They live in social housing. They live in Lawrence Park. They hate gridlock and what they see as profligate spending at city hall. Their politics are left, centre and right. But they have one thing in common: They plan to vote for Rob Ford, the candidate plenty of Torontonians love to hate.
Based on his mayoral campaign so far - and setting aside for a moment his antics as councillor for Ward 2 Etobicoke North - Mr. Ford seems an unlikely front runner. He was caught on tape urging an ill man to score powerful painkillers on the street; he offended many people by suggesting the city be closed to newcomers; and he claimed he "forgot" he had a joint in his back pocket when a Florida cop pulled him over for drunk driving 11 years ago. (He pleaded guilty to DUI and the pot charge was dropped.) Yet polls consistently show him in the lead, and many of his supporters say that he alone understands the city's issues. He's promised to release a comprehensive, fully-costed platform this fall, but so far his campaign pledges have amounted to little more than promises to halt the gravy train at city hall.
Yet none of that seems to matter to his legion of admirers, including these five voters who agreed to speak to The Globe and Mail. They've carefully considered the alternatives and decided that the rumpled guy who is tight with a buck and blunt with a phrase is the right man at the right time for Toronto.
As the post-Labour Day high season of campaigning begins, they explain why Mr. Ford is now the man to beat.
Name: Connie Harrison
Occupation: Student and volunteer, currently on the Ontario Disability Support Program
Neighbourhood: St. Jamestown
My ride: Walking, riding the TTC
My last mayoral vote: David Miller in 2006 and 2003.
My political identity: "Left-of-centre."
My top issue: Improvements to Toronto Community Housing and city shelters
Connie Harrison says with a laugh that she knows she's not a typical Rob Ford supporter.
A mother of three grown children, including a severely autistic son, Ms. Harrison is a part-Aboriginal cancer survivor who lives in a social-housing tower in the blighted St. Jamestown projects north of Cabbagetown.
In other words, she benefits from precisely the kind of public programs that could fall under the axe in a Ford administration. But she's sure that if Mr. Ford were wielding the blade he'd have the guts to tell her straight that cuts were coming. That endears him to her.
"His language is plain and blunt and to the point," she said. "He doesn't use words like 'partnership,' 'engage,' 'liaison,' all the fluff words we're using over the last decade that were probably invented by consultants so they could charge more money."
The Etobicoke councillor's style is infinitely preferably to David Miller's, she says, citing one of the outgoing mayor's legacy programs to retrofit concrete high-rises across the city.
"Oh god, if I could show you some city documents from the recent tower renewal, it's all just fluff language to make people get baffled," she said. "It's a softener for the gentrification that's coming in. I just wish people would say, 'Guess what, guys? You're being gentrified. Your buildings are probably all going to be torn down in a few years, so start planning now.' I wish someone had the balls to tell me that. I think Ford would."
Having seen up close some of the programs the city runs for the needy, Ms. Harrison is incensed at the waste and inefficiency, something she believes only Mr. Ford could change. His "frugality" is one of her favourite things about him. She likes that he supports portable rent subsidies to cut down Toronto Community Housing's legendarily long waiting list.
All that, plus his promises to cut council and taxes, is enough to make her overlook Mr. Ford's personal failings and foibles. The fact that he lied to a newspaper about a marijuana bust before admitting to a news conference that he "forgot" he had a joint in his pocket because he was actually pulled over for drunk driving in Florida 11 years ago doesn't bother her.
"He is every one of us. When we set people up to impossible standards, who are you going to get? You're going to get somebody completely phony and fake." Ms. Harrison isn't willing to forgive Mr. Ford everything, though. She can't abide his crusade to save money by getting rid of wine and cigarettes for the homeless men enrolled in a harm-reduction program at Seaton House, the city's largest shelter.
"On the wine thing I was furious with him," she said. "There's these poor old gentlemen who are severe alcoholics and they live in the shelter and he wanted to take it away."
