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November 20, 2013

Amid chaos, Toronto mayor’s family shuns spotlight

TORONTO — While the spotlight shines brightly on Toronto’s embattled and erratic mayor, Rob Ford’s wife and two children have remained almost invisible — save for one widely known embarrassing incident. Little is known about his family, although it is clear that his wife craves her privacy.

Even before the scandalous revelations of recent weeks — detailing Ford’s illegal drug use and excessive drinking — his wife, Renata, had established her aversion to media attention.

She avoided campaigning for her husband in 2010, appearing with him only on election night after his surprise victory. Since then, the Fords have scarcely been seen together at any public occasion in Toronto, though she has accompanied him on a few official trips out of town.

Indeed, the public remains unsure of many details about her — including her age.

So it was striking to see her at her husband’s side at City Hall as he apologized last week for spouting an obscenity while denying allegations that he made sexual advances to a female staff member. The denial featured a graphically crude term for oral sex, and Ford compounded the shock by asserting he enjoys enough oral sex “at home.”

Clearly uncomfortable, Renata Ford stood silent, her eyes downcast. Pressed for comment as she exited through a crowd of reporters, she said: “I think my husband’s already said enough.”

Before last week, one of Renata Ford’s few forays into the media spotlight came in 2008, following a widely reported domestic dispute with her husband.

Rob Ford was charged with assault and threatening death, and the case went to court, but prosecutors withdrew the charges, citing inconsistencies in Renata Ford’s statements.

The couple’s children, 8-year-old Stephanie and 5-year-old Doug, have been spared any direct media coverage as their father’s misconduct prompted the City Council to strip away his powers. But the children figure indirectly in recently released police documents suggesting that some Ford staffers were at times concerned about their well-being.

In February, for example, Ford became publicly intoxicated at the Garrison Ball, an annual charity event to which he had taken his children, and he was asked to leave. According to police documents, staffers took the children to McDonald’s rather than let them get back into their father’s vehicle, which was being driven by a friend who has since been indicted on drug charges.

In another police document, former Ford assistant Chris Fickel told police of feeling uncomfortable during a visit to the mayor’s home as Ford lit up a marijuana cigarette while the children were upstairs.

The document quotes Fickel as saying the home “looked like it was falling apart and messy. There was heavy cigarette smoke and clothes everywhere.”

Certainly one challenge to family life for the Fords has been the mayor’s penchant for personally returning phone calls, even those to his home in off hours from people he doesn’t know.

“My only problem with him is he’s so dedicated to his job that he doesn’t properly balance his life,” the family’s longtime lawyer, Denis Morris, told The Associated Press.

“He doesn’t realize that there are 24 hours to the day and when you tell people that you are returning phone calls on a daily basis, obviously that slices into your family life.”

Still, Morris said, “He’s a loving father. Every time I’ve seen him with his kids, he’s the greatest dad you’d ever want.”

As for the state of the mayor’s marriage, Morris demurred.

“Who really knows?” the lawyer said. “All I know is she supports him and he’s under a pressure cooker, probably the worst pressure cooker in history.”

The mayor himself, in recent interviews, described himself as “the best father around.” He has spoken of taking his daughter to dance lessons and teaching his son to skate.

In an interview with CNN, he was asked how he’d cope when the children learn details of the recent controversies.

“I’m going to explain what they’re hearing,” he replied. “I’m straightforward with my kids.”

The youngest of four children, Ford grew up in a palatial home in Etobicoke, a suburb that was amalgamated into Toronto in 1998.  His father, Doug Ford Sr., made his wealth with a $100 million industrial printing business, and served in the Ontario provincial parliament from 1995 to 1999.

Rob Ford became a city councilor in 2000, and his brother Doug, his most steadfast defender, also serves on the council.

The family was further thrust into the media spotlight after the Globe and Mail reported in May that Doug Ford sold hashish for several years in the 1980s.

Their sister, Kathy, has acknowledged having a substance abuse problem and was herself the victim of drug-related gun violence — her longtime boyfriend, a convicted drug dealer, was accused of shooting her in the face in 2005 during an altercation in her parents’ basement. She was hospitalized but recovered.

Recently, Kathy and Ford matriarch Diane Ford appeared on broadcast news channel CP24 speaking out after the mayor admitted to smoking crack cocaine. Her son, Diane Ford asserted, did not have a substance abuse problem — his biggest problem was his weight.

Added Kathy Ford: “Robbie is not a drug addict. I know, because I’m a former addict.”

The mayor met his wife in high school, and they were married in 2000 at a local country club. They still live in Etobicoke.

In Canada, political spouses traditionally have taken a low profile — with the notable exception of Margaret Trudeau, the photogenic jet-set wife of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau from 1971 until their divorce in 1984.

But Renata Ford has taken that further than most.

A description of her in a 2011 profile by Toronto Life magazine remains accurate today: “An enigma, the first mayoral spouse about whom almost nothing is known.”


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