In the Trump era, political scandals of yesteryear are routinely written off as quaint — events from a time when the bar for decency was higher and our collective threshold for tolerating scandal hadn’t yet been dismantled by the brazen, unethical behavior that the Trump administration ushered in.
That’s not quite the case with Rob Ford. The crack-smoking late mayor of Toronto, upon receiving the much-coveted TPM Golden Duke award in January of 2014, was seared in TPM’s history as one of the most prolific, delightfully corrupt and spectacularly bad public actors we’ve ever covered.
He was also the only Golden Duke honoree ever to be offered the award in person. Former TPM reporter Hunter Walker — now Yahoo News’ White House correspondent — and former intern Yumi Araki — who has since done work in radio, print and video — had the privilege of witnessing the audaciousness in person. Tasked by TPM founder Josh Marshall with presenting the shambolic mayor with a physical trophy, the two combed over Ford’s stomping grounds, from the front steps and winding corridors of Toronto’s city hall, to a supposed “crackhouse” in Toronto’s suburbs, to Toronto’s tackiest steakhouse. They documented their entire journey, an experience that brought TPM readers a firsthand look inside the disgraced, and now-late, politician’s dizzying, drug-addled mind.
It was January 2014 and Josh Marshall was gearing up for the annual announcement of the Golden Duke awards. The longtime tradition at TPM is an annual tongue-in-cheek celebration of the worst (for our purposes, best) examples of political corruption and betrayals of the public trust from the past year’s political horror show. Hunter had spent his brief time at TPM up to that point covering lingering elements of the scandal surrounding Duke Cunningham — the bribe-requesting politician that gave us the Golden Duke eponym — as well as the unfolding shitshow surrounding Ford’s debaucherous behavior. A scandal that culminated, but shockingly didn’t immediately end, Ford’s political career, when he was filmed smoking crack cocaine — not once, but twice in a year-long period.
Here’s what happened. In the year leading up to TPM’s visit to Toronto, Ford was embroiled in a number of drug, alcohol, groping and escort-related scandals. In early 2013, Gawker and the Toronto Star reported on the existence of a video of the mayor smoking crack cocaine. Ford denied allegations that he had ever smoked crack for several months before Toronto police confirmed in October 2013 that they were in the possession of a video — and possibly a second one — that showed Ford doing just that. In November of that year, Ford admitted to smoking crack during a press conference, before other videos of him engaged in drunken behavior surfaced on social media just days later. Staff accused him of drinking at City Hall, drunk driving and making lewd remarks to female staff, and Ford admitted to purchasing illegal drugs while in office. On November 18, 2013 the City Council stripped the blustering mayor of all of his authority, leaving him as mayor in title only. But Ford fought back, accusing the council of an attempted “coup” and vowing to run for reelection the following year. TPM headed to Toronto in the months after this incident, around the same time that another video surfaced of the mayor drunk at a restaurant and engaging in super racist behavior.
Ford’s troubles lingered long after TPM attempted to give him the Golden Duke. It was only after a second video of him smoking crack emerged in April 2014 that he admitted to using the substance and took a temporary leave from office to enter rehab. He returned to his duties after two months at a rehabilitation facility, but dropped out of his reelection campaign in September 2014, appointing his brother to run for him. Ford finally left office in November 2014 when his term ended. He died of pleomorphic liposarcoma, a rare form of cancer, in March 2016.
Around the time that Ford’s salacious behavior was making headlines at TPM and across the world, the Golden Duke awards moved from a mere symbolic jubilation of the most brazen forms of political corruption to an actual physical award. Josh paid an artist — who was also a TPM reader — to cast three Oscar-like trophies in Duke Cunningham’s image. The Rob Ford scandal was too delicious to celebrate in typical Golden Duke tradition — only online — and Josh asked Hunter and Araki to travel to Canada and attempt to give the trophy to the mayor in person.
Josh has always had “a great appreciation for” the kind of political scandal that “only gets better the more you read — that’s how you get to Four Seasons Landscaping,” Hunter recently told me, reflecting on the trip.
“This was the stuff Golden Dukes was made of,” he continued. “I met this assignment with a mixture of excitement and absolute dread. This is a big trip for TPM and for me. It was my first foreign political reporting experience. We had to deliver something.”
Hunter and Yumi’s trip to Canada started with a blizzard of frustrating deadends. Though they had brought along one of the three Duke trophies to present to Ford, Hunter and Yumi thrust themselves into the atypical reporting trip with little hope of actually finding the mayor. They kept their ears to the ground, but the reporting strategy was largely a combination of straw grasping and hoping to get lucky, the two told me. They visited every Rob Ford-adjacent establishment in town — from his office at city hall, to the poutine food truck outside the town hall’s front steps, to the “crackhouse” where he was filmed smoking (the first time), to his neighborhood, to his favorite steakhouse — Harbor 60. The large man was largely in hiding at the time, and difficult to nail down.
By the time they arrived at Harbor 60, Hunter was “grasping for anything at this point,” he told me. “This restaurant was basically the Rob Ford ethos. There was a DJ playing 1980s rock and waitresses who would sit on your lap. White chandeliers and black walls — like a drunk person’s idea of fancy. So I left (that dinner) with a story. I knew Josh wasn’t going to be thrilled with this trip, but I really felt like I met Rob Ford at that point.”
