There were moments during Rob Ford’s time as mayor of Toronto when I hated him. I mean real, deep, I’m-not-proud-of-it actual hatred. And whenever I sank into one of those moments, I would remember the time I met him, and how it continued to challenge and complicate my impression of the person.
In early 2010 I was a candidate for city council in downtown Toronto, and like many other politicians and wannabes I attended an annual party hosted by the Canadian Jewish Political Action Committee. My wife and I were mingling and had just finished a conversation, and there was one of those moments that happens at parties, when suddenly you’re not talking to anyone, and you make eye contact with someone else who also isn’t talking to anyone, and you realize that the two of you now have to talk to each other.
The person I made eye contact with was Ford, standing alone and looking bored a few feet away. He walked over to me. And he said, “you’re Chris Tindal.”
I wasn’t wearing a nametag, and he did not have any handler whispering in his ear. The conversation that followed is still so unbelievable to me — so inconsistent with how I otherwise perceived him — that if my wife had not been there and repeatedly confirmed my memory of events I would be sure I’d made it all up.
“You’re Chris Tindal,” he said.
“Uh, yes, and you’re Rob Ford,” I said.
“You’re running for city council in Ward 27, Kyle Rae’s Ward.”
“And you ran for the Green party before.”
“Uh, I did, yes…”
“If I recall,” he said, smiling, friendly, warmly, “when you ran for the Green party, you increased their vote by a significant percentage.”
“Rob Ford,” I said, “you are blowing my mind.”
“Well,” he said, as if this was a biographical fact I might not be privy to, ”I’m pretty involved in local politics.”
We chatted for a few more minutes. He kept turning slightly away and smiling sheepishly as he talked, like a self-conscious 12-year-old boy.
He was charming. And flattering, obviously. And he was showcasing his often underestimated competence for politics. Afterwards I realized the reason he knew my name and a few baseball card stats was because he had researched city council candidates. He’d put in the work. And he’d recalled that information so fluidly on demand that he made me feel like he understood me a little, that he cared about me, that I mattered.
That’s what thousands of voters saw in him, and continued to see in him, even after his competence at campaigning was overtaken by his incompetence at governing. Even after the drama and the lies and the scandals and that thing with the cellphone video and the pipe. Over the rest of the year I heard the same story recounted again and again while knocking on doors in downtown Toronto, far from Ford’s jurisdiction as an Etobicoke city councillor, far from his region of strongest support: “Rob Ford called me back when no one else would. He made me feel like my concerns were real. He listened when no one else cared.”
I still hate what he did to Toronto, what he continues to do through a legacy of disastrous long-lasting mistakes and a damaging redefinition of what constitutes sane political discourse and good governance. I won’t forget that his political actions as well as his routine racism, homophobia, misogyny, and violence had real victims. And if I hadn’t had the experience I did have, it would be very easy for me to fall into the trap of hating the man himself, too.
But he was more than the villain I was tempted to reduce him to, and plagued by far more than his own fair share of demons. I’m sorry for his children. I’m sad because mortality and death are sad. I’m glad his suffering is over. I’m glad I met him.