Andray Domise steps into the lobby of a 10-storey community housing building in Toronto’s Rexdale neighbourhood, convinced he’s not wasting his time.
In a few days, he will lose – badly – in his bid to win a spot on city council, an effort that attracted unprecedented attention and fundraising dollars for a first-time candidate.
But on this warm afternoon in late October, so close to the end, he projects confidence and certainty.
Dressed in a black overcoat and grey, striped scarf, he says the gruelling six-month campaign has him about 40 pounds lighter on his 6 foot 3 frame. There were many days he plumb forgot to eat.
Domise spots a woman who appears to be in her 30s headed toward the elevator. He politely asks to speak with her but she doesn’t respond.
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“Excuse me,” he says. “Have you made up your mind about who you will vote for?”
“Yep. Ford,” she replies.
“Is there anything I can do to change your mind?” he wonders.
The elevator arrives and she gets on, but leaves a foot on the floor to keep the doors from closing.
Domise makes his pitch. He shares what he views as the biggest issues in this community: poor transit options, a dearth of youth programs, not enough affordable childcare or development, social needs left unaddressed. All problems about which he wants to do something. All problems she says aren’t “Ford’s fault.”
Unprompted, she tells him there were many times in her life when she was an abused woman and that Ford has “been there.” She says he even helped her land a new apartment in a pinch. “Quick time.”
Domise says she doesn’t have to make a decision now but hopes she will at least take his literature. She accepts his glossy pamphlet, says she’ll read it. The door closes.
It’s not clear if the Ford she was lauding was Rob or Doug. Maybe, in these parts, it doesn’t matter.
It’s said there’s a barrier to entry in politics, as if it’s a club made to seem cooler by the people waiting outside.
For some, though, it can feel like a spot is saved. That somewhere inside, a seat is being kept perpetually warm.
It’s a game where money matters. Connections matter. One wants to believe talent matters. And last names certainly matter, especially at the municipal level where established brands can dwarf the unknowns.
Here in Etobicoke’s Ward 2, primarily west of the Humber River and north of Highway 401, last names might mean everything.
This is the heart of the so-called Ford Nation. And this is where Andray Domise wants to make his start.
Domise grew up not far from here on John Garland Blvd. and Martin Grove Road. He was mostly raised by a single mom who immigrated from Jamaica in search of a better life soon found.
His biological father isn’t in the picture. The last name Domise carries belongs to his mother.
He doesn’t know how he caught the political bug, just that it’s always been there. As a kid, he would stay up late to watch election results and think about things like the Meech Lake Accord when nobody else his age cared about that stuff. He says he loved policy, how things are put together.
He wasn’t on students’ council or model UN, always viewing those kinds of activities as punching above his weight.
Still, Domise studied political science at the University of Windsor and wrote opinion pieces for the student newspaper. He had to quit school after it became too much to balance coursework with the three part-time jobs he needed to make tuition. One of those gigs was a nightclub bouncer where he decided who got in, who didn’t. He completed his degree through distance studies two years ago.
Domise says he decided to run because he understands this part of Canada’s largest city and earnestly believes it has been neglected for years.
The most recent census statistics will tell you that about 55,000 Torontonians call this place home. The average household income is $72,000 – or about 17 per cent less than the rest of the city. Fifty-four per cent of residents here were born outside of Canada, with about nine per cent coming from India, four per cent from Italy, and three per cent from Jamaica.
The area is mostly industrial but includes part of Rexdale, a neighbourhood working to move beyond a reputation for violence and poverty.
It also contains the six Dixon Road apartment buildings made famous by the pre-dawn Project Traveller raids in June, 2013, that saw dozens arrested on charges related to drugs, gangs, and guns. Those raids would eventually spur the discovery of a video showing the mayor smoking crack.
According to a 2012 report by Social Planning Toronto, more than 24 per cent of people in Ward 2 live in poverty. “Youth drop out of school at higher rates than in other areas of Toronto and, unable to find work, may drift into gang-related and criminal activity,” the report reads.
Yet, the ward also includes the Woodbine racetrack and residential subdivisions, some of which boast million-dollar suburban homes.
And for decades now, one last name has been golden out here.
In 1995, Doug Ford Sr., a rags-to-riches businessman who co-founded Deco Labels & Tags, was elected to represent some of these neighbourhoods as a Progressive Conservative member of provincial Parliament.
In 2000, long before he became His Worship or played the part of cartoonish, buffoonish punchline on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” Rob Ford won the right to represent this area at City Hall. He held the seat for 10 years, through various controversies and indignities, before he began to eye Toronto’s top job.