He wrote an article about the night, “narrating my dinner in Rob Ford’s mind.”
On the last day of the trip, Yumi and Hunter decided to take one last stab at visiting city hall. Hunter described the scene as a “circus” — all the indication he and Yumi needed to know that Ford was there that day. The steps outside city hall were crowded with international and local reporters, protesters and “fans” wearing “Ford Nation” t-shirts. “He had this cult status where a bunch of more liberatartian-type folks would say he’s badass and tells it like it is, but he was clearly troubled,” Yumi recalled.
While Yumi filmed, Hunter flung himself deep into the reporters’ scrum, shoving his way into the building to get as close to the mayor as possible. Once inside, Hunter spotted the mayor ambling by. He brandished the award and yelled at Ford that he was there to give him a trophy, a piece of “priceless art.” He informed the nonresponsive Ford in a shout that he had “come a long way to give you this award,” as one the mayor’s security guards pulled Hunter’s arm away and told him to leave Ford alone. The two had gotten close, but no bedazzled cigar. It was time to head home.
But fate stepped in. Hunter spotted Ford’s younger brother Doug Ford — a close political ally of his brother’s (and, in 2020, the premier of Ontario) — walking down the hall just as the two were about to leave city hall and head back to New York. Hunter and Yumi approached him, explained their scheme and asked “Dougie” to accept the award on his brother’s behalf. Shockingly, he did.
“I think he was genuinely amused by the whole thing,” Hunter said. “He told us he was going to give it to him.” Hunter said.
“I’d like to think Rob Ford — he left us too soon — had it somewhere and it brought him some joy because he brought us so much joy,” he continued. “That’s what scandal is to me. Don’t we all live to render ourselves immortal? The greatest thing you can do as a human is make your mark on history. How many mayors from Toronto can you actually name? This was all a certain type of achievement.”
Five years ago TPM sent @hunterw to Toronto to give the Golden Duke Award to then-Mayor Rob Ford. It was a dignity draining experience. But he eventually did bestow the award on brother Doug Ford, who is now Premier of Ontario. See this year's winners > https://t.co/wyLPcNHTEN pic.twitter.com/vp6PwBexaT
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) December 29, 2018
The ceremonial awarding of the Golden Duke to Rob Ford several years ago is the brand of outrageously scandalous behavior that TPM has celebrated since its inception 20 years ago — a carouse, tabloid-esque coverage of political figures, who hold more actual power than your average celebrity. TPM revels in the moments in which they reveal their true, often corrupt and sometimes comically grimy colors. It’s the truest form of TPM’s aesthetic, and, as Josh recently told me when I asked him about Hunter and Yumi’s Toronto adventure, it’s the reason TPM launched the Muckraker section of the website to begin with.
The avalanche of public corruption stories that were leaking out of Capitol Hill in 2004, 2005 2006 and 2007 — including Duke Cunningham’s bribery scandal and Jack Abramoff’s lobbying felony — formed much of the approach that TPM takes to covering politics to this day. Cunningham’s behavior was so jarring and so unprecedented at the time that he cemented himself as the face of our annual revelry in terribleness.
The Cunningham affair “institutionalized how we like covering these kinds of stories — we celebrate them,” Josh explained. TPM’s coverage of the Cunningham story is an example.
In short (and if you don’t already know), Cunningham was sentenced to more than eight years in prison in 2006 after he was indicted on bribery charges — and for a slew of other crimes. Cunningham, it appeared, had secretly accepted millions from defense contractors in exchange for lucrative federal government contracts. But his brazenness, not necessarily the initial behavior, was the crux of the story for TPM. The former lawmaker had a “bribe menu” and was gifted fancy antiques and boats in exchange for public dollars. Most notably, Cunningham — who served on the House Appropriations and Intelligence Committees and was the chair of the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Human Intelligence Analysis and Counterintelligence — sold his home to defense contractor Mitchell Wade of MZM Inc. for upwards of $1.6 million.
Wade put the house back on the market less than a year later. In that span of time, MZM Inc. was awarded millions in defense and intelligence contracts, aided by Cunningham’s position on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Cunningham maintained at the time that the deal was legitimate. There was also the scandal involving Cunningham living rent-free on a yacht that Wade owned (coined the “Duke Stir”) rent-free while he was working in Washington. Aside from the most obvious issues associated with the agreement, the story held the perfect blend of lewd, Washington-style gaudiness — Cunningham regularly hosted a revolving door of women on the houseboat, entertaining his guests with champagne, while wearing a bathrobe and setting the ambience of the scene with the light of a lava lamp.
Cunningham resigned from Congress after pleading guilty to multiple offenses — underreporting his taxable income, tax evasion, conspiracy to commit bribery, as well as mail and wire fraud — and was ordered to pay nearly $2 million in restitution. The scandal set the bar high for public corruption as a whole, but served as the quintessence of TPM’s coverage approach since day one — we live to “luxuriate in the absurdity and the decadence” and the often times “cartoonish” exploits of those who hold power — and have actively chosen to make a career out of the most rigorously scrutinized profession in the country. Even in the Trump era, folks like Ford and Cunningham took public corruption to a level that can only be marked with infamy and the awarding of darkly comedic golden statues.
“Cunningham took all the ambiguity out of public corruption in ways that even Trump has learned to leave ambiguous,” Josh said.