Can 'sorry' save crack-smoking Toronto mayor Rob Ford?

Rob Ford has a history of scandalous behaviour. But his drug confession after months of denials has finally left him on edge of the political abyss

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 6:30am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 6:30am

He has been thrown out of a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game for being drunk and belligerent. He groped a woman politician at a fundraiser for a Jewish community group.

He was asked to stop coaching a high school football team after a violent confrontation with one of the players. He has also admitted drinking too much.

But until last week, Rob Ford, the mayor of multicultural, eco-conscious, politically correct Toronto, had fiercely denied the story of a video that showed him smoking crack cocaine.

"You asked me a question back in May and you can repeat that question," Ford said.

"Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine. But no, do I, am I an addict? No. Have I tried it? Probably in one of my drunken stupors, probably approximately about a year ago."

He added later at a press conference: "I will be forever sorry."

Ford also insisted he had not been lying since May, when he first denied reports that he used crack. At that time, the website Gawker and the Toronto Star both reported having been shown a video by a man trying to sell it that apparently showed the mayor inhaling from a crack pipe.

The questions surrounding him intensified after Toronto's police chief, William Blair, said his force had recovered the video from a computer seized during a drug and gang violence inquiry.

In a tumultuous four-year term that will draw to a close next year, Ford has been accused of a litany of boorish actions, profane outbursts and insensitive comments - so many, in fact, that one of his critics felt the need to compile a spreadsheet to keep track of them all. The latest came on Thursday, when a video emerged showing a drunken Ford threatening to "murder" someone and "poke his eyes out".

But until the scandal surrounding the crack incident, the episodes seemed only to reinforce Ford's standing among his core constituency - what he calls the Ford Nation - of disenchanted, right-of-centre suburbanites.

Now Ford's mayoralty is in serious doubt.

Born on May 28, 1969, in a suburb of Toronto, Ford is the youngest of two brothers and a sister in a wealthy family.

His older brother, Doug, is his most loyal supporter at the municipal council. The symbiosis between the two brothers is so strong that Canadian author Margaret Atwood described him as the "Twin Ford mayor".

Strongly linked to the right, like his father, he is close to the conservatives at both the federal and provincial levels.

Ford was not initially regarded as a serious mayoral candidate in 2010. As a politician, Ford's strategy has been to promote a populist agenda , focusing heavily on issues that resonated with disgruntled suburban voters, many of whom had lost their jobs because of factory closures.

The city had long developed policies to limit private car use in favour of buses, subways and trams. But Ford vowed to end the city's "war on cars", the preferred mode of transport for suburbanites. Ending a newly introduced municipal car registration tax was also high on his campaign agenda.

After he was caught reading work documents while driving his own car, police encouraged him to accept a driver for his own security and the safety of others on the road. "I think that's a waste of taxpayers' money," the mayor retorted. "A million people a day go to work in the city and they drive. They drive themselves. I don't see why I am any different."

Ford still drives his own car - even after "a few beers" - as occurred last summer when he drove himself to a city festival.

The mayor also endeared himself to voters by declaring that the city's prosperous, growing downtown was filled with spoiled elites who were robbing suburbanites of tax dollars to their own ends.

Combined with the decision by the previous mayor, David Miller, not to seek re-election and votes split between liberal candidates, Ford emerged as mayor.

"If it was the old city of Toronto you wouldn't see anybody of his ilk finish second or third, let alone fourth," said Adam Vaughan, a city councillor from downtown who to a large degree represents all that Ford campaigned against.

Ford's many binges - he was once found wandering the corridors of city hall carrying a half empty bottle of booze after hosting a Saint Patrick's Day party in his office - have made him a target for opponents. But he has steadfastly brushed off criticism, along with drunk driving and marijuana possession charges in Florida during a break from his 1999 mayoral campaign.

With an imposing frame and small eyes sunken in a round, pink baby face, the mayor has become known for his cheekiness, but also his outbursts.

He has arm-wrestled professional grappler Hulk Hogan (and won) and also pushed back reporters from his driveway or others who got too close, while shouting at them. Fishing in Ontario's many lakes and rivers may be his only escape.

The admission of crack use may be Ford's most embarrassing crisis to date, but he says he believes in redemption.

His polling numbers remain strong and he pledged to win back the trust and support of Toronto voters ahead of his next year's re-election bid - for the good of the taxpayers.

Ford's switch from outraged denial to confession was dramatic and swift. On a weekly radio talk show last Sunday, which the mayor co-hosts with his brother, Ford apologised for occasionally getting drunk, but avoided the cocaine issue. It was not clear why the mayor changed course.

Ford's confession only increased the calls from members of City Council, opponents and allies alike for him to step down, at least temporarily.

"I think he's lost the moral authority to lead," said Denzil Minnan-Wong, a longtime supporter. "We're in uncharted territory." As part of his tough-on-crime agenda, Ford has railed loudly against gang violence and against drug users and decriminalisation of drugs.

"Might as well give them a gun. Might as well let them shoot themselves. What are they going to do to our families?" he said in a video that circulated on Tuesday.

Under Ontario municipal law, however, neither the City Council nor the province have the power to remove Ford from office unless he stops coming to work for a protracted period.

Whatever Ford's shortcomings, he has never been accused of corruption. And because Canadian mayors lack the powers of American mayors, Ford has failed with many of his grand ambitions for the city - a casino and a giant Ferris wheel, among others - while, at the same time, spoiling plans of his left-of-centre opponents.

But Vaughan said the negative effects of Ford and his brother on the city go beyond bad publicity.

"Toronto used to be a city that set the pace," said Vaughan, who many think will run for mayor next year, citing the city's history in housing, transit and policing.

"But if you are of the political persuasion that believes government is bad, having the council constantly fail doesn't offend you."

The New York Times, Reuters, Agence France-Presse