Understanding the Ford mystique

Thomas Bink
Toronto mayoral candidate Doug Ford arrives at Ford Fest, a party held by the Ford family.

How to explain the Ford phenomenon?

Rob and Doug Ford – the current mayor of Toronto and his brother, a candidate to become the city’s next mayor – have captivated the hearts and minds of Torontonians like few politicians have.

Together, they have become the city’s blue-collar hero, the everyman, the local butcher with uncanny common sense. And for the legions of supporters who consider themselves members of Ford Nation, Rob and Doug represent a voice of reason in overly politically-correct world.

When Rob was forced to withdraw from the mayoral race in September, his supporters seamlessly transitioned over to brother Doug, quickly putting the elder Ford within striking distance of the brass ring despite only three weeks of campaigning.

“It defies political tradition and common sense,” Marcel Wieder, CEO of Arrow Communications Group and a long-time advisor of political candidates. “They are the anti-politician’s politicians.”

Oh sure, we’ve seen it before. Ralph Klein used straight talk to become Alberta’s most popular premier and Preston Manning launched a federal party based on cutting through political rhetoric. Even Mike Harris’s ‘Common Sense Revolution’ flipped Ontario upside-down after years of runaway government spending.

But the Fords are somehow different. More brash, more flawed, more fascinating.

The Fords shoot from the hip rather than reading from prepared notes. They are quick to fight and point fingers, to make blanket accusations and embellish their own achievements. Yet they realize that at the heart of every issue is a taxpayer’s hard-earned money.

According to Wieder, that’s why the Fords appeal to suburban voters who are frustrated by the established City of Toronto elite.

“It’s the suburbans thumbing their noses at the downtowners,” Wieder says, pointing out that the majority of city spending appears to be focused on Toronto’s core rather than the outer ring of Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York. “There’s a resentment. And when Ford talks about protecting taxpayers, he’s speaking a language that they can understand.”

It is for precisely this reason that Doug Ford calls press conferences to attack opponent John Tory, portraying him as just another member of the old guard with a questionable history of protecting taxpayers' dollars.

“People don’t want to turn the clock back, and John Tory and Olivia Chow represent a return to the old days,” Wieder says.

But come on. There’s got to be more to the Ford mystique than good timing and ongoing backlash to the David Miller era. City hall was a media circus during Rob Ford’s tenure; he made Toronto a punchline on the international stage. He admitted to smoking crack cocaine. How can sane, rational people continue to support this, even by extension through his brother?

“It’s the classic redemption story, and we all love redemption stories,” Wieder says. “There is a large capacity for forgiveness in peoples’ hearts.”

The key, he says, is that through it all, Ford never abused taxpayer dollars or his position of power; his foibles are viewed as personal issues that occurred outside the offices of city hall.

“He never violated the public’s trust,” Wieder says. “Unlike in London, where Joe Fontana defrauded taxpayers. And it’s not like Alison Redford in Alberta, where she was flying on public money, or closer to home in Brampton with Susan Fennell. He never abused the public’s money for personal benefit.”

And while only one Ford can become mayor, the brothers have been interchangeable throughout the campaign leading up to Monday’s election. It is the brand and the core message that appeals so strongly to Ford Nation supporters, not the individual.

So, how to explain the Ford phenomenon? Perhaps in the faces and voices of those inside Ford Nation:

Harry Vandekemp: Trusting the Fords to make 'wise decisions'

Iola Fortino: Believer, anti-bully and proud Ford Nation representative

Albert Wong: Just keep the taxman out of my pocket

Bonnie Luciano: Similar life lessons strengthened her loyalty to the Fords

I survived Ford Fest: Rally shows true colours of Ford supporters

(Photo courtesy of Reuters)