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Why Toronto may re-elect crack-smoking mayor

Critics say Rob Ford is unfit to govern Canada's largest city, but his base remains undaunted in lead-up to 2014 vote.

Last updated: 07 Dec 2013 14:11
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A new poll shows 42 percent of Torontonians approve of Mayor Rob Ford [AP]

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has become ensconced in a scandal so deep that the city's once-divided council recently voted, by a resounding majority, to strip him of all but his ceremonial powers.

Yet despite new revelations landing almost daily about the Canadian mayor's drug use and fraternisation with known criminals, Toronto residents have been far more forgiving.

The latest poll numbers from Forum Research - released in late November, weeks after Ford admitted to smoking crack cocaine in "one of my drunken stupors" - showed his approval rating stable at 42 percent, while horse-race polls of declared and potential candidates had him within a few percentage points of winning the 2014 election. These numbers came even as thousands of residents participated in a series of rallies at city hall calling on Ford to resign, and as late-night comics vaulted Toronto's mayor into the realm of international ridicule.

Ford is somebody who argues that all of our problems can be laid at the feet of government that is too big and taxes that are too high.

- Myer Siemiatycki, political scientist

So who, amid all the scandal, is still supporting Ford? The answer lies in Toronto's leafy outskirts, a slice of suburbia housing thousands of the mayor's supporters, known locally as Ford Nation. Buoyed by Ford's rallying cry that he would "stop the gravy train" at city hall, these were the residents who swept him to power in 2010, against the wishes of liberal-minded downtowners. And while the still-expanding crack scandal has taken a substantial chunk out of the mayor's support, experts say Ford Nation is poised to remain a considerable force in the 2014 vote.

"Ford is somebody who argues that all of our problems can be laid at the feet of government that is too big and taxes that are too high," Toronto-based political scientist Myer Siemiatycki told Al Jazeera.

"There is an appetite for that message in the public, and to the extent that there is such a thing as Ford Nation, that segment of Toronto's population basically doesn't care about anything else that he does or any other aspect of his behaviour as long as he stays true to cutting taxes and criticising government."

Ghosts of amalgamation

The current political landscape took root about 15 years ago, when the provincial government amalgamated seven municipalities into a single City of Toronto. To this day, symbolic divisions persist between the city core and the formerly independent suburbs - and during the 2010 election, Ford, then a bellicose city councillor, benefitted from a wave of suburban anger over the perceived waste of taxpayer dollars by "liberal downtown elites". He campaigned on cutting taxes, tightening spending at city hall and building more subways to the suburbs. And while critics point out that he has failed to deliver on several key election pledges and spent money recklessly when it suited him, supporters tout his successes, including a renegotiation of union contracts and a clampdown on councillors' expenses.

Ford has also garnered praise for his hands-on approach during more than a decade in city politics, including frequent house calls to residents in need of assistance.

"It's legendary the loyalty [he has] acquired from all those years of going out and helping the little old lady cross the street or cleaning her driveway or moving the sand pile," said municipal lawyer John Mascarin, who has been closely tracking the Ford saga. "It really resonates with a lot of people… Everyone sort of looks at him as this Joe Everyman. He has lots of flaws, just like all humans do."

Forum president Lorne Bozinoff said he was not surprised by Ford's poll numbers, precisely because of Toronto's deeply polarised citizenry. Those who back Ford's populist mantra routinely butt heads with critics who question his fiscal record and lament the reputational damage Toronto has suffered in recent months. "It says something about the city, about Ford Nation," Bozinoff told Al Jazeera. "It's like two cities, two cultures, two countries, two societies... and the downtown Toronto lens does not understand Ford Nation."

Cascade of allegations

For months, Ford has faced a deluge of damaging revelations, from his stunning crack-cocaine admission to the gradual release of hundreds of pages of police documents linking the mayor to Toronto's drug underworld. Ford's behaviour and off-the-cuff comments, including a graphic sexual reference about his own wife, have only furthered the controversy.

But people like Betty Waddell - who lives in the heart of Ford Nation, just a couple of houses down from the reputed drug den where Ford was allegedly filmed smoking crack cocaine - continue to defend him. While she agrees that Ford "overstepped his boundaries", Waddell will not rule out voting for him again in 2014. "I always thought he was quite a good person," she mused. "Some of the things he did were certainly not very pleasant recently, but I guess everybody deserves a second chance."

One of the most valid arguments that Ford Nation makes about their chosen leader is that he is not in prison. Admittedly that's not a high bar to set.

- Josh Matlow, Toronto city councillor

Among the allegations contained in voluminous police search-warrant applications are that Ford tried to purchase the notorious "crack video" from the drug dealers who filmed it, although Ford denies this. The documents also describe clandestine meetings between Ford and his alleged drug dealer in suburban forests, mysterious exchanges of packages, and an instance in which the mayor allegedly chugged vodka while driving. One drug dealer even claimed to have photos of Ford "doing the hezza", a slang term for heroin.

None of the allegations have been tested in court, and despite the expansive police surveillance operation - which was linked to a summer gang sweep and prompted the arrest of one of Ford's close associates - investigators have not laid any criminal charges against the mayor, who has apologised for his drug use and vowed to get healthy.

"One of the most valid arguments that Ford Nation makes about their chosen leader is that he is not in prison. Admittedly that's not a high bar to set," Toronto city councillor Josh Matlow told Al Jazeera. "But if he actually ended up in prison, if he was actually convicted of a crime, that would be a game changer."

Matlow, who is among the majority of councillors calling on Ford to step aside, said there remains ample time between now and the October 2014 election for political winds to shift. As it stands, current projections indicate vote-splitting could be Ford's ticket to re-election; a fragmented vote among a variety of candidates could give Ford's base, which remains solid if distinctly smaller than in 2010, the necessary influence to cement his victory.

The other candidates

Besides Ford, the other declared mayoral candidates include former city budget chief David Soknacki, who quit politics in 2006, and current city councillor Karen Stintz, who chairs the public transportation agency serving Toronto's nearly three million residents. Other possibilities include conservative radio host John Tory and federal politician Olivia Chow, who have both openly mulled a run. A member of the leftist New Democratic Party and a likely frontrunner if she entered the race, Chow would be anathema to Ford Nation and could bring the mayor's supporters to the polls in droves, Bozinoff noted.

The possible effects of a fragmented vote are clear: In Forum's hypothetical three-way race between the declared candidates, Stintz would beat Ford 40 percent to 35. Expanded to a five-way race, Ford's disadvantage narrows, with the mayor earning 31 percent of the vote to Chow's 34, and Stintz plummeting to 7. "The only polls that count are on election day," Stintz said in response. "I'm very confident that when people are presented with an alternative, they will make a choice that is different and they will elect a different mayor." 

Ford did not respond to numerous requests for an interview, while his brother and fiercest defender, city councillor Doug Ford, declined to comment. Both have expressed confidence about the upcoming vote, even as fiscal ally Norm Kelly, the city's deputy mayor, told Al Jazeera it would be a "difficult campaign".

Matlow, meanwhile, believes anyone considering a run for mayor must do some "soul-searching" to determine whose interests come first: their own, or the city's. Should it become clear that one candidate could successfully defeat Ford, the others would be wise to drop their own ambitions and rally around that person, Matlow said. 

"It would certainly shock a lot of people around the world [if] the nice, mild-mannered residents of Toronto, Canada would knowingly re-elect an admitted crack user who spends a preposterous amount of time with known criminals," he added. "I don't think it would be good for Toronto's brand at all."

Follow Megan O'Toole on Twitter: @Megan_OToole

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Al Jazeera
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