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Toronto Michael Ford is everything his uncles Rob and Doug are not

Last February, in probably his last act as a private person, Rob Ford’s nephew changed his name. Then a pudgy 19-year-old Humber College student with a high voice and a boyish smile, Michael Douglas Aldo Ford Stirpe dropped the “Aldo” and the “Stirpe.”

Like nearly all legal name changes in the province, this one was duly published in the Ontario Gazette, a strange compendium of government business that virtually no one reads.

But in a season when his family consumed Toronto’s attention with lurid scandal and improbable political resilience, the rechristening of Michael Ford became a news story.

That July, Mr. Ford entered the city council race for Etobicoke’s Ward 2 – and when reporters learned about the decision to jettison his father’s last name, it was interpreted as a ploy.

“Judge Michael Ford on his merits and not the surname he legally just acquired in Feb. for political purposes,” tweeted sports journalist Mike Beauvais.

The charge of opportunism was hardly dispelled when the votes were counted in October. By then, he was running for school board trustee – Rob Ford had been diagnosed with cancer and dropped his mayoral re-election bid to contest his old council seat. Michael Ford received almost twice as many votes as the incumbent.

In person, Mr. Ford, with a slightly anxious, highly earnest manner, hardly fits the Machiavellian mould in which others have tried to cast him.

School board trustee Michael Ford seems like the antithesis to his uncle Rob Ford. (Photos by Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Now a year into his tenure, and giving his most extensive interview, he acknowledges that his famous name helped him get elected, but insists that ditching “Stirpe” had nothing to do with campaign strategy.

“I’ve always been known as Michael Ford,” he said in an interview this week. “I’ve wanted to change it for a long time.”

If the explanation sounds improbable, it should not. To spend time with the young trustee is to learn that nothing is straightforward about his relationship to the Ford name.

A beneficiary of the family’s electoral fairy dust, he is also a member of its most tragic and dysfunctional branch. And though he remains a staunch defender of the Ford legacy, his personality and politics are starkly different from those of his uncles.

If Mr. Ford is still defined by his membership in the city’s most controversial political clan, it is despite his efforts to transcend it.

“I’m a year into my job as Michael Ford,” he says. “Not Rob. Not Doug.”

The young man standing in the parking lot of West Humber Collegiate does not look like a nephew of Rob Ford; he looks like his antithesis.

Start with the car. The Ford men are known to drive huge black Cadillac Escalades. Michael Ford, meeting The Globe and Mail at one of the schools he represents, drives a much smaller, white Jeep.

Colleagues of Toronto District School Board trustee Michael Ford have noted that his hard work has made up for his inexperience.

In his manner and lifestyle, the younger Ford is everything Rob and Doug are not: soft-spoken where the uncles are bombastic, bashful where they are brash, gentle where they are aggressive.

And if the elder Fords could often be juvenile, with their name-calling and tantrums, Michael has the mien of a much older person.

“I know you’re gonna think I’m 40, but I write everything down,” he said, clutching a notebook as he paced through the halls of the Toronto District School Board’s head office in North York.

His precocity can be startling. His uncles were famous for their indifference to the details of policy and their crude rhetorical style, but Michael Ford already sounds like a seasoned lawmaker, freely using bureaucratic phrases like “touch base,” “going forward” and “stakeholder.”

He becomes animated when speaking about the Education Act or pet programs such as a deal for some Toronto schools to partner with IBM on tech skills training in classrooms.

The wonkish tone is hard-earned, his colleagues say.

“In those first few months, he’d always be carrying around these big binders of information,” said Marit Stiles, a left-leaning downtown trustee. “I would say what he lacks in experience he makes up for in his interests. He’s not afraid to ask questions.”

That grown-up tone startled some colleagues on the board who were leery of working with a Ford, never mind one as young as Michael.

“I think there was an idea of who I was gonna be. People were a little on edge,” he said. “Within a few months on the board, that thought was eliminated.”

His fellow policy-makers might have been forgiven for expecting Mr. Ford to display the bellicose, lone-wolf style of Rob and Doug Ford. Instead, the nephew goes out of his way to be conciliatory and moderate.

Even committed Ford foes have come around on the family’s upstart. Andray Domise, who was briefly Michael Ford’s rival for the Ward 2 council seat, has worked with Michael in his capacity as trustee, promoting community initiatives in Etobicoke.

“Whereas his uncles have been very loud and very wrong, he seems willing to sit quietly and listen,” Mr. Domise said.

Mr. Ford chats with fellow trustee Gerri Gershon.

Mr. Ford is coy about his political affiliation, but on social issues he is unabashedly progressive. He marched in the Pride parade this year, an event Rob Ford controversially refused to attend while mayor.

