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marcus gee

Rob Ford for mayor? Down here at City Hall, the very idea has people grinding their teeth, rolling their eyes or falling down laughing. In this artificial universe under a clam shell, Mr. Ford is considered a buffoon whose half-educated rants about wasteful spending and crushing taxes lower the tone of the place.

But hang on, now. Every big, lumbering organization needs a gadfly, someone with the temerity to tell the hostess the salmon mousse tastes off before the dinner guests succumb to food poisoning.

In the often stifling world of City Hall, where all right-thinking people believe that public housing is the people's gift to the poor and Transit City unquestionable, he is the raw, sometimes lunatic voice of dissent. During an election, as at city council, Mr. Ford might raise issues that other candidates fear to touch.

A Ford for Mayor campaign, if it happened, would be riveting to watch. ("What will Rob say next?") In a city where less than 40 per cent of voters cast a ballot, it couldn't hurt to put a little pizzazz in the race.

Apart from the entertainment value it would bring, a Ford candidacy would fill a yawning gap in the race - the gap on the right.

Two of the declared candidates are big-time Liberals: George Smitherman, former deputy premier in a decidedly left-of-centre Dalton McGuinty government, and Rocco Rossi, former national director of the federal Liberal Party.

Two others, Joe Pantalone and Adam Giambrone, have had links to the NDP.

The only candidate on the right, Sarah Thomson, publisher of Women's Post, is so untutored and so obscure that she is the longest of long shots.

Mr. Ford, on the other hand, has established himself over 10 years on city council as the champion of the little guy, that overtaxed, fed-up denizen of Etobicoke or North York or Scarborough who cares more about getting the potholes fixed on his street than putting a green roof on City Hall, who thinks that shiraz-sipping downtown professionals have far too much sway in the city and who would like to see Mayor David Miller hung by his toes above the skating rink at Nathan Phillips Square.

There are quite a few guys like that in Toronto. They like what they hear from Mr. Ford, whose high-pitched jeremiads on everything from bike paths to councillors' expense accounts have enlivened many a council meeting.

A typical Ford moment has the councillor stabbing a thick finger at a city report on his desk and sputtering, "Who's going to pay for this?"

"Property taxes have increased 5 per cent a year. Water rates are up 20 per cent," he said on the phone the other day. "We've implemented all these new taxes. And what do we get for it? The roads have not been fixed. The transit system is a mess. It's bad management. In the private sector, you have a budget and you stick to it."

That neatly sums up the way many voters feel about the city at the moment. If you want a true-blue, penny-strangling fiscal conservative, Mr. Ford has a better claim to the title than someone who was recently second-in-command in a government with a $25-billion deficit.

True, Mr. Ford often goes off half-cocked. In a recent debate on city-issued credit cards, he said that city staff were spending "like drunken sailors."

Toronto's auditor-general was nowhere near as harsh, saying only that procedures for using the cards should be tightened up.

As fellow councillor Doug Holyday puts it, "Some of the things Rob says have to be taken with a grain of salt."

And true, Mr. Ford has some troubling behaviour in his past, notably a bizarre incident at Maple Leaf Gardens where he got into a drunken, belligerent exchange with other fans. He, at first, denied the whole thing, then turned around and confirmed it. In 2008, he was charged with assault and threatening death after an altercation at his home. The charges were later dropped.

Realistically, his chances of becoming mayor are small. A poll he commissioned last month showed about 13 per cent of voters supported him for mayor, putting him in third place behind Mr. Smitherman and Mr. Giambrone. Downtown, in the old City of Toronto, he had just 4 per cent. Even on his home turf of Etobicoke, he came second to Mr. Smitherman.

Mr. Ford says he hasn't decided yet whether to run. He'll make that call some time before the end of March. In the meantime, he's testing the waters, putting together a team and trying to lose weight.

A football player in his youth and still a high-school coach, he wants to drop 30 to 40 pounds. He is doing 2½ hours with a personal trainer, five days a week, including an hour a day on the treadmill.

Run, councillor, run.