07/30/2011 04:30 EDT | Updated 09/29/2011 05:12 EDT

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford And Brother Doug: Straight-Talking Right-Wingers Make Waves


TORONTO - Who are Rob and Doug Ford? The answer depends entirely on who you ask.

Some have hailed Toronto's new mayor and his city councillor brother as men of the people with their fingers on the pulses and their eyes on the welfare of Joe Q public.

Others decry them as intolerant autocrats who would sacrifice the city's cultural, educational and economic future on the altar of fiscal restraint.

Some facts are indisputable — the Ford brothers govern from the right, shoot from the hip, and cause a stir both at home and farther afield.

Their names have dominated Toronto's headlines for months as they spearhead an ambitious effort to balance the city budget and eliminate a $774 million shortfall, but Rob Ford's alleged use of an obscene gesture to a resident who chastised him for using his cellphone while driving generated chatter beyond the city boundaries.

Rookie councillor Doug Ford's public attack on renowned author Margaret Atwood created even bigger waves, making headlines across Canada and even working its way into a British newspaper.

Such incidents are typical of the Ford Brothers' upfront communication style and are a key part of their political identity, said mayoral press secretary Adrienne Batra.

"One of the things that should be said about both the Fords. They're very plain-spoken people. They tell it like it is, love it or hate it," Batra said. "I think that's one of the aspects that's made them successful."

The domestic scrutiny is familiar for a family that's seen two generations have a turn in the spotlight.

Doug Ford Sr., who served four years as a provincial back bencher in the Conservative government of Mike Harris, gained local prominence as a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist. His label-making business, Deco Labels and Tags, evolved into a multimillion-dollar family-run company with operations in Canada and the U.S.

Youngest son Rob's political career began in 2000 when he earned a seat on Toronto's city council. His decade-long stint was peppered with colourful accounts of both political and personal matters, but also with stories of his hands-on approach to governing.

Ryerson University Associate professor Bryan Evans said Ford was locally revered for running his riding like a small town, adding his personal involvement with residents earned him a loyal following.

"I remember reading one anecdote of someone who had a plumbing problem and couldn't find a plumber," Evans said. "He went over himself and took care of whatever the issue was. This is real grass roots populism, and I believe it's authentic."

Ford's reputation was marred by other incidents, however. In 2006, he garnered widespread criticism for launching into a beer-fuelled tirade at a hockey game and hurling verbal abuse at a nearby couple. Ford initially denied the story when confronted by local media, but later admitted the incident took place.

He was accused of using ethnic slurs, both against east Asians as a group and a fellow councilman, and was cleared of domestic assault charges arising from a marital dispute in 2008.

Politically, Ford frequently came under fire for his hardline positions. He opposed funding for aids prevention, voiced his opposition to gay marriage, clashed with anti-poverty activists and fought additions of bike lanes and homeless shelters in his home riding.

Globe and Mail municipal affairs columnist Marcus Gee said Ford's tenure was truly defined by his aggressive stance against waste and inefficiency throughout the municipal government.

"He disdained it for 10 years and was a really out there gadfly who, during his council times, did not really have any allies on the right of city council. He was so out there," Gee said. "Now, he's running the place."

Ford's pet cause helped propel him to power in late 2010. He ran a tightly focused campaign lamenting wasteful spending at City Hall and exhorting voters to "stop the gravy train." He won the election handily, beating his nearest opponent with a convincing 11 per cent margin.

His old seat remained in the family when older brother Doug was elected to his first term on council.

Ford's mayoralty ushered in a controversial era in Toronto politics. Faced with a budget deficit that even his fiercest critics acknowledge is a top priority, he commissioned consulting firm KPMG to undertake a review of the city's core services and identify areas of inefficiency.

The resulting recommendations include cuts to police budgets, a merger of fire and emergency medical services, privatization of city services, greatly reduced funding to artistic and cultural programs, and the closure of some of its public libraries.

Torontonians recently descended on City Hall by the hundreds to voice opposition to the prospective cuts, while petitions and other grass roots protests have sprung up across cyberspace.

The fate of the city's libraries has proved particularly divisive and took on new life after Doug Ford dismissed Atwood's public plea to save them.

“Good luck to Margaret Atwood,” he said. "I don’t even know her. She could walk right by me, I wouldn’t have a clue who she is. . . . Tell her to go run in the next election and get democratically elected."

Batra said the recommendations have not yet been implemented and form only one part of the administration's strategy to balance the budget. She said an upcoming efficiency study and user fee review will also form key pieces of the puzzle.

The Fords' critics, however, lose no time in attacking their approach to government. Evans described their philosophy as "simple-minded," saying success in the business world does not equip the brothers to take the helm of Canada's largest city.

He said the library issue epitomized the brothers' priorities, echoing the refrain voiced by many Ford opponents about the fate of their city.

Libraries are symbols of culture, of learning, of neighbourhood integration and cohesion.