TORONTO — When Rob Ford was elected mayor of Toronto in 2010, his bluster and checkered past were widely known. A plurality of voters backed him anyway, eager to shake things up at a City Hall they viewed as elitist and wasteful.
Those voters — many from Toronto’s conservative-leaning, working-class outer suburbs — got their wish, and perhaps more turmoil than any could have expected.
Now the loyalty of the mayor’s constituency, known as Ford Nation, is being tested as he faces intense pressure to resign following sensational revelations about his drinking problems and illegal drug use, as well as repeated outbursts of erratic behavior and crude language.
The City Council voted Friday, on a 39-3 vote, to suspend Ford’s authority to appoint or dismiss the deputy mayor and his executive committee, which oversees the budget. Further efforts are expected Monday to strip Ford of most of his remaining powers, though he vows to resist with court action.
Many of Ford’s political allies — including most council members — are deserting him, and polls show his approval rate is down sharply from two years ago. Yet some of his loyalists want him to hang on.
“Yes, he is an embarrassment, but not a thief,” said Joe Amorim, 49, a supply chain manager from the city’s Little Italy area. “People are tired of smooth-talking politicians that waste public money and serve corporations and the wealthy.”
That outlook is reflected on a Facebook site called “I Hate The War On Mayor Rob Ford” which praises him for trying to fulfill his campaign mantra: “Stop the gravy train.”
“Everyone, including all of his voters, knew he was rough-around-the-edges and had incidents involving pot and alcohol in his past,” says a summary on the site. “MAYOR FORD IS GOING NOWHERE, NOR SHOULD HE!”
Ford has been embattled since May, when there were news reports that he had been caught on video smoking crack cocaine.
Newly released court documents show that Ford became the subject of a police investigation at that point. Staffers accused the mayor of frequently drinking on the job, driving while intoxicated and making sexual advances toward a female staffer. The mayor added to the furor Thursday by using profanity while denouncing the latest allegations.
Most city councilors want Ford to step aside but lack the authority to force him out unless he is convicted of a crime.
Given that the core of Toronto — its downtown and close-in neighborhoods — has a liberal tilt, a politician like Ford probably never would have been elected mayor had it not been for an amalgamation forced on the metropolitan area in 1998 by the Conservative provincial government. Toronto, with a population of about 700,000, was merged against its will with five of its neighboring municipalities, creating a mega-city that now has 2.7 million residents.
An electoral map of the 2010 mayoral election shows that Ford’s voter base resides mainly in those former suburbs. Overall, it’s a more conservative constituency than the downtown electorate, encompassing many immigrants and abounding with commuters who rely on their cars rather than Toronto’s less-than-comprehensive public transit system.
Some of these Ford Nation voters viewed Ford’s left-of-center predecessor, David Miller, as overspending on programs favored by the downtowners — arts and culture projects, expanded bike lanes. Ford appealed to them with promises to slash spending, cut taxes and end what he called “the war on the car.”
“I believe in what he stands for,” said Amir Rabbani, 39, a Pakistani immigrant who lives on the northern edge of Toronto. “Nowadays, cost savings is an important issue for everyone and that’s what Ford is about, saving us money, and I can appreciate that.”
Ford, 44, has two school-age children. He had his wife, Renata, by his side Thursday when he announced he’s getting help from health care professionals. He also apologized for using coarse language to deny allegations that he once told a female staffer he wanted to have oral sex with her.
Renata Ford has mostly kept a low profile, though in 2008 she accused her husband of assault. The charges were eventually dropped. In 1999, Ford was arrested in Florida on a driving-under-the-influence charge, for which he was fined. In 2006, he was removed from a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game after insulting fans near him; he initially denied the incident but later apologized for it.
Dennis Pilon, a professor of political science at Toronto’s York University, said members of Ford Nation tended to accept such misbehavior because they liked Ford’s approach to politics.
“It is a very particular group of populist voters,” Pilon said. “They’re hard to convince of anything because facts don’t matter very much. It’s about their feelings.”
But Pilon and other political analysts said the events of the past week — including the lewd remarks on Thursday — may speed up an erosion of Ford’s support.
“There will be a group that sticks with him, but it gets smaller and smaller,” said Grace Skogstad, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto’s campus in Scarborough, one of the amalgamated suburbs where Ford has been most popular.
“People who might well have voted for him again now think it would be better for him to step down,” Skogstad said. “They feel very sorry for him because they can see he has serious health issues.”
Kerry Barnes, a physical trainer who lives near Ford’s district in west Toronto, says he’d still vote to re-elect the mayor, though he was glad that Ford has acknowledged needing professional help.
“His personal warts, he needs to address, but I support what he stands for — fiduciary responsibility, debt reduction,” Barnes said. “He deserves to address his issues and get help, but to come back and do his job.”
Associated Press writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.