When you’re a political commentator, people ask you about politics all the time. It comes with the territory.
Over the past couple of years, when travelling outside of Toronto, one of the questions I’m asked most often is ‘how the heck can someone like Rob Ford get elected as mayor of Toronto?’
I've sometimes tried to give an intellectual explanation about the intricacies of Toronto politics, about the city/suburban divide and how Toronto’s polarizing demographics have played a role.
But to be honest, not being from Toronto, I didn’t really understand it myself. I didn’t have a good answer to how Rob Ford – a city councillor with a history of controversies and allegations of racism, homophobia and alcohol abuse – could get promoted to be the mayor of Canada’s largest city.
With that question in mind, I jumped at the chance to attend the Ford Nation barbeque in Etobicoke last month.
This, I was told, would be the place to get into the minds of the types of people who put Rob and Doug Ford in charge at Toronto City Council.
The event was as remarkable as advertised.
We arrived at the barbeque at an empty lot in a light industrial area, and were immediately struck by the thousands of people of all ethnicities and ages. My cynical guest suggested that most of these people were simply there for the free food.
But once we started chatting with them, it became clear that a lot of them were actually passionate about city politics and truly adored the Fords.
I spoke Leo Robinson – a young ethnic man who recently moved to Brampton from Toronto – who said that stories of Rob Ford personally returning phone calls or even showing up at people’s homes were are all true.
“He looks out for the small guy and that’s what is important,” said Robinson, adding that he was planning to volunteer for the Doug Ford campaign.
“He made a little bit of mistakes in his life – but they were personal mistakes right? At the end of the day, people need to forgive. And I really forgive him.”
There were also a lot of families with young kids.
I spoke to one dad, Dino Olivera, who stood next to his three boys donning a sign that read “My Family Supports Ford Nation.”
I asked him if he was worried about Ford’s alcohol and drug abuse problems setting a bad example for his impressionable children.
“I’m teaching my kids how to save money," Olivera said. "It’s the Ford administration that’s doing that. It’s saving money for taxpayers. He’s doing a good job at city hall. Let him finish what he started.
“It is an issue where you teach your kids between right and wrong. Everybody has a bad habit or whatever. But we learn from our mistakes. The main thing is staying together and supporting Ford Nation.”
The highlight and quite possibly the oddest part of the evening was when a black SUV drove up – on the grass towards the main stage – with screaming people running alongside it.
Was this a rock star?
No, it was Rob Ford, coming to help his brother's mayoral campaign just a couple of days after being released from the hospital for his first chemotherapy treatment.
More Inside Ford Nation:
I’m still not sure I completely understand the Ford phenomenon.
But next time an Ottawa cab driver or a ancouver-based accountant asks me how Rob was elected to lead Canada’s largest city, I might have a better answer.
I’ll say that a large group of Torotonians – many of whom self-describe as Ford Nation – believe that Rob and Doug Ford are looking out for the average Torontonian family.
Despite their privileged upbringings, the Ford’s have cultivated an 'us versus them' mentality, branding themselves as the ultimate protectors against the city’s elite and the big bad media.
And, in doing so, they’ve become political celebrities.
I’ll also say that political wanabees and strategists should study the Ford methods closely.
Even if Oct. 27 is the end of Ford Nation, it was one heck of a ride – and one heck of a success story.
(Photo courtesy of Andy Radia)