In an era when celebrity is fueled by antics caught on video, former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was an unwitting superstar.
Clips and photos of him smoking crack, incoherently raging and making profane statements went viral during his time as mayor, providing ample material for late-night TV.
City council members, who complained that the combative, often-disheveled mayor was making Toronto a laughingstock, stripped him of many of his office’s powers. But Ford, a conservative politician who battled taxes and what he considered to be flagrant government overspending, retained substantial public support and was gaining on his chief opponent for reelection in 2014.
Then he met a foe he couldn’t browbeat or explain away. In the midst of the campaign, Ford was diagnosed with cancer.
He withdrew from the mayoral race in September 2014 because of an abdominal tumor. Further tests showed that he had liposarcoma, a rare, aggressive form of cancer.
His brother, Doug, stepped into the mayor’s race in his stead but was soundly defeated in the October election. Rob Ford, however, remained so popular in his home ward that he won back his former council seat in the same election, even though he did almost no campaigning.
In April 2015, he announced he would undergo major surgery on the tumor in his abdomen, which had not shrunk as much as hoped from extensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Ford died on Tuesday, his family said. He was 46.
He had won a landslide victory in 2010 to become mayor, running on promises to cut taxes and “end the gravy train” of expanding government spending. His brash manner struck a chord with voters going through tough economic times, and his anti-union stance was popular in the wake of a withering garbage strike.
Especially attractive to some suburban voters was his railing against pro-bicycle transportation policies that Ford called a “war on cars.” Although Ford expressed sympathy for cyclists killed in traffic collisions, he said, “It's their own fault at the end of the day.”
Drinking and drug incidents that came to light during the 2010 campaign — including a 1999 DUI and marijuana possession arrest and his ejection from a 2006 Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game because of a drunken rant — didn’t seem to resonate negatively with voters.
Ford, who made no excuses for missing city council meetings so that he could coach his beloved high school football team, was seen as a man of the people.
But he had a privileged upbringing.
Robert Bruce Ford was born May 28, 1969, in Etobicoke, a municipality later amalgamated into the city of Toronto. His father, Doug Sr., founded the Deco Label & Tags printing business that became a $100-million enterprise, according to Toronto Life magazine.
Teenage Rob Ford, who had aspirations of being a pro football player, made the roster at Scarlett Heights high school. But at Carleton University in Ottawa, where he studied political science, he played sparingly and left before graduating to join the family business.
Ford was first elected to Toronto’s city council in 2000 and reelected twice. He was seen as a lone wolf on the council, not prone to compromise.
As mayor, he moved quickly on his agenda, killing a hated vehicle registration tax, leveling spending and winning concessions from unions.
Legislators who wavered in support of his programs were reportedly threatened with the ire of Ford’s most ardent and vocal supporters, nicknamed the Ford Nation.
But as time went on, Ford failed to build a consensus for all his proposals. A waterfront development plan pushed by his chief confidant — his older brother Doug — was voted down, though one city council member later said it was “absolutely terrifying” to break with the Fords.
A plan to close some neighborhood libraries was opposed in public meetings by tearful children, and earned the ire of one of Canada’s most esteemed literary figures, novelist Margaret Atwood.
In May 2013, the website Gawker and the Toronto Star newspaper reported that they had viewed a cellphone video that showed the mayor smoking crack. Ford’s reaction was emphatic. He said he did not smoke crack and that the video did not exist — two declarations that turned out to be false. But in the intervening period, his celebrity on unwanted terms grew wide.
A photograph emerged of the smiling mayor with three men allegedly involved in drug dealing, one of whom later was shot and killed during a fight. More reports of Ford’s out-of-control drinking at events popped up, including at a gala dinner he was asked to leave.
His public persona was not helped by the fact that he was a hefty man prone to stumbling — just the thing for YouTube videos.
Then the bombshell. On Oct. 31, 2013, Toronto’s chief of police told a news conference that the crack video had been found during a police raid. Ford spent a week sidestepping the issue before acknowledging, “Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine.” He apologized and said he would “move on.”
But the scandal wouldn’t subside. City council meetings became must-see viewing worldwide, with Ford careening around the room, rejecting any suggestion that he step down, and mocking council members. Another video popped up, showing Ford at a restaurant, raging profanely. And, according to a court document, former Ford staffers told police that they suspected he was indulging in a variety of drugs and associating with prostitutes.
That last allegation led to one of the most bizarre Ford press statements on live TV, in which he referred, in his defense, to oral sex.
Ford stayed on as mayor even when the city council stripped him of much of his powers and budget. Only when a second video emerged, again showing him smoking crack, did he take a leave to enter a rehabilitation program.
Returning to his job in June 2014, Ford was as feisty as ever on the campaign trail, attending events until the day before entering the hospital.
Shortly before his first chemotherapy treatment, an uncommonly subdued Ford recorded an audio message in which he said he sympathized with anyone facing dire health problems.
“Don’t ever give up,” said Ford, who had survived much in political his life. “Be strong, stay positive and have hope — just never give up.”
David Colker is a former Times staff writer. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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