Inside Rob Ford’s world: Former Toronto mayor’s office was a toxic family affair

This week, Rob and Doug Ford reemerged from the political sidelines to support the Conservative campaign during the final days of the federal election. That could prove a benefit or a liability, but one thing is certain – the Fords know how to draw a crowd, and attention.

Peter J. Thompson/NP/FilePeter J. Thompson/NP/FileJohn Filion

Sitting two seats away from former mayor in City Council for more than a decade had a front-row seat to the Ford show that eventually made international news. But he wasn’t just a spectator. He was also that unusual thing: Ford’s friend. They fleeced each other in football pools (even after Filion helped strip Ford of all but his title as mayor); Filion sent Ford a music mix in rehab. “He has a special relationship with you,” Rob’s brother Doug told Filion several times. “I don’t f–king understand it.”

Now, in The Only Average Guy, Filion reveals what it was to be a part of Ford’s inner circle at City Hall – and how his family set the tone (read: toxic) in his office.

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Dominating Rob Ford’s office, on the wall behind the mayor’s desk, was a blow-up of his father posing with Mike Harris. Covering the screen on the computer Rob never turned on was another photo of his father.

There were other reminders of his dad throughout the office but, oddly, no photos of him with Rob. Nothing from childhood, not a campaign shot, nor anything from the years just before his father died, in 2006.

No warm memories. No stories of happy times together.

“Was he proud that his father was a Member of Provincial Parliament? Yes,” said Ford policy adviser Sheila Paxton. “Did he have any nice things to say about his dad? I’ve never heard him say anything personal about the man, or affectionate about the man.”

John Lehmann/National Post/FileJohn Lehmann/National Post/FileThe Ford family, Douglas Ford, top right, with sons Rob,top left, Doug Jr.,bottom left, and Randy.

Whenever I asked Doug Jr. about Rob and their dad, he changed the subject. In a 2014 Toronto Star interview about their father, Doug was asked what his dad would do, if he were alive, to set Rob on the straight and narrow path.

“After he kicked the shit out of him?” Doug asked with a laugh.

The walls in this mayor’s office held no secrets. Loud voices carried right through them, and the Fords were anything but soft-spoken. While Rob Ford was mayor, the office held an atmosphere none of those who worked there had ever experienced before. Except for Rob. His office was just like home, but here Rob was the “dad.”

His mother chose the colours, selected the art and decided where everything would be placed, even in the small outer staff offices.

Although Paxton and other former staffers spoke to me on the record, some didn’t want their names associated with the crazy days in Ford’s office. But they all described Diane Ford as charming, capable, entitled and in charge. Many said she acted as if the mayor’s staff were Ford family employees. Not with a haughty manner, but more as if this was a matter of fact.

“I think Diane Ford considered herself a Rose Kennedy,” one commented.

Tyler Anderson/National PostTyler Anderson/National PostMayor-elect Rob Ford blows a kiss to his deceased father after his election victory with his mother Diane, left, and wife Renata, right, on Oct. 25, 2010.
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The former staff members I spoke with hadn’t met Doug Sr. But knowing Rob, they could guess at the similarities. “I only trust the man in the mirror,” Rob Ford’s father often said. Rob and Doug learned to say it too. With conviction.

“His father was a real taskmaster,” said Ford receptionist and his one-time friend Tom Beyer. “I think he had a very complicated relationship with his father.” He declined to comment on specific relationships within the Ford family.

“What I will tell you — whether he learned this from the father or not — the challenge we faced in the mayor’s office is that he would pit people against each other.

“He would say to me, ‘Tom, everybody wants you fired.’

I would say, ‘Why would that be? I thought I was doing a fantastic job.’

Michelle Siu for National PostMichelle Siu for National PostMayor Rob Ford signs Rob Ford bobblehead dolls as a crowd of hundreds line up at Toronto City Hall on Nov. 12, 2013.

He’d say, ‘Oh no. They want you fired, man. But don’t worry, I’ve got your back, man. So you just trust me, and you let me know if those guys are doing anything wrong. What’s Brooks doing? What’s Brian doing?’

Then I heard later, Rob would say, ‘You know, Tom is saying this about you. What do you know about Tom?’

“I had never been in such a toxic work environment.”

Being part of the Ford “family business” also meant unusual tasks: Buying alcohol for the mayor became an assigned duty after Ford’s visits to liquor stores started showing up on Twitter. Other “assigned duties” included taking calls from him in the middle of the night. “I would get a lot of calls at 3:30 or 4 o’clock in the morning,” Beyer said. “Very nonsensical calls.”

Out among the common folk, Rob could be friendly, engaging and generous. Office staff received very different treatment. There was no leniency for an honest mistake or a misunderstanding. Insubordination, real or imagined, was punished.

Sheila Paxton said the mayor flew into a rage once when he called her cellphone and a male voice delivered her voice mail message. A friend had set it up for her. Ford ordered Paxton suspended for a week without pay. She ignored the penalty.  He suspended another staff member for taking too long getting his car repaired.

To test a theory, I contacted Ted Herriott, Doug Sr.’s former business partner, to compare Rob’s management style with his dad’s. Ted didn’t want to volunteer anything negative about the man who started Deco with him, but he readily described a work style that left a lasting impression.

Difficulty admitting a mistake? Check. Unable to understand any point of view other than his own? Check. Friendly with the customers? Yes. But inconsiderate and lacking empathy?

“Doug was, ‘Hey boy, it’s a tough world — and you’ve gotta be tough if you’re going to make it.’ He played hardball. All the time, he played hardball,” Ted says.

In Rob’s office this was true even at Christmas. Rob’s only personal gift was cash: $50, “enough to buy you a Christmas dinner,” he would say. “There was no feeling behind it. He didn’t look you in the eye,” said one former staff member. “There was no, ‘I’m very grateful for all you’ve done for me all year.’”

At one of the mayor’s New Year’s levees, a young staff member waited until the lineup to meet his boss was almost finished. Then he went to the end of the line so he too could get a photo with Rob Ford, at the time a man he still admired.

“I was the last one in line and I said, ‘Would you mind if I get a picture?’ And he said, ‘Sure, as long as there’s nobody else.’” The photo got taken and was later inscribed, “Thanks for your support. Rob Ford” — the same message the mayor wrote on everyone’s photo.

Prodded by his chief of staff, the mayor added a line: “Thanks for being on the team.”

Excerpted from The Only Average Guy: Inside the Uncommon World of Rob Ford by John Filion. Copyright © 2015 John Filion. Published by Random House , a division of Penguin Random House Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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