Michael’s lifestyle is closer to that of the downtowners who deplore the Fords than it is to his that of his uncles. He lives in a condo on the lake shore and goes on bike rides to the Leslie Street Spit. He drinks green tea from Starbucks rather than Tim Hortons coffee. Even his hair sets him apart: rather than a shock of the natural blonde Ford hair, Michael has a peppering of platinum blonde dye in his bangs.

He is also fiercely disciplined about his diet and lost 105 pounds in the past eight months.

“You have to eliminate … the shitty food. Let’s be honest here,” he said. (Unlike some other Fords, Michael almost never curses, and then only sheepishly.)

Even when he was obese, Mr. Ford was less physically imposing than his uncles. It was one of the reasons he never really enjoyed football – practically a religion in the Ford family – despite playing for two seasons at Richview Collegiate.

“Football wasn’t really my cup of tea,” he said, in perhaps the least Fordian sentence ever spoken.

Even less Fordian may be Michael’s affinity for Justin Trudeau.

“Personally, I think he’s a great guy,” Mr. Ford said. “I love his passion for the environment.”

(In the tape that undid his mayoralty, Rob Ford, high on crack, is heard calling Mr. Trudeau a “fag.”)

Despite family entanglements, Mr. Ford wants be his own man and focus on his own ambitions.

None of these differences detract from the fact that Michael is a proud Ford.

After spending an afternoon with The Globe this week, he called a reporter back the next day to reiterate how much he loved his uncles. “I just want to make sure that came across,” he said.

If Mr. Ford’s maturity sets him apart from other Fords, it is also a quality that seems to have been forged in the family’s discordant mixture of political service and domestic chaos.

His was a childhood was rife with trauma.

Mr. Ford’s mother, Kathy, has been a long-time heroin addict. He was mainly raised by his grandparents, Diane and Doug Sr.

His father, Ennio Stirpe, was convicted of manslaughter when Michael was very young after fatally shooting one of Kathy’s boyfriends with a shotgun. Later, he was re-imprisoned for a vicious knife attack on an ex-girlfriend. Michael and Kathy used to visit him monthly at the Kingston Penitentiary.

Rather than crushing him, these nightmarish episodes seem to have left Mr. Ford with a remarkably serene attitude towards life.

“I’ve seen both my parents with issues, you know. But you can never look at the negative side of life,” he said. “You always take the positive in everything. Something sets you back and you learn from it and move forward.”

Lacking a father, and to a large extent a mother, Mr. Ford said his uncles became surrogate parents.

When he was a city councillor, Rob often brought young Michael to council meetings. What might have been a chore for most kids Michael found riveting. Soon, he was learning the ins and outs of city hall.

“I knew when I was 10 years old how to move an amendment,” Mr. Ford said with a smile.

In 2010, he volunteered on Rob’s mayoral campaign, and later ran errands in the mayor’s office, turning up on City Hall security footage picking up his uncle’s Escalade from the parking lot when Rob took cabs on his nights out.

Early exposure taught Michael the family brand of politics. Despite all their differences, Rob’s influence is still apparent in Michael.

“We don’t have money trees in the backyard,” he said at one point, standing in the executive offices of the TDSB.

Later, he took a shot at the Fords’ least favourite mode of transport, the streetcar – albeit in a characteristically mild way: “Sometimes they’re not the best mode of transportation, I must say.”

His family loyalty sometimes prevents him from speaking out. He struggles, for instance, with the subject of Rob’s many recorded ethnic slurs and misogynist outbursts.

“Of course, I would denounce it – if it wasn’t him,” Mr. Ford said.

The question of whether Rob was a good mayor also leads his nephew into a bout of hemming and hawing.

“That’s an interesting question,” he said.

“Yeah, I would say yeah,” he managed with a grimace. “He served the people and he did that well.”

Finally, Mr. Ford matches the political ambition of his uncles. He briefly considered running for TDSB vice-chair earlier this week, which, at the age of 21 and still a Humber College business student, takes chutzpah. And he has not ruled out running for council in Ward 2 next election – or, one day, the mayoralty.

Above all, though, and despite his many family entanglements, Mr. Ford wants to be known as his own man. In his interview with The Globe, he referred over and over to his distinctiveness.

“Whatever issues may come up, whatever Rob may say, whatever Doug may say, where I go, ‘God!’ … I just focus on my beliefs, on my communities and on representing them,” he said.

Contrary to what many have assumed, he says his uncles did not press him to run for office.

“Opposite, opposite, opposite,” he said. “That was my desire. That was my will, not my family’s.”

Nor, he said, is his political career about carrying on the family legacy, a goal with which Fords are known to be obsessed.

“No, no, no,” he said, growing adamant. “This is me. This is about my ambitions.”

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