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Mayor Ford hones populist image as he enters Toronto budget debate today

Mayor Rob Ford outside of his office before the council meeting at City Hall.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

In the past few days, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has shown up at a dinner for a business group that publicly called on him to step aside – and which says he arrived uninvited. He's also claimed he found $50-million in budget cuts but doesn't want to try to build advance support from city councillors because he doesn't trust them.

Are Mr. Ford's recent moves the clumsy fumbling of a doomed politician? Or, as municipal observers argue, are they part of a populist mayor's re-election strategy?

"The campaign is on as far as Mayor Ford is concerned," said Myer Siemiatycki, a municipal politics expert at Ryerson University. "It's evident he plans to try to take advantage of every day between now and election day."

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Mr. Ford's apparent strategy is likely to be aired Wednesday as city council debates the 2014 budget in what is expected to be a heated meeting. The Mayor, who opposes the executive committee's budget, is promising to present more than $50-million in spending cuts on the floor of council. He has said that councillors, who stripped him of many of his powers after revelations of his drug and alcohol use, "stabbed me in the back."

Mr. Ford's positioning on the budget issue appears to be part of an effort to bolster his image as a gravy-train-cutting mayor while creating a contrast between himself and the rest of council in advance of the Oct. 27 election, said Lorne Bozinoff, president of Forum Research, a polling company.

"This is the trap that he's set for them. He wants them not to pick up on his suggestions. He's not going to bend over backwards and encourage them. His argument is this: 'Look, I suggested these savings.' He wants to be on the campaign trail and say, 'Hey, I can cut $50-million. I tried to do it and council said no'," he said. "The central theory of his campaign will be rejection of elites."

Prof. Siemiatycki agreed, saying Mr. Ford appears to be reaching "beyond City Hall" to burnish his image with voters.

"I think he has so burnt bridges and alienated his fellow members of council, the media, large cross-sections of Toronto that his only hope, in a way, can be to run a campaign based on a subtext of. 'They've done me wrong and I'm the protector and saviour of Toronto taxpayers'."

Meanwhile, Mr. Ford's awkward appearance at the Toronto Region Board of Trade's annual dinner on Monday can also be seen through the lens of political strategy. The Mayor, who wasn't on the guest list, was given an empty seat at a table in a back corner and left after about half an hour.

"He picks his spots of where he wants to be seen and who he wants to cultivate and show support for," Prof. Siemiatycki said. "So I think clearly he saw the Board of Trade [dinner] was an opportunity for him to try to message: 'I am still the mayor, I am still the leader'."

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Mr. Ford's presence has sparked a debate over whether he was even invited to attend the dinner. The Board, which called on Mr. Ford to take a leave of absence for the sake of the city after he admitted to using crack cocaine, says he wasn't invited. Mr. Ford's Twitter account distributed a photo of an invitation letter dated Nov. 11. A board spokesman said the letter was sent inadvertently and that the board left a voicemail with Mr. Ford's office to confirm he was not invited.

"He's trying to show that he's still the mayor and is going to go to events where the mayor would traditionally go," Mr. Bozinoff said. "He doesn't seem to be in any way reluctant or afraid to go places where he's not particularly going to get a good reception."

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