Name: Mary Kairys
My ride: Car, occasional TTC
My last mayoral votes: A fringe candidate in 2006 and John Tory in 2003
My political identity: "A conservative liberal"
My top issue: The arrogance of politicians
When Mary Kairys moved to a new home in Etobicoke in the spring, she called the city's 311 service to order a replacement for property's missing recycling bin. Two months later, still no bin. So she called her local councillor, Rob Ford. Two days later, a brand new blue bin was plunked on her lawn.
"Little things like that make a big difference," she said.
Many of Mr. Ford's constituents can offer such vignettes, but Ms. Kairys thinks her story says as much about what's wrong with city hall as it does about her councillor. Taxes and fees have gone up while services have deteriorated, she says, squeezing struggling middle-class residents who make too much money to qualify for the city's generous social programs.
"There's a lot of middle-class people that are making do now. Maybe they're getting less hours, maybe they haven't had a raise in three or four years," she said. "They're paying the bill."
With a late-life political-degree under her belt - she went back to school in 2003 - and an accountant's eye for figures, she is convinced Mr. Ford could rein in spending. It's obvious she closely follows Mr. Ford in the news, so much so that she unconsciously parrots some of his talking points.
"If you don't look after the pennies, you know, the dollars don't look after themselves," she said. "If you're watching everything, it's more effective. People in business, they do that. They watch all the expenses."
Frustrated as she is with subpar city services, she's even more frustrated that some of Mr. Ford's critics portray him as a bogeyman out to destroy Toronto.
"What is it that they're afraid of?" she asked, referring to his detractors. "What do they really think that he's going to be able to do that's going to be so damaging to the city? Or are they worried about what's going to damage themselves?"
That's part of the reason Ms. Kairys, like many Ford fans, shrugs off his scandal-plagued personal life and chronic foot-in-mouth disease.
"I'm sure he's not the only one [with personal problems] If we really wanted to pull dirty laundry, I mean, we could do it on each of them. But nobody's focusing on anybody else. They're focusing on the front-runner. Maybe the front-runner isn't the nicest place to be, but his shoulders are pretty broad. He seems to be taking it pretty well."
Name: Debbie Lechter
Neighbourhood: Lawrence Park
Occupation: Co-owner of a security company
My ride: Car to work, walking everywhere else
My last mayoral votes: Jane Pitfield in 2006 and John Tory in 2003
My political identity: "Fiscally conservative, socially liberal"
My top issue: Getting spending and waste under control
When Debbie Lechter chats with friends and neighbours at the dog run in tony Lawrence Park, she doesn't feel like a political outlier.
"I'd say everyone I speak to, when the election gets brought up, is voting for Rob Ford," she said.
The reason? He's promised to clean up the "waste" at city hall and he's a modest guy compared to most of his colleagues on council. "They are so arrogant, they are so disrespectful, they are so out of control, it's almost as if they're thumbing their noses at us and daring us to vote them back," she said.
Ms. Lechter's disdain for David Miller's city hall doesn't stem from vague and uninformed rage. Asked for examples of so-called arrogance, she has a roster at the ready. The current council has installed too many bikes lanes; covered legal fees for councillors against the advice of the city solicitor; promised to pay for speaker Sandra Bussin to sue a constituent for alleged libel; spent $2-million on a building for struggling artists near Pape and Danforth. "The list goes on," she complains.
Mr. Ford has spent 10 years at council railing against decisions like these. (His best-known argument against bike lanes: "Roads are built for buses, cars and trucks. Not for people on bikes. And my heart bleeds for them when I hear someone gets killed, but it's their own fault at the end of the day.") But he hasn't been able to stop them. In a decade on council, he's ragedz about much but accomplished little. Rather than working through the budget committee, for example, he rises during the budget debate to grandstand about cuts that only a handful of right-wing councillors end up supporting.
Ms. Lechter is convinced that will change if he is elected mayor.
"Rob was one vote," she said. "So clearly David Miller had the vote on his side constantly with the ... I'll call them the left-wing-NDP cabal - out there in city hall."
His personal problems don't bother her either.
"The fact that he may have smoked a joint and didn't disclose it is not as important to me as his record of fighting for people in terms of really trying to clean up the waste," she said.
