In the realm of Toronto municipal politics, the months between May 2013 and Oct. 2014 resembled a conflation of Shakespearean political drama and Marx Brothers farce. Every day seemed to bring new revelations about extra-curricular malfeasance and accusations of impropriety at best – and, at worst, outright illegality – on the part of then Mayor Rob Ford. Beginning on May 16, 2013, with the publication by the website Gawker and the Toronto Star newspaper of allegations involving a video purporting to show Mayor Ford smoking crack cocaine, and continuing through the municipal election of Oct. 27 the following year, the story of Ford’s tumultuous time in office became fodder for delighted scandal mongers, late-night talk show hosts, and shell-shocked politicos trying to determine what the hell was going on and how exactly we got there in the first place.
At the centre of the maelstrom was Mark Towhey, a trusted adviser who worked on Ford’s 2010 election campaign, later becoming the mayor’s director of policy and strategic planning, then chief of staff, a position he was summarily fired from in May 2013 after imploring Ford to take time off to get help for his various addictions. Towhey’s insider experience forms the backbone of his book, co-written with Toronto journalist Johanna Schneller, which peels back the curtain to display the inner workings of a political administration that gives new meaning to the term “dysfunctional.”
From the beginning, Ford was the most divisive leader in the city’s history, but Towhey makes clear his sympathies for the policies – smaller government, lower taxes, and increased efficiencies – that drove the conservative mayor’s agenda. And Towhey reminds us that for the first year of his incumbency, Ford exceeded expectations. He scrapped the roundly despised $60 vehicle registration tax and had the Toronto Transit Commission declared an essential service. He froze municipal taxes in the year 2011 and avoided a costly strike among city workers by concluding a successful round of negotiations with public-sector unions. Where most observers thought it would be remarkable were Ford simply to survive his first term, in the early stages he actually achieved many of his stated goals. Once the crack video story broke – along with attendant narratives about a debaucherous night at City Hall and elsewhere on St. Patrick’s Day, 2012, and public displays of drunkenness at the 2012 Garrison Ball and the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee Action Party in March 2013 – Ford’s early successes were largely forgotten.
All but the most dedicated political junkies will likely find the pace of Towhey’s book flags somewhat in the middle, where he goes into great detail about behind-the-scenes manouevring involved in the 2011 labour negotiations and the subsequent battle between Ford and city council over plans for future expansion of public transit. (Ford wanted to scrap his predecessor’s Transit City plan, which involved a network of light rail lines, in favour of extending the Sheppard subway line east to suburban Scarborough.)
It is the book’s final third, detailing the erstwhile mayor’s spiral into addiction and self-destructive behaviour, that holds the greatest interest for voyeuristic readers, and those longing for some insight into Ford’s psychology and motivations during the second half of his term. Though this section of the book is replete with schadenfreude, those hoping for a vicious character assassination will come away disappointed. Towhey presents Ford as a figure more pitiable than venal: when a judge finds against the mayor in a 2012 conflict-of-interest case and orders him expelled from the mayoralty (a decision overturned on appeal), Ford’s sole question – “Will they give me enough time to clean out my office?” – comes across not as arrogant or naive so much as achingly sad.
Towhey has little time for the media, which he treats with suspicion bordering on outright derision (the exception being the “brilliant columnist for the National Post,” Christie Blatchford), but if there is a villain in the book, it is Ford’s elder brother, Doug. Contrary to popular perception, Towhey argues, Doug was not the brains of the operation, nor were the Fords effectively co-mayors. Instead, Towhey portrays Doug Ford as a manipulative hanger-on, constantly bullying his way into meetings to which he was not invited and using his relationship with his brother to advance his own reputation among the political and social elite.
This is not to suggest that Towhey is uncritical of his former boss, or reluctant to portray the full extent to which Ford’s personal “demons” affected those around him. Though he does downplay the number of instances of bad behaviour, especially following his own departure as chief of staff. Ford’s verbal abuse of regular citizens in the gallery at city council during hearings to strip him of his power as mayor, and his barrelling over fellow councillor Pam McConnell on the floor of the council chamber are but two unsavoury occurrences that do not merit any mention in the book. And there are disturbing indications that even knowing everything we do, there is still more that remains in the shadows. Towhey mentions a phone call he received in the wee hours of the morning “sometime in February 2012.” It was the mayor, apologizing for having done “something bad” and saying that “it’s over. It’s all over.” Having made this cryptic admission, Towhey writes, Ford hung up. “I never found out exactly what he was talking about.”