentially the most vicious and certainly the most watched in Toronto's history. The mayor will run on his fiscal record – the city budget has, in fact, been slashed by hundreds of millions of dollars during his tenure – on the forest of cranes in the sky of a booming city, on the number of potholes filled and phone calls returned. "I have truly, in my eyes, a phenomenal record," he says. His opponents will counter with the crack and the Bloods and the bad friends and the pussy.
The mayor's last landslide secured in his mind his defining political strategy: he is a man never without a Them. Few North American elected officials have been so skilled at the politics of division, carefully cultivating chasms between those for and against. Like Ronald Reagan, he has unearthed enemies even where there are none, turning bit players into giants and phantoms into terrible spectres. Part of his political genius, only heightened by his present circumstance, is that he can make even his most outlandish lies seem true enough to make them worthy of wars.
Before the council lit him up, the mayor had turned the Toronto Star into his principal adversary. In a four-newspaper town, the Star is the most liberal and the most persistent in its coverage of the mayor and his scandals. Two of its reporters, Kevin Donovan and Robyn Doolittle, were among the first non-gang members to see the video of him smoking crack. (Doolittle has recently released a book, Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story, in which she portrays the Fords as a kind of Canadian Kennedys, as ambitious and divine in their familial self-belief, if less graceful and less famously tragic in their public expression of it. The Fords have a seldom-seen sister, a former drug addict who survived the gunshot she took to her head.)
But more revealing of the mayor than even the crack scandal was his portrayal of an encounter with a different Star reporter, a soft-spoken 28-year-old named Daniel Dale. In May 2012, Dale had ventured to Etobicoke to report on the mayor's request to purchase some parkland adjacent to his house. On a sunny early evening, Dale looked at the property and tried to snap a photo of it with his BlackBerry, but the battery died. He was just about to leave when the mayor came sprinting around the corner, wearing a Team Ford campaign T-shirt.
"It's what he would be wearing in a dream about this," Dale says today. The mayor, he recalls, was agitated from the start, immediately accusing Dale of spying on him. He then charged at Dale with a raised fist, demanding his phone. "I started yelling for help," Dale says. "It was frightening. He's pretty fleet of foot. I tried to deke [decoy] him, but he shuffled to the side like an offensive lineman. He wouldn't let me go." So Dale threw his phone and recorder at the mayor's feet and managed to run away.
The police investigated the incident and found that Dale had done nothing wrong. But in the mayor's public accounting of the story over the intervening months, it became more and more sordid, a gross violation of his family's privacy by a newspaper and its minions determined to destroy him.
Dale was suddenly in his backyard. Then he was in his backyard at night. Then he was taking several photographs with a camera. Then those photographs included pictures of the mayor's children. None of this was true, but in its constant and expanding retelling, the story became true to the mayor's supporters, and perhaps it became true even to the mayor himself.
Finally, on 9 December, in an interview on Canadian television, he again recounted the incident, now 19 months old, after he was asked about the most "offensive events" of his tenure: "The worst one was Daniel Dale in my backyard taking pictures. I have little kids. When a guy's taking pictures of little kids, I don't want to say the word, but you start thinking, you know, what's this guy all about?"
Now Dale was a paedophile. Dale defended himself in print and the mayor said he stood by his account. Dale then sued the mayor for defamation. By Rob Ford standards, it was a minor drama.
At the council's December meeting, the mayor, freed for a month of most of his mayoral responsibilities and the first of his vanished kilos, appeared buoyant, almost released. He stood up and apologised to Dale, if incompletely, the latest in his long series of public evaporations. Since May, he had apologised for calling the media a "bunch of maggots," for making public appearances while "hammered," for texting and driving, for smoking crack, for a different video in which he'd expressed murderous rage in someone's dining room ("Obviously, I was extremely, extremely inebriated"), for talking about eating pussy, for stampeding over Councillor McConnell, and for saying in the chambers that his fellow council members were corrupt ("Like, super, super, super, super, super, super, super sorry").
