Why is Toronto Mayor Rob Ford still popular?

Media caption,
Toronto mayor Rob Ford: "I am not perfect"

As Toronto Mayor Rob Ford admits smoking crack cocaine, Canada-based journalist Lorraine Mallinder ponders why his approval ratings actually went up despite the scandal engulfing city hall.

Love him or loathe him, Rob Ford is not your typical politician.

While allegations of crack-smoking might see most politicians ducking for cover, the mayor of Toronto instead admitted taking the drug in a "drunken stupor" and called on local police to distribute the footage.

"Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine," Mr Ford said outside his office.

"I want everyone in the city to see this tape," he told reporters at city hall. "I don't even recall there being a tape or video. I want to see the state that I was in."

The video's existence was first revealed by the gossip website Gawker and the Toronto Star newspaper in May, followed by a steady stream of damaging stories about the mayor's drunken behaviour and lies.

He had denied taking crack cocaine and even claimed the video did not exist.

But after Toronto police announced last week that it was in their possession, Mr Ford's approval rating actually climbed five points to a healthy 44%.

Which begs the question, how does he do it?

Public diet campaign

Marci McDonald, a journalist with the magazine Toronto Life, puts it down to the unswerving loyalty of the so-called Ford Nation.

The concept, she says, comes from the sports world, "the idea of a groundswell of hardworking, beer-drinking people rallying around an ordinary guy".

The "ordinary guy" she refers to appeared in public after the crack-smoking allegations resurfaced, trick-or-treating with his kids in a Toronto Maple Leafs ice hockey team jersey.

This is the same man who, having abandoned his pledge to lose weight as part of a diet campaign, slipped off the scales and twisted his ankle during a public weigh-in.

Earlier this year, while attempting to evade reporters at city hall, he walked face first into a camera, shouting expletives while nursing his eye.

"You watch this guy with wonder. He's the antithesis of the image-savvy, controlled politician," says Ms McDonald. "No journalist wants to miss one of his unscripted appearances."

Delinquent behaviour

Mr Ford's popularity was borne out of a conflict between the suburbs and downtown Toronto.

Lorne Bozinoff, chief executive of Forum Research, which conducted last week's popularity poll, says the amalgamation of the city in the late 1990s created tensions.

Image caption,
Rob Ford arm-wrestled former wrestler Hulk Hogan at a fan event in August

Mr Ford gave a voice to car-driving, conservative suburbanites, who felt neglected by downtown politicians. His "everyman" campaign for low taxes and smaller government won massive support in the suburbs.

"In the last few days, downtown politicians have been saying he should resign," says Mr Bozinoff. "The Ford Nation say that's not fair, that he hasn't even been charged, that he hasn't been convicted, which is true."

Still, it seems strange that a politician known for behaviour befitting a teenage delinquent should enjoy such strong support in the conservative suburbs.

Mr Bozinoff believes that people are willing to shrug off the mayor's "black sheep status".

"He's a common-touch politician," he says. "He returns his own phone calls.

"Whatever problem you have, he'll come out to your house and deal with it. He doesn't have a limo. He drives his own car.

"He's just a very familiar person."

Joe Warmington is a columnist with the Toronto Sun, a right-leaning tabloid widely read by the mayor's core supporters. He spotted Mr Ford early in his political career, about a dozen years ago.

"Rob Ford has always been grassroots," says Warmington. "I was the guy who told him, just be you, the everyman, the guy who's going to fight for the taxpayers."

Despite receiving a volley of abuse from Mr Ford after making reference in a recent column to his drunken exploits and alleged fondling of a mayoral candidate, Warmington continues to support him.

"Just because he yelled at me, I'm not going to turn on him," he says.

Violent family incidents

Joe Mihevc, a left-leaning councillor at city hall, points out that Mr Ford, the son of a successful businessman who grew up in a wealthy home, is not the "everyman" he claims to be.

Media caption,
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford ordered the press to leave his property

"We're in an era where people just want to stick it to the man. People forget he's a rich man who grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth. They think he's the guy who sticks it to the system," he says.

Mr Mihevc believes that Mr Ford has developed a rather disingenuous "outsider" narrative, pitching himself as a victim of "the elitist downtown latte-sipping media and socialist hordes".

But, looking at Mr Ford's background, neither would he appear to be an "insider". His family members have been embroiled in a tangled web of violent incidents over the years.

In 2005, his sister Kathy was shot in the face during an altercation between two men at her parents' home. Last year, one of those men, a convicted drug dealer, threatened to murder the mayor.

'Invisible wife'

As Mr Ford once told the Toronto Star: "Our family has been through everything - from murder to drugs to being successful in business… Nobody can tell me a story that can shock."

Not much is known about Mr Ford's private life. Marci McDonald, who spent months trying to gain access to his inner circle, found it impossible to get so much as a glimpse of his "invisible wife".

Over the years, the only signs of Renata Ford's existence have been a couple of 911 calls, one of which was made on Christmas morning 2011, to alert police that a drunk Mr Ford was planning to take the children to Florida against her wishes.

If the Toronto mayor's past seems to be a catalogue of unbelievable incidents, his future looks set to continue in the same vein.

Toronto-based communications specialist Scott Reid says that the mayor seems to be engaged in a juggling act right now - apologising for getting "hammered" and "a little out of control" at recent public events - allegations he had previously denied - while side-stepping the crack allegations.

On Monday, he was on fighting form, daring doubting colleagues to quit. "I'll be running the ship even if it is by myself," he told a talk radio station.

"But, the truth is bearing down on him like a locomotive," says Mr Reid.

"I think there's a willingness to suspend disbelief and to be tolerant but it has its limits. His cartoonish handling of the situation has separated him from reasonable supporters."

The police have not pressed charges against Mr Ford. His associate and driver Alexander Lisi is accused of threatening two gang members who had been trying to sell the video. Police reports detail repeated meetings between Mr Ford and Mr Lisi this year.

The decision on whether the video is made public will be made by the courts.

Mr Mihevc's descriptions of Mr Ford suggest a troubled character.

"I sat beside him for 10 years and he's as quiet as can be," said Mr Mihevc. "He's a brooder. However when he talks football, he actually smiles.

"But, he's not a happy guy."

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