Four years ago, Doug Ford captured the seat with little to no campaigning as his baby brother improbably steamrolled to the mayor’s office on pledges of respecting taxpayers and stopping gravy trains. Two Fords for the price of one, folks.
Not long after, Prime Minister Stephen Harper lauded the emergence of a “conservative political dynasty” in this part of Toronto. Neither Rob nor Doug actually live here but the family business and their childhood home – reportedly valued at $1.3 million – are both in the ward.
Earlier this year, Doug announced he wouldn’t run again in Ward 2, fed up with what he saw as dysfunction at City Hall. Still, he repeatedly hinted – fear not – another Ford would be on the ballot.
It was always expected that candidate would be Michael, the 20-year-old son of Rob and Doug’s sister, Kathy. His father, Ennio Stirpe, is currently serving 18 years behind bars for a knife attack that left a woman blind in one eye.
In February, Mikey legally changed his last name from Stirpe to Ford. In July, he announced his candidacy. Though he wouldn’t talk to the media and Uncle Doug said his nephew wouldn’t debate, an August poll had him at 43 per cent support in the ward.
Of course, things would change wildly as summer turned to fall. Rob would be diagnosed with cancer and drop out of the mayor’s race to run again for councillor. Mikey would pivot toward school board trustee instead. Doug would decide he actually hadn’t had enough and gun for Ford More Years, hell or high-water.
And by October, a familiar brand name would be splashed across this ward in red, white, and blue.
Domise aims to knock on every door in this building, starting at the top and working his way to the street.
This is the same spot where, last December, Doug Ford was caught on video handing out $20 bills to residents in the name of holiday cheer. A rival councillor took to Twitter at the time to say “this is how rich people buy votes.”
When residents engage, Domise makes no mention of his opponent’s personal demons. He came today to speak of substance, not substance issues. He treads carefully, always carefully, telling them he has “nothing against Rob and Doug” personally.
But he wants them to know that in 2012, the brothers Ford voted against increasing the operating budget by $670,000 to save childcare centres. The next year, they both voted against spending nearly $4 million in provincial funding for 264 more subsidized childcare spaces. In both cases, city council got on with things in spite of the Fords.
He tells them how Rob and Doug tend to dismiss investments in the community as a waste of taxpayers’ money or, when they come from developers, “shakedowns.” He doesn’t alter his message when a man opens up wearing a “Ford For Mayor” T-shirt with “Stop the cash grab” written in red on the back.
He tells them 14,000 jobs have been lost around here since Rob Ford first tasted power.
He tells them about how, win or lose, he will launch an after-school program to teach kids how to design web apps and video games. Kids around here need something to do to keep them away from trouble. He’s dubbed the initiative “Techsdale.”
And Domise reminds them that he grew up in this neighbourhood. He still worships in a nearby church. He remembers fondly the old community domino tournaments.
Many are receptive, or at least polite. Others seem to wonder what the hell he’s doing.
He raps on one door and a woman answers.
“Hi, I’m Andray. Are you planning on voting Monday?” he asks.
She shuts the door in his face.
“I’ll take that as a no.”
A few doors down, another woman won’t even turn the doorknob.
“What would you like me to do?” she asks through the door.
“Well, what I’d like you to do is vote for me, hopefully. Is now a bad time?”
“Yeah,” she says. “Goodbye.”
He slides his information through her mail slot and moves on.
At his campaign office, about two hours before canvassing, Domise explains what he thinks it takes to be successful in politics.
“You have to be one of three things: rich, famous, or the best candidate,” he says. “My option is the third one.”
Not many knew Domise when he first filed his papers to run in April at the incessant urging of his partner, Chantal, who reminds him life needs to be kicked in the face.
Andrew Young, a friend he met volunteering for Ontario Liberals, vowed to manage his campaign every step of the way.
Though the 34-year-old knows Ward 2, the fact that he moved away means he is now trying to regain trust from the community. Domise spent part of his high school years in Florida where his stepfather had a job but came back to Canada by the time he was 20.
After returning from Windsor, he found work as a financial planner and taught financial literacy classes for the Toronto District School Board. He eventually landed a job at Sun Life Financial and worked his way up to best practices manager, settling customer complaints.
Domise now lives outside this ward, somewhere closer to the Lakeshore Boulevard. But growing up here, Domise says he saw all the problems he now wants to fix as normal.
“We were told you go to school, you put your head down, you work hard and maybe an opportunity will pop up,” he recounts.
His grandmother, who came to Canada from Port Antonio, Jamaica in the ‘70s, set an example of public service by working in a senior’s home. His mother worked in group homes and, today, plans to open a restaurant.
