Rob Ford was elected Mayor of Toronto by a landslide in October 2010. Even back then — before the crack, the international infamy, a police investigation, incriminating wiretaps, and half a dozen new embarrassing YouTube clips — Ford’s victory shocked many. His reelection may shock them yet again.
When Ford put his name on the ballot, no one — the media, other politicians, many in his own camp — thought he had a chance. He’d spent a decade as city councilor on the fringes, stumbling through one controversy after another. Known to devolve into screaming fits on the floor of council, Ford had few friends. He seemed to have a penchant for sticking his foot in his mouth. On more than one occasion he was accused of making racist and homophobic speeches. “Those Oriental people work like dogs” and “If you’re not doing needles and you’re not gay, you won’t get AIDS” are among his most famous.
(MORE: Rob Ford Ticketed For Jaywalking)
There were more serious problems too. A domestic assault charge in 2008, which was dropped due to inconsistencies in his wife’s testimony. There was the time he had to be removed from a professional hockey game after he drunkenly berated a couple sitting nearby (“Do you want your little wife to go over to Iran and get raped and shot?,” he reportedly bellowed at them). Then during the mayoral campaign, it was revealed that in 1999, Ford had been convicted of drunk driving in Florida. The cop had found marijuana on him that night, although that charge was dropped.
All of this is to say: When Toronto voters elected Rob Ford, they knew he wasn’t a boy scout. Despite his flaws, they chose him anyway for reasons that I believe could see him re-elected in October 2014.
The roots of Ford Nation — as the mayor and his councillor brother, Doug, like to call their base — were actually planted years before Rob Ford ever arrived at city hall. It was 1997 and the province of Ontario was being governed by the Progressive Conservative Party. (Interestingly enough, the Ford brothers’ father, Doug Ford Sr., was a Progressive Conservative member of provincial parliament at the time.) It was a period of aggressive cost-cutting measures, one being a plan to amalgamate Toronto with its five surrounding suburbs. The hope was this would reduce duplication and thereby save money. Financially, academics say amalgamation was a failure, but it nevertheless altered the course of municipal politics in the country’s largest city.
On January 1, 1998, the megacity was born. Toronto’s population of 650,000 was now nearly 2.4 million. This left the more urban chunk vastly outnumbered by the suburbs. The first mayor of the new city was a colorful suburban millionaire named Mel Lastman, who had a knack for saying the wrong thing. Sound familiar? After two-terms of Lastman, voters elected a left-leaning councillor named David Miller. Although Miller didn’t run as a progressive. His campaign was centered on a vow to sweep corruption out of city hall. Toronto was still reeling from a $40 million computer leasing scandal that saw politicians and some staff accused of accepting money and favors in exchange for business. Once in power, Miller pushed through a number of policies that were criticized by the conservative faction on council. He favored light-rail over subway expansion. He created two new taxes, one for vehicle owners and another for homebuyers. He championed environmental policy and social programs. After a long, smelly garbage workers strike, Miller was viewed as being soft on public sector unions. The public, particularly those living outside the Old City of Toronto, were furious with the direction at city hall.
Enter Rob Ford.
Ford was elected to city council in 2000. He immediately made a name for himself, first by his colorful ravings at council and second by refusing to spend his office budget. Ford was, and remains, independently wealthy thanks to his family’s successful label company. It enabled the rookie councillor to pay all of his own expenses. When the numbers came in each year, Ford’s $0 bottom-line always made front-page news. Meanwhile, he began attacking colleagues for their spending habits. Councillor office budgets were just over $50,000. Ford would post their receipts online, highlighting some of the more questionable tax-payer funded purchases. An espresso maker. A bunny suit for an Easter parade. Ford expanded his crusade to “perks.” Free food at council meetings. Free baseball game tickets. City council eventually tightened its spending policy as a result.
When Ford ran for mayor, he promised to stop the “Gravy Train” at city hall. When voters cast their ballot, they were thinking about the Rob Ford who watched out for their money. Not the Rob Ford who was plastered and obnoxious at a hockey game.
On October 27, 2014, Toronto voters will once again decide Ford’s fate. His transgressions have now been expanded to hard-drug use, chronic lying, consorting with criminals and in general, embarrassing Canada’s largest city on an international level. But many of the factors that saw Ford come to power still exist. The suburban-urban divide is still there. Ford’s approval rating (which most believe centers on his agenda rather than the man himself) is still sitting in the 40s. Add to that the fact that with a weakened incumbent mayor, the field of candidates is larger. Ford won with 47% of the vote last time. With a crowded field, he could sneak through again.
All of this, of course, is dependent on whether he can keep his nose clean. Twice in January, Ford was video-taped out at night looking unmayoral. Once at a Toronto fast food restaurant, obviously impaired and another at a club in Vancouver. (Ford swears he was just drinking Diet Coke, although even if you take him at his word — and a big problem is that it’s hard to do that — it doesn’t show good judgment.) It’s hard to imagine residents re-electing a man who is still so obviously struggling with substance issues. But if he can get help, if he can be the man he was when he first asked Toronto to put him in charge, there is a path to victory for Rob Ford.
Because there’s no better story than a redemption story.
Robyn Doolittle is a City Hall reporter with the Toronto Star. She is one of three reporters to have viewed a video of Toronto mayor Rob Ford smoking what appears to be crack cocaine. CRAZY TOWN: The Rob Ford Story, is her first book. The views expressed are solely her own.