In the last two years, Mayor Rob Ford has been thwarted by council on his transit agenda, pilloried for skipping official duties and chastised for using city hall resources – including his aides – to help out his football team. On Monday, a court ordered him booted from office for breaking a conflict-of-interest law.
At every turn, the mayor’s personal antics and inability to compromise have made him the butt of jokes from his detractors and the target of reproach even from those with whom he is politically aligned.
But the embattled chief magistrate might triumph in the next election. While he is well short of a majority, Mr. Ford has held enough of his core support to make him a formidable contender, whether in a by-election next year or a general vote in 2014. If the votes split right, he could be leading the city for years to come.
It’s no secret Toronto is a place of two solitudes. Some of the cleavage is geographic: If you live in a car-dependent suburb, you’re more likely to back a mayor who vows to protect your traffic lanes than an inner-city resident who relies on the streetcar for transport.
But much of the division is based on the fundamental question of what a municipal government ought to be.
To some, the city should be led by big-picture visionaries in the mould of Fiorello LaGuardia, shaping the metropolis in their own image. To others, the purpose of city hall is smaller than that, focusing on the day-to-day business of filling potholes, balancing the budget and dealing with citizen complaints.
And these differences, in many ways, help Mr. Ford. When he was elected in 2010, after all, he ran on a simple, back-to-basics platform that contrasted with the earnest, city-building rhetoric of his predecessor, David Miller.
A poll on the Globe’s website shows little middle ground. Of the more than 2,600 respondents, most were divided into two camps: those who agreed with Mr. Ford’s ejection from office and said his effect as mayor had been negative, and those who thought the penalty too harsh and approved of his time in office.
An Angus Reid poll released Friday, meanwhile, suggested three out of five people who voted for the mayor in 2010 would back him again in a by-election.
“A lot of people are surprised that he’s held the support that he has. It surprises me at times how resilient it is,” said Nick Kouvalis, the strategist who engineered Mr. Ford’s 2010 victory.
He contends the mayor’s supporters simply don’t care as much about the gaffes and miscues as they do about his policies.
“Everything that we see downtown, for those of us that are media bugs or political bugs, it’s all inside baseball,” Mr. Kouvalis said. “At the end of the day, [voters in the mayor’s base] really care about the big issues, the pocketbook issues: What’s the price of the utilities? What’s the price of their property taxes?”
It’s certainly true that on several fronts, Mr. Ford has succeeded in implementing his agenda. He thumped the city’s unions into submission without resorting to a strike or lockout, contracted out part of the city’s garbage collection and kept tax increases relatively small.
Even his defeats may not be enough to turn his core voters against him. On the transit file, for instance, he portrays himself as the champion of subways, thwarted by a city council determined to disrupt traffic flow on suburban roads with surface LRTs.
And Mr. Ford’s supporters say all the rigamarole surrounding mayor’s latest transgression has not changed their feelings about him, citing his forthrightness and their belief in his desire to take on big spenders at city hall.
“He’s really achieved everything he’s set out to do, minus the subways,” said Michael Hilton, 39, who works in sales, as he shopped at Etobicoke’s Sherway Gardens Mall Friday afternoon.
“That whole gravy-train thing. He certainly cut back some of the expenditures at city hall. I’ve heard, in the mayor’s office, he’s cut back as well. I’ve heard there’s more fiscal responsibility at city hall. He knew he was going to get push-back from everyone, but he stuck with it.”
Others cite the vehicle registration tax, which Mr. Ford cut upon taking office, his willingness to take on municipal unions and his championing of the car as reasons to back him. Although some supporters admit that he can be “crass,” even inviting ridicule, these traits are part of the everyman persona they like.
“He’s done so much for the city,” said Alfred Uhl, 80, a retired North York parks worker. “He comes out front with everything. He doesn’t fool around with anything. He is very straight. He’s not afraid of hard work.”
Mr. Uhl believes there is “a conspiracy” behind the ousting of Mr. Ford and adds a warning to the beleaguered mayor’s opponents: “He may still win again.”
Talking to those who oppose him, meanwhile, suggests the frustration toward Mr. Ford has as much to do with his personal style as anything else.
Michael Corrin, a university biology lecturer who lives in the west end, said he understands the mayor’s core message – the need for good fiscal management – but Mr. Ford’s blunt approach to policy-making bothers him. He points specifically to his unilateral declaration, on his first day in office, that he was cancelling Transit City, a transportation expansion plan years in the making.
“I feel like he flouts rules, he’s not really interested in partaking in fruitful discussion, he seems to do things completely independently, but speaks as if he serves democracy,” Mr. Corrin said. “He created no unity; there was no conversation with him. And to me, that was unacceptable.”
Such sentiments about Mr. Ford abounded downtown after the court’s decision this week. So to step into the Rogers Centre Tuesday night was like entering a parallel universe.
As the Don Bosco Eagles, the high-school football team Mr. Ford coaches, played for the Metro Bowl, the stands filled up with the mayor’s appreciative fans.
Jessica Meza arrived with a homemade sign – “We Support Ford” – and a clear message for those who would see the mayor sent packing.
“He’s unpredictable, but through it all, the people spoke,” she said. “We had an election and we decided he should be mayor.”
She likes his commitment to low taxes, and also respects him on a personal level: Her brother, Sergio Meza, is the kicker on Mr. Ford’s team and helped on his mayoral campaign.
Other supporters, such as Pino Arpa, had no connection to the Eagles, but showed up purely to back the mayor.
When he was a councillor, Mr. Ford helped Mr. Arpa cut through city hall’s red tape to get a crumbling sidewalk repaired outside his home. The Etobicoke man, who co-owns a landscaping company, also likes the mayor’s transit pledges.
“We need subways – not above-ground LRT that’s going to run through my parents’ backyard,” he said. “The guy is being railroaded.”
Welcome to Ford Nation, where Toronto could be living for the foreseeable future.