Domise says he inherited his mother’s outspokenness. It’s a characteristic that ultimately helped him become a little more recognizable in a game where recognition is arguably half the battle.
Domise was at the Toronto Ribfest on Canada Day when he spotted a crowd of young black men cheering for Rob Ford, who had just returned from rehab.
“Where I lost respect for him as a politician was after the truth of the crack tape came to light,” Domise explains. “Where I lost respect for him as a human being was when he had gone off on that rant and it was reported in The Toronto Star that he calls himself the most racist guy around.”
Domise wondered if those kids knew how the mayor speaks when they’re not around.
“The dichotomy sitting right there in front of my face was so much that I had to go over to him and say something,” he says.
When he tapped Rob on the shoulder, Domise says he got the impression the mayor thought he was “another one of those young black dudes” who wanted a selfie. He had something else in mind.
He says Rob replied, simply, that “it’s complicated” and walked away.
“If it’s for adulation, if we want to go out and fawn around him, he’s got all the time for us. But if we actually want to question him on stuff that he’s said or done then he has no time whatsoever,” Domise says.
The incident made headlines in the city after Domise penned an open letter to Toronto’s black community that went viral.
On the same day that letter was published, Rob Ford sat down for TV interviews where he blamed his past use of racial slurs and all manner of sin on his addiction woes. “You say things, do things that aren’t you,” he said.
Within weeks, Domise found himself on Newstalk 1010 discussing what happened at RibFest. Doug Ford called into the show to say his brother – once caught on tape ranting in Jamaican patois at a Rexdale fast food joint – is more popular in the black community than Barack Obama.
Domise sparked further buzz when he called out Olivia Chow for, in his view, using young black people as her backdrop at a press conference in which she called for a handgun ban in Toronto.Suddenly, people were paying attention to this Andray Domise fellow.
In early July, he left his job at Sun Life to dedicate himself fully to the campaign. Domise confesses that while he had some savings, he was terrified to let go of a comfortable salary.
Michael Ford, whom Domise says for the record is actually a “sweet kid,” officially entered the race for Ward 2 on July 18. Domise says he was disappointed the media immediately latched on to narrative of a family dynasty in Rexdale instead of the issues.
“I heard a lot of talk about the Canadian Kennedys and it infuriated me because it’s essentially telling the people of this ward that they are under a Ford fiefdom. That they belong to the Ford family,” he says.
“The needs of this neighbourhood were put behind keeping the Ford legacy intact.”
On another floor, a man with a thick Jamaican accent is getting heated with one of Domise’s volunteers.
“Why I want to see him now?” the man asks.
“Why?” Domise responds by way of introduction as he rounds the corner.
“Why I’ve never seen him before?” the man shouts.
“The reason you’ve never seen me before is because I’ve never run before. The reason I’m running is because we need help out here,” Domise says.
“Because you want votes.”
“Hang on. Don’t treat me like I’m any other politician. I’m a member of the community. I grew up here. And I’m running because I want changes in my neighbourhood.”
“No, you can’t change it.”
“I can’t change it?”
“No, you can’t change it.”
“Why can’t I change it?”
“Only one person can change it.”
“You see what we do to each other? Hang on.”
“I will vote for the Rob Ford. Bye, my friend.”
“Hold on. Where you from?”
“Where you from?” Domise asks.
“Where me from?”
“Yeah. Where you from?” Domise asks, a little louder.
“I’m a Canadian.”
“Yeah. Where you from?” Domise asks, a touch louder.
“I’m a Canadian.”
“Originally?” Domises asks, with emphasis on each syllable. Ori-gi-na-lly.
“Which part you come from in Jamaica?”
“Where I come from in Jamaica?”
“Yeah. Where you come from in Jamaica?”
“Where I come from in Jamaica?”
The man slams the door.
“Alright, take it easy.”
Another floor down, Domise says those type of exchanges happen once a week. Sometimes, things escalate quickly.
“The reason I asked him where he came from? I recognized his accent. He’s from Trelawny, a suburb of Kingston, Jamaica,” Domise says. “But because he sees my face, sees I’m wearing a suit, he thinks I’m here to get something from him.”
Domise suggests that attitude – that enduring belief that nothing is ever going to change around here – is what he’s really up against. He calls it a strand of self-defeatism that’s too often passed down.
“He’ll look at somebody like Rob and Doug, who’ve already taken so much from the community, and just give (them) a pass on everything. But somebody here to make a difference? He’s going to assume I’m here to take advantage of him personally.”
Back in his office, where his sharp "AD" logo appears on wine glasses, Domise confesses he once wanted to work for Rob Ford.
