Toronto’s embattled mayor dropped a bombshell Tuesday, telling a media scrum he has smoked crack cocaine.
A red-faced Rob Ford said it was probably about a year ago although he was probably “in a drunken stupor.’ And wasn’t sure exactly when or where it happened.
“Yes I have smoked crack cocaine,” he said. “… probably in one of my drunken stupors.”
“I’ve made mistakes all I can do now is apologize and move on.”
Ford told reporters although he had said in the past he didn’t smoke crack, he wasn’t lying. “I wasn’t lying,” he said. “You didn’t ask the right questions.”
When Toronto police Chief Bill Blair confirmed to reporters on Thursday that he had seen the controversial video of Mayor Rob Ford, in which the mayor is alleged to be smoking crack cocaine, many observers thought it marked the unofficial end of Ford’s political career.
Yet a number of political strategists and public relations specialists say that the beleaguered, scandal-prone mayor has a good chance of winning a second term in 2014.
“I think he could easily get re-elected,” says Nelson Wiseman, a politics professor at the University of Toronto.
“The attitude of a lot of people is that, ‘Look, I didn’t elect this guy because he doesn’t sleep around or he doesn’t do crack cocaine. I elected him because I think there’s a gravy train at City Hall, and that’s what I care about.”
In fact, Ford has been a politically divisive figure since he was first elected in the fall of 2010.
His tenure has been marked by vitriolic debate on city council as well as a seemingly unending series of personal controversies, from distracted driving to allegations of public drunkenness and police investigations into his associates.
But he’s been under close public scrutiny for the last half year, after the Toronto Star and the U.S. gossip site Gawker.com reported in May that they had been shown a cellphone video that appeared to show the Toronto mayor smoking crack cocaine. The people with the video wanted to sell it for $200,000.
Ford initially denied the video even existed and the allegation that he was “a crack addict.”
But on Oct. 31, Blair held a news conference following the court-ordered release of police information in the case of the mayor’s friend and sometimes driver, Alexander (Sandro) Lisi.
At the news conference, Blair confirmed that police had the video in question and that its contents were “consistent with what has been described in the media.”
Yet when Forum Research conducted a poll among 1,032 Torontonians that night, they found that the mayor’s approval rating had actually risen by five percentage points — from 39 to 44 per cent.
The majority of those polled, 60 per cent, said Ford should resign. Still, many observers were shocked that Ford could enjoy such support in light of the recent revelations.
But the approval rating confirms that he still has an unwavering base of support, says Myer Siemiatycki, a professor of politics at Ryerson University in Toronto.
“Mayor Ford could only have survived this long in office because he has tapped into a certain strain of support that does exist for him in this city,” says Siemiatycki.
While Siemiatycki acknowledges that Ford’s scandals are “tawdry,” he says that Ford’s tenure reflects some significant “realities” of Toronto society and politics.
The growing income inequality in Toronto in the last decade has created an appetite for “a mayor who says, ‘I’m the guy who’s going to be vigilant of your taxes and I’m going to be especially vigilant of people who I think are taking advantage of your taxes,'” Siemiatycki says.
Ford has also tapped into a feeling among many suburbanites that downtown “elites” had commandeered the agenda at City Hall, says Siemiatycki.
The mayor’s mantra that left-wing councillors had been waging a “war on the car,” as well as his dogged support for additional subway lines, speaks to a “suburban sense of having been put-upon and been taken advantage of by others in the central core.”
The fact that Ford was able to secure funding for additional subways, in the face of staunch opposition at City Hall, is an “amazing” accomplishment and sure to win him votes in suburbia, adds public relations consultant Patrick Gossage.
Still, while the Forum Research numbers suggest that Ford’s support has gone up, polls taken immediately after big political revelations can sometimes be misleading, says Chris Eby, a media consultant for communications firm Navigator.
Eby says that upon hearing the chief’s speech, people who have supported Ford all along would reflexively defend the mayor.
“It’s hard to accept for a lot of people who have been defending the mayor that they’ve been lied to. It takes a little while for that to sink in,” he says.
“I think if you took another poll mid-week or next week, I think the numbers would be very different.”
One sign the mayor had lost significant support was the fact that both the Toronto Sun and the National Post, two conservative-leaning papers that had long touted Ford’s political achievements, wrote editorials suggesting he should take a leave of absence.
But the fact that all the major newspapers are against Ford “doesn’t mean anything,” says Gossage, who was a press secretary to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
“Pierre Trudeau won two elections when all of the editorials were against him, all across the country.”
For politicians, having champions in the media has become less important “now that the traditional press is no longer the force it used to be in terms of informing public opinion,” Gossage says.
Prior to Chief Blair’s announcement on Thursday, Ford had said he was looking forward to the next mayoral campaign.
The emergence of a number of former Ford supporters who have announced their candidacy — most notably councillor Karen Stintz — suggests some fragmentation within Toronto’s right-wing political scene.
But a crowded field could split the vote and put Ford back in office.
Siemiatycki, for one, estimates there’s an “unshakeable” 20 to 25 per cent core of support for Ford that could help him recapture office.
Wiseman agrees that the numbers could be in Ford’s favour.
“We had people elected to the federal Parliament in the last election with less than 30 per cent of the vote,” he says.
This past weekend, Ford used a segment of his regular Sunday afternoon radio show on CFRB 1010 to address some of his recent controversies.
He admitted to making “mistakes” — like appearing drunk at the Taste of Danforth street festival in August — and asked citizens of Toronto for forgiveness.
Ford also made a plea to police to release the infamous video and let Torontonians judge its contents.
While many commentators have suggested Ford offered only a selective apology and did not address the veracity of the video, Gossage thinks it was a savvy PR manoeuvre meant to fortify his reputation as an average Joe.
“Who was the last politician who said, ‘I’ve done wrong, I reach out to my family and my colleagues and ask for their forgiveness and apology’? It never happens.”