Rob Ford returns to council roots as family continues influence on Toronto politics

Matt Coutts
Daily Brew
Mayor Rob Ford (R) is congratulated by his brother Doug after it was announced that Rob was elected as a city councillor and that Doug was stopped in his bid to become mayor in the municipal election in Toronto, October 27, 2014. REUTERS/Mark Blinch (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)

The conclusion of Toronto’s mayoral election on Monday will bring about an end to the current Rob Ford era of politics, but it does not spell an end to the Ford family’s influence on Toronto.

Far from it, in fact. Despite Doug Ford’s failed attempt to replace his brother as mayor, The Ford brand is likely to continue playing a significant role in how this city is governed over the next four years and beyond.

Key to this point will be Rob Ford’s return to council, after abandoning his mayoral bid to run for his old post in Ward 2 – Etobicoke North.  Ford called the audible in September after being diagnosed with cancer, saying returning to the Mayor’s Office while battling cancer would be too demanding. Instead, he returns to the embrace of his old council seat. 

Ford won his campaign handily, Monday night, holding 59 per cent of the vote with only a handful of polling stations left uncounted.  The victory will return Ford to council for the next four years, after 10 years as councillor and four more as mayor.

Rob Ford’s return to council means one certain thing: Toronto hasn’t seen the last of him. One presumes he’ll be the first candidate to sign up for a mayoral run in 2018.

“If Rob wins, and he survives his battle with cancer, which I hope he does, he is going to set himself up to run four years from now. He’ll be the opposition to John Tory,” Marcel Wieder, president of Aurora Strategy Group, told Yahoo Canada News.

Tory already has the backing and support of many members of council, and already appears to have his team in place. And following this contentious battle between Tory and the Ford family, it is highly unlikely we’ll see much cooperation between himself and Ford.

Wieder suspects Ford will be a “vocal critic on a number of fronts, especially anything that involves financials.” He’ll use that role to be a thorn in the mayor’s paw, pouncing on any delay, dither and dollar spent.

If we step back from the recent election and consider Rob Ford’s time as mayor, it is but a short blip on his larger political resume. Before winning the 2010 mayoral election, Ford was a popular councillor in Toronto’s Etobicoke suburbs, where he won three elections in dominating fashion.

During his 10 years as councillor, Ford developed a well-earned reputation as the anti-establishment firebrand. He railed against misspending with the passion of an outsider, with no government expense too small to criticize.  With the spotlight less bright, his scandals were less pronounced. Instead, his work in the community reached the status of urban legend.

He began helping residents outside of his ward. Councillors, now notoriously, became irritated at how often Ford would involve himself in their local affairs. This would become the heart of what is now known as Ford Nation, and the heart of what secures Ford a significant level of city-wide level of support to this day.

This was a role Ford excelled at. But his dedication to calling constituents and dealing with local minutiae isn’t something that translated to the most demanding role of mayor. And Ford’s position of being jaggedly opposed to the institution became confusing for everyone, including himself, when he sat at the face of that same institution.

Personal issues aside, this is perhaps what hurt Ford’s mayoralty the most. The gruff, antagonistic outsider-turned-insider refused to play nice with others. Council eventually turned against him and he failed to deliver much of his original mandate. His struggle with drugs and alcohol did the rest.

When Ford stepped out of the mayoral race and committed himself to running for his old council post, he all but ensured his return to city hall. Regardless of whether his brother won the election, Rob Ford would slide back into a council seat – either to become Doug’s right-hand man or to return to his old duties as agitator.

Either way, his legacy is larger and more established than ever now; his voice will be sought out and heard far more clearly than before his time as mayor. He will be free to return to the small-scale duties he loves, the ones councillors build their name one. He will return to railing against the “gravy train.” And most importantly, he’ll remain at the centre of the city hall circus with, and this is a key point, no record of an election loss on his resume.

Consider that point and think about where Toronto will be in 2018, when Ontario municipalities next vote. At best, we will have reached the halfway mark of Tory’s SmartTrack transit promise. But traffic will be worse, congestion will be more frustrating. Infrastructure will be four years older and, on top of that, the city will face a new set of inevitable problems.

Assuming Tory lives up to his promise of more discussion, collaboration and teamwork on city council, there will be at least a few projects seen by hard-right voters as “concessions” made to the looney left. Tory’s honeymoon will be over, Ford-era nostalgia will be at a peak. And there he will be, hammering Tory on council every day. Sounding like his old self, sober and hopefully well past the worst of his health scare.

Come campaign time, Rob Ford can position himself as the rightful mayor, the one who was never voted out or beaten in an election. The one who survived drugs and alcohol and worse. The one ready and wanting to lead.

Remember, Doug Ford briefly hinted earlier this month that he would consider stepping down if he wins the mayoral election to let Rob run in a by-election. He later distanced himself from the thought. But if nothing else, it indicates that Rob’s cancer hasn’t closed the book on his time as mayor. The Ford family’s political golden child could be back.

Which brings us to Doug Ford, whose future in politics is far less certain. Before replacing his brother in September, Ford appeared almost gleeful to be leaving Toronto politics. He didn’t run for re-election in Ward 2, leaving it to an inexperienced nephew (who later ceded the seat to Rob and ran for school trustee) to compete for the long-time Ford-family seat.

Doug’s plan was to return to managing the family business, Deco Labels and Tags, possibly even relocating to the Chicago office.

“He originally said he wants to go back to the family business,” Wieder said. “He was never planning on running, he was only planning on being the campaign manager for his brother. He’s all ready to make the transition to the private sector.”

Wieder notes, however, that rumours that Doug may eventually enter provincial politics have swirled for months, and continued to swirl on Election Day.

The Ontario Progressive Conservative Party is currently undergoing a leadership shift, which will not be settled until May of 2015. This means, theoretically, Ford could leapfrog from a second-place finish in the Toronto mayor’s race straight into a battle to become Ontario’s Leader of the Official Opposition.

Taking that theoretical run one step further, Ford could lead the PCs into the next provincial election, currently scheduled for October 4, 2018. The same year that Rob Ford could again run for mayor.

Toronto has seen the end of Rob Ford’s mayoralty. For now. But the Fords consider themselves a political dynasty. And dynasties never fade quietly into the night.

We could see a the Fords return four years from now. Until then, Rob Ford returns to what he has historically done best: being a member of the Toronto City Council’s vocal opposition.