He interviewed in the mayor’s office shortly after the first, seemingly far-fetched tale of a crack video broke in May, 2013, and an exodus of staffers commenced.
David Price, the controversial aide hired at the time because, according to Doug Ford “you can’t teach loyalty,” told Domise they weren’t really political in the mayor’s office. They were a family.
Though a progressive, Domise felt the media was hounding the mayor with no real evidence. And he feared even less would be accomplished in his neighbourhood under the weight of such distractions.
“At the time, I was still innocent in thinking — this is the mayor’s office. We should treat it with more respect,” Domise explains. “Little did I know that he was treating the mayor’s office with more disrespect than I could have imagined.”
He says the idea of working with the Fords became impossible once the full truth came out.
But when he eventually found himself running against Rob Ford, Domise set out to remind voters that a councillor’s job is about more than pointing at potholes and promising subways that won’t be built.“Residents get blinded by the fact that he shows up at your house with a smile and shakes your hand, maybe even comes in, sits down, and has tea with you,” Domise says. “But you still can’t get your child into a daycare facility.”
In some ways, Domise understands the Fords’ appeal to the black community. His beloved grandmother was once a Rob Ford backer.
“We don’t expect any representation or support from City Hall. And the person who shows the barest minimum of civility to us is somebody that we should champion even if he is completely stabbing us in the back,” he says.
Domise recounts canvassing one day and, after explaining his platform to a woman of Caribbean descent, was promptly told: That’s nice, but I’m voting for Rob Ford anyway.
“What I could see written all over her face was: how dare you? How dare you stand up to him, this person who has treated us so well,” he says.
Domise has also recruited volunteers who speak Somali to act as his translators, when needed. Once while canvassing down in the Dixon Road area, one such campaign worker explained to a Somali man why Domise thought he could win. The man laughed and told him, in English: “Even the trees vote for Rob Ford.”
Domise sees the Fords as experts in the art of “forced dependency” around here. So, instead of fighting for community funds to, say, refurbish parks, “Doug will take $5,000 out of his pocket” for the project.
Instead of fighting for a community rec centre, Doug started an after-school basketball program in a Toronto Community Housing building. Domise says all the councillor really did was donate some jerseys and the program has since folded.
“Doug never set up a goddamn basketball program,” Domise says for the record.
The subtle message is always: Don’t worry about City Hall. We’ve got your back. And it works. But boy, it can be frustrating.
“From my point of view, if you consider yourself black or you consider yourself Caribbean, somebody who wants the best for your community, wants a better opportunity for you children... If you really think it is important for us to uplift ourselves and you support Rob Ford, you ought to be ashamed of yourself,” he says.
Domise and Young, his campaign manager, say a big part of taking on the Fords is acknowledging that there is seemingly one set of rules for them, another for everyone else.
As an example, Domise points to the fact that Rob Ford was kicked out of three advance polling stations after glad-handing with voters. The Municipal Elections Act prohibits anyone for “directly or indirectly” trying to influence how people cast ballots at a voting station. The mayor received a warning from the city clerk.
He says “Ford For Mayor” signs were hung over highway overpasses and staked down on Toronto Community Housing properties where they are prohibited.
Domise says many of his supporters wouldn’t put a sign on their lawn, fearing they might find their tires slashed.
He says one of his aunts tried to lead a canvassing drive at a private apartment building and was told by the superintendent that if she wasn’t there to support Doug Ford, she couldn’t enter the building.
“We’ve tried so hard to make sure that we’re staying inside the lines,” Domise says of his team. “We’re trying so hard to make sure that we’re playing by the rules. And there are no rules that apply to the Fords whatsoever.”
But Young says Rob Ford’s cancer diagnosis did not change their hard-nosed approach to the campaign. They were always taking on an unwell person.
“As long as you’re running against Rob, you’re already running against a sick man,” Young says. “And the way the public has reacted to his second illness, as opposed to his first, is very telling about the way we think about mental health in this city.”
The campaign did make mistakes, though, like when Domise brought flowers, a get-well card, and the media to Rob Ford’s home. The mayor’s wife, Renata, slammed the door in Domise’s face.
Though he says it was a goodwill gesture, Domise understands how it was seen as crass. He wrote a public apology and promised to do better.
Domise says he couldn’t have anticipated the support his team received from across the city. Hundreds of donors wrote cheques to keep them going. Volunteers came out from all sides.
He thinks his pull-no-punches attitude on social media had something to do with it, even if his tweets sometimes gave his campaign manager heart palpitations.
In early October, Doug Ford was confronted at a mayoral debate by a college student with Asperger's over his earlier claim that a non-profit centre for autistic children “ruined” an Etobicoke neighbourhood. When Ford refused to apologize, Domise popped online.
