When staffers in Rob Ford’s office suspected the mayor of abusing drugs and drinking and driving last year, it was then-chief of staff Mark Towhey they confided in. And when the mayor arrived at the Garrison Ball in February “flustered, agitated and flushed,” it was again Mr. Towhey, the mayor’s trusted lieutenant, left to handle the situation.
For years, city hall-watchers knew Mr. Towhey as the mayor’s bespectacled policy adviser-turned chief of staff, frequently appearing at Mr. Ford’s side during council votes and steering him through a number of political crises. But with the release of a police document this week, which detailed concerns about the mayor’s alleged drug and alcohol use, it became clear that, when the mayor fired Mr. Towhey, he also lost one of the few people who would stand up to him.
“I was quite explicit about this: It was never their job to say no to the mayor,” Mr. Towhey told The Globe about other staffers in the mayor’s office. “It’s not their job to get in a fight with the chief magistrate. That’s why I get paid.”
The police document outlines a number of incidents where staffers turned to Mr. Towhey for advice on how to deal with an intoxicated mayor, or to deliver to him news he wouldn’t want to hear. None of the allegations contained in the police interviews has been proven in court.
On the night of the Garrison Ball, according to Mr. Towhey’s interview with police, Mr. Towhey told an intoxicated mayor “if he attended this event that his career as a politician would be over.”
On another occasion, Mr. Towhey told the mayor he wouldn’t allow city staff to organize a pizza party for his football team. “The mayor became very angry and told Towhey to leave and not come back,” the police document says. The next day, Mr. Towhey was fired.
Since joining Mr. Ford’s mayoral campaign in 2010 as policy director, Mr. Towhey has been part of the mayor’s inner circle, helping him pass three budgets, and strategize negotiations with garbage workers. He was tapped to take over the chief-of-staff job in 2012. His time at city hall hasn’t been without controversy: Mr. Towhey was an unpopular choice among councillors at the time of his promotion, and his outspoken style on Twitter and in blog posts – he once wrote about selling off parts of the TTC to the private sector – has raised eyebrows from time to time.
But his influence at city hall, staffers say, was obvious. In a police interview with former Ford spokesperson Gerorge Christopoulos, he told investigators “as far as city business went, Mark Towhey was the mayor.”
Mr. Towhey was born in Kamloops, B.C., and studied science at the University of Victoria before dropping out to join the army. While serving in the Canadian Forces, he was posted throughout Western Canada, Germany, Mozambique and the Golan Heights.
“I learned a lot in the army that has certainly shaped who I am. The army teaches you how to solve problems,” Mr. Towhey said. “It also teaches you a lot about loyalty – that you have a responsibility to understand what’s right and what’s wrong, because soldiers are not legally obligated to obey every order.”
In 1994, he was sent to Toronto, where he eventually settled, got married, left the army, and took on a number of jobs – as a spokesperson for Canada Trust, and a training officer with the United Nations Development Programme – before becoming involved with politics. He’s since divorced, but has two kids, aged 10 and 15.
“Mark always had strong beliefs on law-and-order issues, so I think the Conservative Party or conservative cause was a natural leaning for Mark,” said John Capobianco, a Conservative Party candidate in the 2004 and 2006 federal elections for Etobicoke-Lakeshore and now a senior partner at Fleishman-Hillard. Mr. Towhey worked on both of Mr. Capobianco’s campaigns.
He said that Mr. Towhey’s calm demeanour likely served him well working for Mr. Ford – Mr. Towhey’s consulting company specializes in crisis management, for people facing “impossible tasks”
“Mark has this strong, quiet, confidence,” Mr. Capobianco said. “When times were tough, he would come in, make you laugh, and calm you down instantly.”