Name: Kieran Quinn
Neighbourhood: Yonge and York Mills, when he's not away at Queen's University in Kingston
Occupation: Second-year medical student
My ride: Walking (while in Toronto)
My last mayoral vote: None (He lived outside the city for in 2003 and 2006)
My political identity: Conservative
My top issue: Traffic
Ever since Rob Ford made his controversial comments about closing Toronto to newcomers in a debate last month, political observers have been wondering how his words would play with the electorate. Would voters in the planet's most diverse city recoil? Or would they laud the councillor for uttering a politically inconvenient truth?
Keiran Quinn falls into the latter camp.
"If you look at the actual quotation as a sound-bite, then, as usual for Rob Ford, it's somewhat offensive and offside and people can interpret that in the wrong way," the Queen's University medical student said. "But he recognizes that the city's infrastructure is inadequate for the people that live there. Quite frankly, it's not adequate. He truly believes that he can make it better and he will make it better. That's really why I support him."
Mr. Quinn grew up in North Toronto, near Yonge and York Mills, then lived in Cabbagetown before moving to Kingston for medical school. (His parents' address is his permanent one and he'll use it to cast a proxy vote Oct. 25.) On his old daily commute by foot from Cabbagetown to St. Michael's hospital, Mr. Quinn paid close attention to the deterioration of roads and sidewalks and the tightening grip of traffic. He avoided the TTC when he could, deriding it as dirty and overcrowded.
That's why loosening gridlock's hold and fixing infrastructure are his chief concerns in the election. Mr. Ford hasn't released a comprehensive transportation plan yet - he's made vague noises about preferring subways to streetcars without saying how he'd pay for the pricier underground option - but Mr. Quinn has more faith in Mr. Ford than the other candidates on the issue.
"Toronto is falling apart, as far as I'm concerned, and he recognizes that more than anybody else."
That said, Mr. Quinn acknowledges with a ready laugh that his candidate is a "nut" and a "wild card." He doesn't like the way the Etobicoke councillor fumbled the revelations of his 1999 arrest for drunk driving and possessing a marijuana joint, but the incident itself doesn't bother him.
"He gets in trouble sometimes for the things he says, but so do I," Mr. Quinn said. "I'm tired of candy-apple politicians telling me everything is going to be okay."
Neighbourhood: South Scarborough
My ride: Car
My political identity: "Centre-right"
My last mayoral votes: Jane Pitfield in 2006, John Tory in 2003
My top issues: Transportation and spending
"My major concern," Jerry Sheehan said, "is that we're living beyond our means."
The Scarborough accountant concedes that statement is probably true of all levels of government, not to mention plenty of individual Torontonians. In the city's case, he believes Rob Ford is the only mayoral candidate with fists tight enough to bring city spending under control.
"The thing that appeals to me is his brand, which is to save money," he said. "He consistently comes in and on his own office budget spends little to nothing. Maybe he has outside resources because he belongs to a family firm. But that sends a message to other politicians and also to the public that he's tight with his money. He's not going to overspend."
Mr. Sheehan points to the city's plan to erect a gleaming $88-million, eight-storey arena in the Port Lands as an example of council living beyond its means. Council approved the plan at the last meeting of David Miller's term last month, despite the fact it only had $34-million in federal funds available. "People of Toronto want this $88-million skating rink on the harbour, but we're lacking in resources," he notes.
That said, he's skeptical of some of Mr. Ford's promises. Take Mr. Ford's vow to scrap the land-transfer and vehicle-registration taxes, which are expected to bring in $169.9-million and $47.9-million, respectively, according to the 2010 budget. He's not yet specified how he would replace approximately $218-million per year in lost revenue. "I'm responsible enough to know that the city doesn't have enough money to run its operations," Mr. Sheehan said.
The candidate's personal problems also concern him, but not enough to make him switch his vote.
"Sometimes he presents himself as a bull in the china shop ... his life seems to be at times unruly. It has a small impact because my sense is that people are human whether they're in public life or private life. Every politician probably has things in their private life that they find difficult to deal with."