Dale announced that he felt the apology was insufficient and he would proceed with his suit. Right about that time, on the council floor, for reasons that remain unclear, an ashy, broken-down reggae band, apparently with someone's approval, began playing Bob Marley's "One Love." Without warning, several of the councillors stood up and started dancing. None of the councillors, however, danced for as long or as enthusiastically as the mayor. He beamed and swayed and didn't seem very sure what to do with his hands, but he danced without restraint, as though nobody in that room were watching, even though everybody in the world was.
The next day, he issued a more thorough, written apology to Dale. It was unequivocal, a final admission that his version of events was entirely fabricated: "There was absolutely no basis for the statement I made about Mr Dale taking pictures of children, or any insinuations I made," it read in part. Dale dropped his suit, and the mayor issued a dance-floor challenge to anyone who thought they could keep up with him. "I love Bob Marley," he said.
Here we come to the lasting political lesson of the mayor and his improbable survival: shamelessness. It is his greatest gift. Shame, or the fear of it, confines most politicians – most human beings – within certain boundaries of behaviour. The mayor does not abide. His shamelessness allows him to say things like, "I can assure people, hopefully it won't happen again" with a straight face, but more important, it has allowed him to resist the unfathomable pressures that have been on him to quit.
When public people disappear in the wake of scandal, it's often because they can't stand to have become the objects of our scorn, or worse, our ridicule. Their most basic self-preservation instincts drive them into hiding like dying cats, where they can lament their poor choices with a civilian's private regret.
The mayor's not built like that. "I just block it out," he says. "I know when I go outside, at least half the people are going to support me, maybe more. I also know I'm going to get called names. I know that. Why even acknowledge it?"
What makes Rob Ford limitless, the truest source of his power, is that he doesn't fear your judgment. On the contrary, he's at his mightiest when he's being judged. This time his enemies are real. They surround him.
"I sincerely love my job and the people of this city," the mayor says when asked why he's running again, but it seems as though he also wants to remain mayor just to prove that he can, that he alone can negotiate the traps he's set for himself.
"We've had a couple of yahoos [rude people] causing trouble for the last few years," says a downtown councillor named Adam Vaughan, "but they've been dealt with."
That's how a vanquisher talks, and Vaughan makes it sound as though the story of the mayor is over. But it's at least a spring, a summer, and a fall from being over, and it's potentially forever from being over.
"I don't want to call it a street fight," the mayor says today. "But I'll never back down. If the people want me to leave, on 27 October, they'll tell me to leave. But no councillors are going to tell me to leave. I know what I'm doing is right."
Nobody knows what will happen next, of course. The police remain tight-lipped, but they haven't ruled out criminal charges against the mayor. As we go to press, Alexander Lisi's extortion trial still looms. The crack video has yet to be seen in public. But the mayor has put all of those things in their little boxes, and he's buried them deep underground, where they will wait until he's either forced to open them or to make room beside them for his foes.
Doug Ford will not be returning to the council. He plans to run for a provincial seat, for which elections will likely come this summer, and from which he will try to legislate fundamental changes to Toronto's municipal government: a smaller council, and a strong-mayor system more like Chicago's, like New York's. Soon after, if all goes according to the Ford family plan, the mayor will be returned triumphantly to his office. The polls remain divided, but most show that he maintains a decent statistical chance of victory.
Certain of his supporters have remained loyal, and they always will. "People bring up stuff 12 or 13 years ago that I did for 'em," he says. "I've done a lot of things and I don't even remember doing it, but to them — they couldn't believe that I'd actually come to their front door." No mayor has been in more living rooms. What if just enough of them prove still open to him?
With a new mandate, he will get his executive authority back, and his budgets back, and his office space and staff back, as well as any additional powers that his brother might provide from on high. He will have proven himself impervious to disaster, immune to science, unburdened by any of the weights and measures reserved for more ordinary emperors. He will be a political miracle, that rare man who can turn his worst weaknesses into his greatest strengths, an antihero whose back is as broad as elevator doors. The mayor will have all of the public power and none of the personal responsibility.
His Worship will be bulletproof.
Portraits by Finn O'Hara