'Ford Nation' still supports Toronto's scandal-plagued mayor
TORONTO (Reuters) - At the Cloverdale Mall, just off an eight-lane highway in Toronto's western suburb of Etobicoke, Diane Gorscak took a drag on her cigarette and explained how Mayor Rob Ford's use of crack cocaine would not stop her from voting for him again.
"He did what he said he was going to do, and I don't care what he does in his spare time," the 45-year-old hairstylist said, squinting in the late-afternoon sun on an uncommonly mild November day.
Gorscak is part of a suburban block of voters, the "Ford Nation" - as the mayor calls his supporters - that has stood by their man through a drug scandal that has lost him the backing of his city council and landed him on the wrong end of U.S. late-night talk show jokes.
While recent poll numbers show declining allegiance to Ford, the mayor's appeal is still substantial in the outlying Toronto neighborhoods, which only became part of the city in 1998.
Ford hit international headlines in May when the Toronto Star newspaper and media blog Gawker said they had viewed a video apparently showing the mayor smoking crack cocaine.
While Ford denied there was any such video for six months, police confirmed its existence two weeks ago. Since then Ford has admitted he smoked crack in the past year while in a "drunken stupor," driven after drinking alcohol, and purchased illegal drugs while in office.
Ford emerged from a crowded field in 2010, campaigning as the outsider candidate taking on the inner Toronto downtown and bureaucrats. He returns calls from Toronto voters and eagerly poses for pictures with anyone who asks.
At his annual barbecue not far from his home in Etobicoke, where the beer and burgers are on him, hundreds line up to shake his hand.
"He's one of us," tends to be the tone of comments from suburban supporters.
Where Toronto downtown has pushed to make itself bike-friendly, Ford has vowed to end a "war on cars" and removed bike lanes from some streets.
Court documents made public this month as part of an investigation into Ford's friend and part-time driver Sandro Lisi - who has been charged with drug offenses and extortion - showed police have been investigating the mayor for months, interviewing associates who have accused him of threatening staff, driving drunk, using racially abusive language and making an obscene sexual suggestion to a female staffer.
This week Ford called those allegations "outright lies," although he later admitted he had driven after drinking alcohol. He has refused to step down, and the city has no mechanism to remove him.
While insisting he is not addicted to drugs or alcohol, Ford has apologized profusely. On Thursday he said he was receiving support from healthcare professionals but would not say what exactly that meant. He has said he plans to run for mayor again in October 2014.
Ford's staffers did not respond to a request for comment.
FRUGALITY MESSAGE OF 'GREAT SALIENCY'
Ford, 44, was born and raised in Etobicoke, a borough that includes leafy residential streets with large lots, manicured lawns and expensive homes, as well as areas of high-rise apartments known for gangs and drugs.
As mayor he promised to save millions of dollars from what he described as a bloated city budget, and to extend transit with below-ground subways rather than on-street light-rail systems, which he has said will impede car traffic.
"People want subways, folks. Subways, subways. They don't want these damn streetcars blocking up our city," he said last year in the blunt and often unguarded speaking style that has endeared him to supporters and annoyed his critics.
After taking office, Ford immediately eliminated the city's C$60 vehicle registration tax and drastically cut city councilor's budgets.
He often claims he has saved the city C$1 billion since taking office, although the Toronto Star has said that figure is based in part on over-aggressive estimates and on the impact of higher user fees.
"The message of the value of taxpayers' money, whether it's applied to federal, provincial or municipal government, is a message that has great saliency," said John Wright, pollster at Ipsos-Reid.
In a survey released after Ford admitted he had smoked crack, Ford's approval rating fell to around 40 percent - 45 percent in Etobicoke - from 49 percent in June 2012 and 62 percent in September 2011.
Fully 76 percent believe Ford should either step down or take a leave to deal with his personal issues, meaning some who approve of his performance agree he should take at least a temporary break.
Wright said the police pronouncement on the video likely swayed voters who had been giving Ford the benefit of the doubt.
ALLIES TURN AWAY
Ford, a heavyset man who works closely with his brother Doug, a city councilor, was no stranger to controversy even before the stories alleging drug abuse.
He has skipped city council meetings to coach high school football, and last year he reportedly chased down a Toronto Star journalist who was on public property near his home, working on a story about the mayor's attempt to buy adjacent city park land.
As the scandals mount, even political allies who were in favor of his spending plans have turned away.
"When the international world is thinking about our reputation, their first reaction is no longer about the CN Tower and a multicultural city, it's about a crack-smoking, foul-mouthed mayor who drinks behind the wheel of a car," Denzil Minnan-Wong, Ford's chairman of public works and former ally, told Reuters.
Minnan-Wong, who has said he is considering running against Ford in the next mayoral election, gives him strong marks for his spending record but says that has been overshadowed.
"Council and the mayor, we've turned the ship and we're heading in the right direction," he said. "But we're now dead in the water because of his incapacity to lead."
The city council this week overwhelmingly approved a nonbinding motion asking Ford to take time off to address his problems, and on Friday voted to strip him of some of his power, not that great in any case, including the authority to appoint and dismiss committee chairs.
That doesn't mean Ford won't win the next election. In 2010, he won handily with 47 percent of the vote, since two left-leaning candidates divided most of the rest.
At the Cloverdale Mall, anchored by a Target Corp store and heavily populated by senior citizens on a weekday afternoon, Ford's message of standing up for the taxpayer still carries weight.
"I like the job he's doing," says Grant Hackley, 63, who works in security. "He did well coming in here and exposing some politicians for spending too much."
Asked about the revelations, Hackley says: "I figure it's his private life, and what he does in his private life shouldn't interfere with his job."
(Reporting by Cameron French, editing by Janet Guttsman, Peter Henderson and Prudence Crowther)