In the last week before the vote, Domise’s team announced they had raised $65,000 in donations.
They urged would-be donors to give their money to other progressive candidates instead.
On another floor, Domise is getting somewhere with an older Jamaican woman named Lorette who says she’s not sure if she’ll vote Monday. He tells her he hopes she will, regardless of who she supports.
“My opponent is Rob Ford and nothing against him, but because he’s been saying no every single time we ask for help in this neighbourhood, we need to get some changes at City Hall,” he says.
“He said no?” she asks incredulously.
“Yes. When it came to 264 childcares spaces we asked for, he voted no against that,” he says.
“Both Rob and Doug.”
He tells her Rob Ford has also voted against funding for the Caribana festival.
“Are you serious?” she asks
He promises to print off proof and bring it back to her, if she’d like.
“I thought they were doing something,” she says.
“It’s that overseer’s mentality,” he says. “When we ask for help from City Hall to be able to do the work ourselves, the answer is no. Waste of taxpayers’ dollars. But they’ll take money out of their own pocket and give it to us because they want us to be thankful for what they’ve given.”
“I’m surprised about this,” she says. “I need to discuss this with my sister.”
On election night, it took virtually no time at all for Rob Ford to be declared the winner in Ward 2. He captured 11,629 votes – or roughly 60 per cent – and soon announced he would run again for mayor in 2018.
“In four more years, you’re going to see another example of the Ford family never, ever, ever giving up,” he told cheering supporters.
Despite endorsements from The Toronto Star and John Tory, Domise would finish a surprising third with just 1,620 votes. Voter turnout in the ward was 54 per cent.
Community developer Luke LaRocque earned 2,158 votes, while Toronto Community Housing board member Munira Abukar finished with just more than 1,200.
Abukar, a Somali-Canadian, made headlines in early October after some of her signs were defaced with ignorant messages calling her a bitch and telling her to “go back home.”
Doug Ford finished a respectable second in the mayoral race to Tory, capturing 331,006 votes across Toronto and 68 per cent of the votes in Ward 2. He won big in Etobicoke and Scarborough, as Chow, the one-time frontrunner, fell to a distant third. His support was highest in Toronto’s poorest neighbourhoods, where turnout happens to be the lowest.
Doug Ford wasted no time telling reporters he may seek the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, promising to reach people who’ve never thought of voting PC in their lives. He called reporters to Deco weeks later to announce he wouldn’t run, after all, but is keeping the door open to pursuing a seat at Queen's Park in 2018.
Mikey Ford easily grabbed a trustee seat on the Toronto District School Board, capturing 44 per cent of the vote in Etobicoke North. He bested John Hastings, a two-term trustee and former MPP who is 52 years his senior.
Two days after the election, Domise is out collecting what’s left of his signs. He is disappointed support from those who said they liked his ideas didn’t translate at the polls.
But he is not at all surprised by the support the Fords received or Doug’s apparent triumph in the lowest-income wards.“One of Doug Ford’s positive traits, if nothing else, is that he’s not afraid to get on the ground, shake hands with people and speak their language,” he says. “And that’s something that a lot of the political class in Toronto can learn from.”
He says the numbers in Ward 2 don’t capture the full picture and miss the internal politics, the “paternalistic sense of entitlement that belongs to the Fords.” Six months isn’t enough time to undo all of that.
Domise says it was a challenge to discuss policy at the door and concedes his messages about lack of access to daycare or transit would sometimes fall on deaf ears.
“Those are not conversations to be had during political campaigns,” he says. “Those are conversations that have to be fostered over the course of years, before the political campaign happens.”
Would he do it again, even knowing how things would turn out? In a heartbeat. He says the experience was among the most rewarding of his life.
But Domise isn’t sure he’ll run for office another time. He thinks his future is in youth mentorship and community work.
As promised, he will get Techsdale off the ground but is also looking for a job.
“I have to get back to work at one point or another,” he says. “I’m an unemployed guy.”
The day after he lost, several mothers from the neighbourhood stopped by Domise’s campaign office to thank him for waking up the community. On orders from his team to rest, he wasn’t there.
When he learned of that gesture a little later, Domise says he fell apart.
“It’s really easy to get cynical about politics and wonder why it is messages aren’t resonating,” he explains. “But I find there are a lot of people who are listening.”
And now, plenty more know his name.
Ryan Maloney is the politics editor for HuffPost Canada.
He won a 2013 Canadian Association of Journalists Award forhis feature on the lack of compensation for wounded veterans.
Video: Dan Lytwyn • Story photos: Ryan Maloney • Top photos: Getty.