rob ford

Former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has died

He may never be commemorated with a statue or have a park named after him, but Rob Ford, who died today, left as much of a mark on Toronto as Allan Lamport, Nathan Phillips or Mel Lastman.

His death after a long bout with cancer is a sad end to a troubled public career that began sixteen years ago with his election to council from Etobicoke, where his family loomed large.

The youngest son of a self-made man and one-term MPP, he made himself known as soon as he was elected to city council in 2000 with the outraged tone of his speeches to council and his obsession with cutting government budgets.

To those who took him seriously, it was obvious that Ford had ambitions to run for mayor one day, but not even his supporters could predict how handily he'd win when he did.

There were howls on the evening of October 25, 2010, when new digital balloting revealed Ford's significant plurality just eight minutes after the polls closed - of triumph from his fans and of outrage from his opponents. Those howls wouldn't die down over the course of the next four years.

To say that Rob Ford's term as mayor of the city of Toronto was divisive is an understatement.

Just as his election revealed a deeply polarized city, roughly divided along the borders of the old city and its recently amalgamated suburbs, Ford's drive to reduce city expenditures at all costs provoked heated arguments inside and outside council chambers about just what a municipal government should and shouldn't pay for.

Those debates had been going on for decades, and they might have remained relatively polite if not for Mayor Ford's brash, even boorish personality, which seemed to amplify the rhetoric and encourage his supporters and detractors to be as hyperbolic as the mayor himself.

It might have been a tumultuous, even agonizing term in office, but there's no doubt that Rob Ford's mayoralty encouraged civic engagement on a level rarely seen in municipal politics here.

From occupying the hallway outside his office door to sending delegations to protest at council meetings to attending Ford Fest to filling Nathan Phillips Square with chalked messages covering every inch of concrete, the citizenry probably knew more about what was going on at City Hall during the Ford regime than during any other administration.

Similarly, when his personal life began loudly spiralling out of control in the latter half of his time in office, Toronto suddenly had an international profile unprecedented in the city's two hundred year history.

That newfound reputation might have been sordid and even insalubrious, and his supporters might have greeted each new day with a wince at every sordid new revelation in a barrage of scandal, but the "Crazy Town" era of Toronto politics was a necessary and even secretly thrilling antidote to the city's reputation as a place of merely competent governance and historically certified dullness.

The first of Ford's cancer diagnoses took him out of a mayoral race that probably would have seen him win re-election, in spite of everything that happened in the previous four years, and Toronto voters can confidently say that they have firsthand experience with the sort of intensely polarized politics that seems to gone nationwide south of the border.

At least ten books have been written about Rob Ford so far; it's hard to imagine the same thing happening to any of his predecessors - or his successors.

What can't be denied, no matter where you stood with Rob Ford, is that the man truly loved his city. Eschewing windy and winceworthy rhetoric about "world class" status, Ford looked back to the mid-'70s encomium that dubbed Toronto "the City that Works," a far less boastful self-image that celebrated civic competence over glamour.

It was Rob Ford's tragedy that his oversized and troubled personality got in the way of his pursuit of this humble ideal.

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