Was Rob Ford the larger-than-life politician who championed the cause of the everyman or a mayor infamous for smoking crack and numerous other allegations including drunk driving while in office?
As hundreds of mourners gather in downtown Toronto Wednesday to watch Ford’s casket in a procession many are wondering how history will remember the divisive political figure.
The former mayor and city councillor passed away last week at the age of 46 after succumbing to a rare and aggressive form of cancer.
If you have a problem call Rob
One of the forces that led to Rob Ford’s rise to power was his ability to connect with suburban voters who felt alienated from politicians who didn’t listen to them and his pledge to “stop the gravy train.”
John Filion, a fellow city councillor, said Ford even went to an “extreme extent” to help local residents.
“He wanted to look after the little guy and being connected to constituents to an extreme extent to the point of spending a good part of his day even when he was mayor and doing site visits,” said Filion, who wrote a book last year about Ford titled The Only Average Guy.
“Nobody can deny how dedicated he was. If anybody brought a problem to his attention he wanted it fixed and he wanted it fixed right away.”
During his time as mayor Ford was well-known for giving out his personal cellphone number to the public and personally attending to help with small problems.
His chant “subways, subways, subways” during his election campaign is still felt at city hall. As mayor, Ford pushed to take all transit underground at a higher cost despite fully funded agreements to build a light rail transit in Scarborough.
The mayor did succeed in fulfilling some of his campaign promises too: soon after his 2010 win, council voted to declare the Toronto Transit Commission an essential service to prevent further labour disruptions, and contracted out garbage collection east of Yonge Street. The city also backed Ford’s pledge to scrap the $60 vehicle registration tax a move in 2011 that cost the city $64 million a year in revenue.
“He was not a success as the mayor in my opinion,” said Filion. “There are people who disagree. I think objectively speaking he was not a good mayor.”
“But I wouldn’t say he was a bad councillor,” he said. “If you take out the four years he was mayor I’d say he was a success as a politician.”
Filion said that part of his legacy will be reminding politicians: “you need to be able to connect with the people who elect you.”
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In November 2013, Rob Ford admitted to smoking crack following months of speculation and a series of reports that there was a video of him smoking crack cocaine.
The admission quickly led to international headlines and he became fodder for late night talk shows with some even referring to him as the ‘crack mayor.’
The scandals from his turbulent time in office continued to grow: he was a subject of an expansive police investigation and a two-month stint in rehab which brought his battle with alcohol addiction into the public.
Mark Towhey, Ford’s former chief of staff, published a book in 2015 on his time with the embattled mayor writing “Two senior members of the Toronto Police Service had told me officers had pulled over the mayor’s car late at night on multiple occasions and driven him home rather than charging him for driving under the influence.”
Despite Ford’s turbulent years as mayor, Zack Taylor a professor of geography at the University of Western Ontario, who previously lived in Toronto, said in “10 or 20 years” the public probably won’t be talking about the former mayor.
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“We’re not going to be talking about Rob Ford anymore,” said Taylor. “Certainly I don’t think we’re going to be talking about him any more than we are today June Rowlands, or Dennis Flynn or even Mel Lastman.
“These people, colourful people, people who did all kinds of things good and bad have faded from the public consciousness.”
Taylor says while the public may not be talking about Ford the person in a decade his colourful mark on politics will still be felt.
“I don’t want to overdraw the comparison but there is a broader political and cultural appetite for a particular kind of political character right now in our times,” he said. “Rob Ford exemplified that in the city of Toronto.”
Ford laid to rest
While Ford’s death has left hundreds of his followers grieving, thousands of well-wishes poured in from politicians and others who knew the man.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave his condolences to Ford’s family after hearing of the former mayor’s death.
“My heart goes out to his wife Renata and to his two young children,” he said in Ottawa. “Our thoughts are with the entire Ford family at this difficult time.”
And while some experts have suggested there will never be a new leader to Ford Nation, Filion says there will never be a “historical consensus” on the polarizing figure.
“I don’t think there will ever be any historical consensus on Rob Ford,” he said.
“In many ways he served as a human Rorschach test for the city of Toronto and people looked at him and they saw all sorts of things that had more to do with who they were than who he was. He provoked that reaction in people,” Filion said.
“There will be a group that will continue to remember him as the best mayor ever there will be a group that continues to remember him as the worst mayor ever.”